At 23, it would be fair to say that Natalie Portman is a veteran. The Israeli-born actress, who leapt further into our pop cultural consciousness with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, is a veteran of Hollywood with almost 16 films to her credit, but also of the press junket roundabout that is part and parcel of her profession. Always ferociously protective when it comes to her private life, despite rumours of her dating actor Gael Garcia Bernal, Portman is clearly passionate about her work and life as one of Hollywood’s leading young actresses. Her latest film, the often quirky comedy/drama Garden State, casts Portman as Sam, an acknowledged pathological liar with a warm heart and an irresistibly free-spirited personality, whose relationship with the more morose and introspective Large, paves the way for the latter’s development. Sam expresses her uniqueness in a variety of ways in the film, while Portman says she allows her family and relationships to allow her particular uniqueness to manifest itself.
“I think that the most special thing, the thing that makes me happiest and where I feel most myself, is when I’m with my friends, family and people I love and who love me. So I guess when I’m feeling sort of bland, I think of all those relationships, which is how we largely define ourselves. We’re uniquely at the centre of all these different relationships and everyone is uniquely at the centre of their own web of relationships,” Portman explains. It is these relationships, Portman adds, that keeps her whirlwind Hollywood life grounded. “I mean, there’s nothing larger in life than what happens between two people and luckily, as you get older, there are more and more people with whom you have these unique relationships. So it’s always very informative about who you are and who they are and understanding everyone better.”
Portman has consistently proven that she is far more than a pretty face in the crowd here. Appearing in a myriad of eclectic films of varying scale and scope, Portman completed studying psychology at Harvard, which she sees invaluable in the constant pursuit of her acting career. “One of the greatest things was you learn about yourself and other people at such a crucial point when you study psychology in college, because 18 to 21 is pretty major formative years for self development and relationship development. Hopefully it hasn’t messed too much with me, but been more positive, and I always use it in acting stuff because there are so many trends of how people behave, that helps you understand people in a more complex way.”
In a film and stage career defined by its sheer diversity, Portman agrees that doing more character-based films such as Garden State is a release having done the larger-than-life Star Wars films. “It definitely brings you down to the essential elements, as there aren’t explosions, battles or special effects but really about the characters, story and relationships. So, it definitely makes it more concentrated, where all the energy’s concentrated in this one thing instead of dispersed over a larger scene,” Portman explains. “The cool thing also with Garden State, was that we didn’t have the time and budget to do lighting setups for two hours, so we just had to keep barrelling forward, going and going and just shooting non-stop so I also think that sense of urgency and energy of that really carried over into the film.”
Portman says that she doesn’t think she shares much with Sam in Garden State, but then reflectively concedes that she has “a sort of silly, kooky side to myself and you always take a part of yourself for the character, but obviously I mean, it’s a character. She’s a girl working a boring job in New Jersey, coming up against a disease that she’s had since she was little and the disappointment of that and what it did to her hopes and she’s obviously had a very different life experience than I do.”
Portman also concedes that the likes of the Star Wars films have enabled her to participate in these smaller films. “It’s a wonderful opportunity that I’ve had to be in those films because it does get people more familiar with you and hopefully I would make them see other things that you’re working on.” Portman says that she finished principal photography on Episode III last year, but is heading to London soon for reshoots. As to what she will actually be reshooting, Portman offers a slight laugh. “I haven’t been told anything so for all I know, it could be like walking, an insert shot of my hands, or a whole new storyline, so I will be as surprised as you are.”
Star Wars has been a part of Portman’s life over the past seven years, and is philosophical when asked if, in some way, she will be relieved when the final component of the trilogy is laid to rest. “I think there’s always an excitement to start a new phase and always a little bit of sadness of leaving the last phase. Obviously, having made three Star Wars films has been 10 years of my life from when I signed on to when it finally will come out, and being 23, that’s really significant obviously. I’ve met some amazing people and it’s been a really unique experience, so obviously, I look back on it and it was part of forming who I am now and so I am happy to start something new.”
One of those is the new Mike Nichols film, Closer, which also stars Clive Owen, Jude Law and Julia Roberts. Portman says “we just play four individuals who have very complex relationships.” Working with Nichols for the first time since he directed her in The Seagull in Central Park , Portman has retained a close relationship with this most acclaimed of directors. “It’s just so amazing to work with someone who’s one of my best friends. If I have a problem with a boyfriend or a friend or life or decisions or what movie to do, or where to go on vacation, he’s the one I go running to. He’s my best friend, my mentor, and like the father I can talk to about boys because he’s not actually my father. Working with someone I know that well was really freeing too because I just trusted him so much and I just know that he has me in his best interests and I have him in mine.”
As distinguished as Portman is a film actress, she is just as regarded as an accomplished stage performer, having conquered Broadway in a 1998 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank. Portman hopes to return to the stage in the near future. “I’d love to do something contemporary by a new, current writer, which would be really exciting. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to play these really challenging parts, but I’d love to do something challenging and contemporary because all the stuff I’ve done is period on stage.” As for the rumour that she may be the next Lois Lane, Portman offers very little. “I personally haven’t heard anything about it. I know there are rumors about it online because reporters keep asking about it but I don’t really know, nor have I read it or anything.”
Yet it seems that there is far more in Portman’s vast acting repertoire to emerge, beyond a galaxy far, far, away.