Saturday, June 25, 2005

Allure August 04 - Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman's movies are adventerous, emotional, smart, and funny - much like her real life. The actress weighs in on work, marriage, children, Zac Posen, and her one true indulgence.

The movie stars of the new millennium tend to be all gym-carved muscles and generous swoops of hair. In this stable of bronzed racehorses, the delicate-bonded, pale-skinned Natalie Portman seems more of a Shetland pony.

Still, the 23-year old actress knows how to make an entrance. After she clip-clopped into her first Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institue Ball last April on high-heel gold sandals, wearing a slate gray Stella McCartney gown with a keyhold neckline plunging to here and asymmetrical hemline slit to there, a pleased murmur went through the jaded, heavily A-list crowd. You would have thought the senator of New York, if not Naboo, had arrived.

"It's definately, like, a choice," Portman says of this self-presentation. One week after the gala, she has settled into an upholstered booth at Cafe Sabarsky, a favorite hangout in the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of German and Austrian art on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (she mentions that she would like to have lived in 1920s Berlin, for its "indulgent, crazy fun"). She has ordered a bowl of bright green pea soup; a vegetarian since the age of eight, Portman says she selected the Stella McCartney dress because its designer uses no animal products. Its racy cut was just gravy, so to speak. "I can walk into a room and dress a certain way and hold my head a certain way that I will be recognized," she says.

Or, like now, she can flick the high beams of fame to the "off" position. "Totally," she says. "I'm very lucky that way." It helps that she is so tiny. Her brown eyes are enormous, but her earlobes are practically nonexistent, lending her the otherworldly aspect of a midsummer night's fairy. An urban legand that she's some genetically advanced mutant without pinkie toes proves to be almost true. "[My pinkie toes] are there, but they're like weirdly small, really oddly small," she says. "I think the pinkie toe is pretty vestigal, as is the earlobe - I mean they don't serve any real purpose. When people make fun of me, I say I'm more evolved, but I think I just have some physical abnormalities."

Portman made her onscreen debut at age 12, in Luc Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL, and an adolescence spent under the camera has made her acutely self-conscious. "I'm constantly aware of how I'm being seen, which I think a lot of people have normally, but it's sort of exaggerated," she says. "I see myself out of body all the time. I was reading [African-American sociologist] W.E.B. DuBois's stuff in school, and I was like 'Oh my God! I'm not black, but I know what it feels like!'"

Well, comparing the experience of celebrity to that of racial prejudice might be a bit of a stretch, but...this afternoon, Portman not only has subdued her "fame" face; she could easily pass for a decade younger than her years, wearing a scruffy little blazer she'd had since ninth grade, a pink sweater, faded Seven jeans, and dirty Converse sneakers, and carrying a cotton tote bag covered in pink apples. Her speech is sprinkled with "like," "you know,", and "awesome." But despite these youthful trapping, the actress has definately established adult statues after years of what seemed to be maximum-security parental protection. She has bought a house of her own, tooled around in a lavender Toyota Prius, and flown off unchaperoned to different countries - most recently Ugand, for a charity organization - on a moment's whim. Mom and Dad "have been willing to let me go places that a lot of my frieds' parents would be like, 'Uh-oh,'" Portman says. "Obviously it's different, because I'm financially independent now. It might be a matter of necessity that they've been so cool because otherwise it would just lead to unecessary fights."

Her most recent acting roles are a pronounced departure from both the innocent ingenue of ANYWHERE BUT HERE and BEAUTIFUL GIRLS and the idealized, regal Amidala of the STAR WARS series. Natalie Portman is loosening up. In the Sundance hit GARDEN STATE, written and directed by Zach Braff, the star of the sitcom SCRUBS, she portrays a free-spirited epileptic who at one point plunges into a swimming pool in just a bra and panties, in the forthcoming CLOSER, directed by Mike Nichols ("another father to me," she says) she plays a stripper involved in treacherous relationships with Jude Law and Julia Roberts. "It's not exploitative, but it is about sex," she says. "No kids allowed. It's definately a different thing for me, but I feel like I'm old enough to handle it now. I sort of understand more how to deal with it publicly, and it doesn't shatter me. I don't have to go to school the next day and have people be like, 'Oh I saw you in that movie; you were very dirty.'"

Portman was born in Israel and raised squeaky-clean on Lond Island by a fertility-doctor father and home-maker mother (Portman was her maternal grandmother's maiden name). "I"m so in awe of their parenting," she says, sipping daintily at a cup of chocolate tea. "While I was growing up and living with them, they were very protective-appropriately so. They were so concerned about me getting into acting because they had this impression-and Ifeel it's the right impression-that there are a lot of sort of gnarly chraacters and stuff that kids shouldn't be exposed to at such a young age. It's really, really hard to grow up being seen as sexy to pepole. The first movie that I ever did was considered to be a very sexual film. So my parents really sielded me from the weirdos of the world." She was a model daughter, earning admittance to Harvard and graduating in the spring of 2003 with a degree in psychology (Portman believed the subject was a happy medium between science and the humanities). She tried psychotherapy, but it didn't stick. "I never found anyone that have to really, like agree with the person. And I never found that person. But it can be helpful, I think."

In a voice of almost eerily modulated calm, Portman cops to a degree of inner turmoil - which is why, she explains she has chosen to live outside of Manhattan, about 20 minutes from where she grew up. "I have sort of a hectic personality and internal life, so to match that with the external world of craziness was a little much for me," she says. "I just have a lot going on all the time in my head. But I mean, I don't have any weird fears or anything. I bite my cuticles, that's probably it."

As an undergraduate who just happened to be starring intermittently in a blockbuster science-fiction trilogy, Portman managed to approximate the existence of your average Crimson superachiever. She co-founded the Concert Commission, a council that organized rock concerts - they booked the Black Eyed Peas and the Roots- and joined City STeps, a group that teaches dance to inner-city school-children. She also wasn't immune to the body-image concerns that plauge so many female collegians. "I think, especially in those first few years of college, my body started changing a lot," Portman says. "I got hips. Your metabolism changes; you're not excercising as much. I ran track for a couple of years in high school, and I was also dancing. I was always doing something. At Harvard, you don't really join the team unless you're a star."

But over all it was a period of growing physical self-acceptance. "I had skin issues in high school," she says with the lunatic conviction of those who have never known real acne; the only current mark on her face is the mole on her right cheek. "I used to cover-up all the time no matter where I was. I'd go swimming and be like, 'Is it still on? Is it still on?' But you get over that." Portman tugs at her hair. It's a rainy-day Armageddon to a natural curlyhead like her - but her bangs are perfectly straight. She had just been at a promotional taping for the Sundance Channel and had her hair blown out. "I just dyed my hair dark and [am keeping it] straight for work and stuff, and I just don't feel like myself," she says. "I look more normal with my natural hair color and texture. Sometimes it gets a little frizzy when it's short - it becomes clowny- but when it's long it's cool."

Portman is similarly low-key about her wardrobe, though she has been reluctantly mulling hiring a stylist for an upcoming battery of public apperances. "I really know what I like, and I like choosing stuff myself. But I'm not a big shopper," she says. "I don't like getting wrapped up too much in consumerism. It makes me sad if I'm too into that stuff." Her staple designers are Prada, ISsac Mizrahi, and the young upstart Zac Posen - "those are my people"- but she claims her only true material indulgence is signed first editions of old books. "Which is funny," she says, "because I always think autographs are so dumb. But if I were a person on the street, I wouldn't respect my signature, you know? Whereas if I had Nabokov's signature, I'd be reeling." Her character in CLOSER is named Alice, and after the film wrapped she gave Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marbert copies of ALICE IN WONDERLAND that had belonged to Alice Liddell, the young woman who inspirired the title character. (Portman smiles at the reminder that author Lewis Carroll, with his penchant for photographing young girls, may well have been one of those "weirdos of the world" her parents were so concerned about.)

She also gave Law and Roberts copies of A LOVER'S DISCOURSE FRAMGMENTS, by French theorist Roland Barthes. Yes, this woman is relentlessly highbrow. You ain't gonna find her sprawled on the couch watching THE BACHELOR. "I don't watch tv," she says with a shudder.

She does indulge in the pleasures of nightlife, however. Posen not only provides her outfits; he is a frequent escort as well. "You are advertising for them," Portman says of having her name linked to the designer's in the media. "It is a big advertisement. But Zac - it's good for people to find out who he is! He's such a wonderful person - his whole family surrounds him, working with him. I just love him, so..."

And that's about as forthcoming as Portman is likely to get about significant men in her life. Asked if she would rather date someone famous or not famous she says flatly, "It's a hard thing to navigate. People who do the same thing you do obviously understand it, and their schedules can sometimes be permitting. But it can also be hard for people. It brings a lot of attention. And it can be hard when you first meet someone to know why they like you. I'd rather them just think I'm cute."

She scornfully bats away tabloid rumors linking her to beleaguered costar Jude Law, with whom she also worked in COLD MOUNTAIN. "I don't dicuss my personal life," she says, "so it's hard to deny stuff, because then if you say, 'No comment,' it's like a default situation. But I feel for him. He's got so much on his plate. It's so mean what they do. I mean, we were shooting a scene. It was so clearly a scene. I mean, literally there were 400 people watching - cameras, lights, the entire street was lit up. And they published it like it was a secret rendezvous!"

Anyway, according to Portman's standards, the 31 year-old Law might be a bit long in the tooth. "It's funny, because I have a lot of friends who are a lot older, but in terms of who I date I generally stick with people my own age," she says. "I always find something a little creepy about older man and young girls. My dad always warns me: 'Women have to live five years longer - you should go for a younger guy!'" You might call her the anti-Girl Gone Wild. "The people whose secrets I most want to know are people who actually have families and marriages as well as careers," she says, "people like Meryl Streep and Cate Blannchett and Julianne Moore. I think that if I were like mid-30s and didn't have kids yet [I would] probably start adopting or something. Aargh, I don't even have a boyfriend, and I'm talking about kids!"

The previous weekend, a high-school girlfriend had gotten married. "She's young, but it's right for her," says Portman, who had to put on an entirely different kind of costume than her Met Regalia: a standard long, black strapless gown. She wasn't a movie star on this occasion -- she was just another wistul bridesmaid, wondering how she was stacking up in the general life face.

"I was sort of stressed about it," says the actress. "Because I was like, 'What does this mean for me?'"