Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elle December 04 - Natalie Portman

Don't hate her because she's beautiful (and supremely talented), but if you want to get a little heated that Natalie Portman's December ELLE cover shoot was a Tahitian idyll, complete with eating coconuts fresh off the trees, well, maybe we can sympathize. The sophisticated young superstar even participated in a traditional Tahitian birthday party for one of the crewmembers: fresh flower crowns, live music, the works. Oh, and she was a total delight throughout, of course. Let the seething begin.

Fresh from portraying a stripper in this month's closer with Julia Roberts and Jude Law, a radiant Natalie Portman dishes on fashion, dating, how she got her big break, and a degree in Astrophysics, perhaps.

You'll find no skeletons in Natalie Portman's closet, nor dark secrets in her bedroom—unless you count the gag picture on her nightstand of the actress and her cousin superimposed onto a shot of the boy band Westlife. Or the little Bert doll, from Sesame Street, dressed up as a fireman (a keepsake from a recent appearance on the show). Or the trophy from the Intel Science Talent Search, which she received for her high school project on converting paper waste into hydrogen. “It involved enzymatic processes,” she explains matter-of-factly while looking at once sleepily casual and transcendentally radiant in flip-flops, A.P.C. jeans, and a grungy black hooded sweatshirt. “It was, like, with cellulase. It wasn't that big a deal.” She was just a semifinalist, she points out.

Portman's suburban sanctuary, which she bought after receiving her bachelor's degree from Harvard (with honors) last spring, is admirably low-key, a modest shingled house a short drive from the Long Island home she grew up in, where her parents still live. The bathrooms are clean, the kitchen tidy, the books neatly arranged by subject—poetry, theater, psychology, Judaica, and so on—with shelves devoted to memorabilia from some of her projects: the 2001 Mike Nichols-directed Central Park production of The Seagull, in which she appeared with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Philip Seymour Hoffman; her 1997 Broadway debut, The Diary of Anne Frank; and the new film Closer, in which Portman stars as Alice, a troubled stripper, opposite Jude Law, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen in a dark rondelay of romance and recrimination. It too is directed by Nichols, whom she calls “my mentor, my rock idol, my daddy, my best friend.”

Portman isn't the only brainiac movie star—there's Jodie Foster (Yale, '85), Brooke Shields (Princeton, '87), and Mira Sorvino (Harvard, '90)—but even in that illustrious group her intellectual bent is noteworthy. Roberts remembers joking with Law on the set of Closer that they sometimes felt in over their heads chatting with Portman: “Jude asked me, 'Do you ever talk to Natalie and at a certain point in the conversation just think, I have no idea what she's talking about?' And I'm like, 'Absolutely.' She's a very special, unique individual.”

No doubt Portman's sexually charged turn as Alice will have everyone gushing over “the new, grown-up Natalie,” which they did after her captivating turns as the pregnant trailer-park Okie in 2000's Where the Heart Is, the traumatized Confederate war widow in 2003's Cold Mountain, and the sprightly epileptic in last summer's Garden State, and which they will surely still be doing when Portman is cashing Social Security checks. Fact is, the shimmering innocence the 23-year-old actress exudes on-screen is not an act, and it's not about to dribble away with one movie. (After all, in her first film, The Professional, which she made when she was 12, she played a wizened urchin who begged the hit man next door to tutor her in cold-blooded murder.) Portman is no run-of-the-mill good girl, though—she is a model of intelligence, accomplishment, compassion, good humor, levelheadedness, responsibility, and despite a habit of playing with her toes during an interview, good hygiene. In fact, she's better than the rest of us in every way, but it's impossible to resent her for it because on top of everything else she's just more adorable.

“It never hurts to be the most beautiful girl in the world,” Nichols observes, “but we don't always expect someone that astonishing-looking to have the powerful emotional equipment Natalie has.” A former horse breeder, Nichols compares Portman to a horse that has outraced its genetic background. “It's something really magnificent that happens once in a hundred million times. It's a kind of freak. Natalie has wonderful parents who helped and supported her, and she's like them in many ways, but she's a new breed.”

“She's a little wood nymph that just comes and brings joy and light and interesting ideas,” kvells Roberts. “I don't know how children survive the business, and most don't, but Natalie has this incredible grace. She's such a strong person, but she's still a girl. She's perfect—but part of her perfection is her complete refusal to study it.” Peter Sarsgaard, who costarred with Portman in Garden State, isn't so sure about that last part. “Oh, I think Natalie is totally aware of her effect on people,” he says. “She's not guileless. Natalie has all the complexities that a woman has who's beautiful. I don't think she's quite as innocent as she seems.” The trouble is, Sarsgaard refuses to produce any evidence, and dirt on Portman is tough to come by. “I'm still sort of waiting for my rebellion,” she says. “I think people rebel because either they just like doing things their parents wouldn't approve of—which I never liked doing—or they're testing their parents' love in some way. But I never doubted it.” Portman's dad, an Israel-born fertility doctor, and mom, a homemaker from Ohio, are still so protective of their only child that they insist on slipping her cash when she goes out so that she doesn't have to visit an ATM at night.

Compared with the table-dancing, trash-talking young Hollywood cupcakes whose drunken escapades fill the pages of In Touch, Portman is a bran muffin with a wheatgrass chaser. As a girl she used to sleep with her dolls on a rotating schedule, like a harem, so that none of them would feel left out. She attributes her brief adolescent phase as a “mean girl”—for which she'd like to apologize to some former classmates—to the sinister influence of Saved by the Bell. She's recently decided to get “a little looser” with her self-imposed rules; for example, she spent a week at surf camp last summer, and although she's been a vegetarian since age eight, she now eats pizza despite the possible trace of rennet in the cheese (an enzyme that comes from slaughtered calves). Even so, while she has modeled for Isaac Mizrahi, pals around with Zac Posen, and seldom puts a sartorial foot wrong on the red carpet (she favors Posen, Stella McCartney, and Marc Jacobs), her biggest fashion conundrum at the moment is finding “vegan” shoes.

For the past year, Portman has served as the Ambassador of Hope for FINCA (the Foundation for International Community Assistance), an organization that helps women in the developing world build businesses through microloans. She traveled to Guatemala and Uganda and made a lobbying trip to DC, where she chatted up the likes of Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton about the merits of microfinance. “She has a magic, and at the same time she can get into the substance of policy issues,” says the group's policy director, Lawrence Yanovitch. “I think she can do an awful lot for the world.”

Her Harvard professor, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz—who says he had no idea who Portman was until a colleague clued him in—calls her “an academic superstar,” adding, “She got as high a grade in my class as you can get. I can't overstate the quality of her academic work. I think she could become a great lawyer, a great scholar, a major creative intellectual.”

It's telling that in the day I spend with Portman—sitting on her deck, wandering around her leafy hamlet, stopping for lunch at the local café, where we're the youngest patrons by about three decades—the question that rattles her most is not the one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which she considers with searching gravity, or the one about her love life, which she brushes aside with affable grace (it's been reported that she and The Motorcycle Diaries star Gael García Bernal have split), or even the suggestion that we conduct the interview in her small but inviting swimming pool, which she ignores altogether. What gets her is a tossed-off joke about when she's going to get her master's. For a second, she looks stricken. “Um…I'm not going to talk about anything until I do it,” she says firmly, though she later lets it slip that she's been typing up her curriculum vitae. “One day you'll be able to write, 'She has this degree and this degree,'” Portman predicts, but she knows better than to get specific. Back in middle school she told an interviewer that she wanted to be an astronaut, and her failure to follow through has haunted her ever since.

Portman always felt there were big things in store for her. “I remember walking around waiting to be discovered,” she says, “thinking, Somebody's going to figure out who I am.” She was nine years old, grabbing lunch with her mom after a dance lesson, when a model scout approached her and asked if she wanted to get into the business. Portman calmly replied that what she really wanted to do was act. “That shows what a little schmuck I was,” she says. She quickly landed an agent and after six months of auditions nabbed a leading role in The Professional. It's in that startling turn and the string of magnetic performances that followed that we catch a glimpse of another Natalie Portman, the one Sarsgaard alluded to—not so much a girl but a woman, with secrets and murky emotional recesses that don't show up on a résumé. After playing the terror-stricken and unsettlingly seductive apprentice hit kid, she raised eyebrows again as another woman-child who flirts with an older man in 1996's Beautiful Girls. (Asked her age, her character replies, “Thirteen, but I'm an old soul.”) Both performances offer hints of the lonesome melancholy that has given a resonance to her subsequent work.

“I think as an actor your job is, like, empathy,” she says. “It's a wonderful thing to practice, walking down the street, wondering how people feel about things. It's beautiful to have that as the way your brain works.” Many viewers were apparently less impressed with the depth of feeling in Portman's early roles than with the grown-up sexuality she displayed. When fan letters began arriving from grown men, her parents “freaked out,” she says. She promptly steered away from sexy projects, taking roles in Heat, Mars Attacks!, the stellar, little-seen Anywhere but Here (as Susan Sarandon's delectably irritated teenage daughter), and of course Star Wars, as the elaborately coiffed Queen Amidala.

Portman has always been careful to maintain her privacy, using her grandmother's name in public and her actual last name, which she prefers not to have published, as a student. She learned the importance of such caution early on. After The Professional came out, Natalie made out with a boy on the first day of school. The next morning some young wag (who's probably now a staffer at Star magazine) printed the story on the chalkboard: NATALIE: FIRST DATE—FIRST BASE, it read, relentlessly rounding the bases to the brutal punch line, FOURTH DATE—WHO KNOWS WHAT'LL HAPPEN??? “It was so harsh,” Portman says. “The teacher saw it and everything. I don't think I've ever cried so hard in my life.”

While she won't confirm rumors of affairs with Hayden Christensen, Lukas Haas, Jake Gyllenhaal, or Bernal, Portman doesn't mind talking about romance more generally. For instance, despite her identification as a Jew and her strong feelings for Israel, she's inclined to look outside the tribe to find a guy. “I want to raise my kids Jewish,” she says, “but I think it's more interesting to be with someone who's extremely different from me, as long as the differences aren't too divisive.” In any case, Portman isn't sure that dating is worth the drama. “Sometimes it seems easier being on my own for a while,” she says.

Fittingly, her latest film, Closer, is about the hazards of intimacy. Her character is the waiflike yet steely exotic dancer Alice, who after a chance encounter begins an affair with a duplicitous obituary writer played by Law—only to have him cheat on her with a successful photographer. Notes Roberts, who plays the other woman, “The only thing that made me think I could pull off my part was that she had to do something that was even more off the charts. Call me crazy, but when you think of pole dancing, you don't immediately think of Natalie Portman. But I thought if she can be that brave and courageous, I can say a few bad words.”

According to Clive Owen, whose character has the good fortune of being on the receiving end of a Natalie Portman lap dance in the film: “She was very, very cool about it. Didn't seem nervous at all. She's a very savvy, composed girl, not to mention stirringly beautiful and a very smart actress. That's a pretty deadly combination.”

Portman says it wasn't the sexual content that she found taxing but the emotional weight of the role. “I'm usually the opposite of a Method actor,” she explains. “Just for my own sanity, as soon as they say 'Cut,' I'm me again. I have to separate like that. But this is the first time I really, really brought my work home with me. I felt cheated on, I felt betrayed, I felt all those things,” she continues. “It was tough to experience it. The breakup scene was so harsh. Afterward I started crying. I just lost it. Jude did a really good job of being a total asshole to me on camera and then turning around and being the nicest person, going, 'Sorry! So sorry!'

“I mean, he's like a saint,” she says. “If someone gets to be so handsome, that should be enough. But then they get to be talented and smart and generous and nice and compassionate, too? It's like, 'Stop! You're grossing me out!'” Coming from her, that's saying something. By the end of our conversation, having overdosed on virtue, I demand to hear a few flaws. She warms to the topic, observing cheerfully that “Faults can be good for you, as long as you're honest about them.” But with each breezily proffered imperfection, my sense of her overwhelming superiority deepens: She sleeps a lot. She really needs to be on a schedule. She still gets excited about seeing stars in person, especially Bono. And she's never studied really hard for a test in her life. (Her former classmates will love hearing that.) And though she doesn't mention it, there is one other thing: She's not an astronaut. Not yet.