Friday, June 24, 2005

Premiere March 05 - Natalie Portman

Goethe wrote that beauty carries with it the magical sense of being blessed by the gods. He would have loved Natalie Portman. At some point in each of her movies, whichever jaded man she’s talking to—Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls, or Al Pacino in Heat, or Zach Braff in Garden State—finally allows himself to look at her, and is instantly rendered soft-eyed, dumbfounded, and—at least for a moment—healed.

It happens again in Closer, the raw, wrenching relationship drama that has earned Portman, 23, the Golden Globe for best supporting actress, honors from critics’ organizations nationwide, and, at press time, a possible Oscar nod. She plays Alice, an exotic dancer who peels off her emotional self-protectiveness along with her skivvies. Alice falls in love with Dan (Jude Law), who betrays her with Anna (Julia Roberts), who is married to Larry (Clive Owen), who upon meeting Alice declares, “You have the face of an angel.”

Like an angel’s, Portman’s beauty is complicated by soulfulness, a gentle melancholy at what fools we mortals be. She is attracted to characters who are wounded but not defeated. Let down by love (Everyone Says I Love You, Where the Heart Is) or life (Heat, Garden State), they nevertheless maintain their air of good-heartedness and hope. Except in Cold Mountain, that is, where Portman as a too-young widow and Jude Law as a retreating soldier share the film’s best, most devastating scene.

Portman’s blessings go way beyond her beauty. She has close, loving parents. (The modest shingled house she bought on Long Island is mere blocks from where she grew up, where her father, an Israeli-born fertility doctor, and her mother, a homemaker, still live.) She has excellent taste in material, which has moved her from child roles (her first, startling turn was at age 12 in The Professional) to stage acting (she debuted on Broadway in 1997 as the lead in The Diary of Anne Frank, and appeared in a star-studded The Seagull in Central Park for Closer director Mike Nichols in 2001) to full-fledged film stardom in a decade, without a single raunchy teen comedy or embarrassing misstep. And she has a big brain. Like Jodie Foster, Jennifer Connelly, and other former child actors who insisted on having a life of the mind as well as a career, Portman put her work on hold to attend college; she graduated from Harvard with an honors BA in psychology in 2003.

In a phone conversation from Israel, where she and her parents spent most of December and January, Portman is an adorable paradox: Unfailingly polite, ragingly thoughtful and open-minded, she also speaks in a girlishly high voice sprinkled with “likes” and “sort ofs.” She finishes almost every sentence she utters, no matter how clever, with a self-deprecating giggle. And her favorite word—appropriately—is “amazing.”

At the beginning of the Closer shoot, you gave Julia Roberts a now infamous gift: a necklace with the word “cunt” in delicate script. Where does one purchase such an item?
[laughing] It wasn’t my intention to find that particular necklace. I happened to be in a store on the Lower East Side in New York, and knew it was the perfect gift.

The perfect gift?
Well, we’d already been in rehearsals for a few weeks, and Julia was being so brave about saying all the [expletives]—because she’s a good girl, she doesn’t use those words. She and all of us were blushing the first time we had to say everything. It’s funny how you can say horrible things to people you know very well much more easily than you can to a stranger. But over our three weeks of rehearsal, the four of us developed a level of comfort together, so it became a joke. And Julia had also been negotiating with Mike [Nichols, the director] and Patrick [Marber, the screenwriter] about how bad it would have to be.

How many nasty words she’d have to say?
Yeah. It was always a discussion, because she is someone who really interacts with material. She’s not just a recipient who does whatever she’s told. So she wanted to make sure that every word was necessary: “Would Anna say this, is this really who she is?” She was questioning a lot of the stuff, which—I mean, her performance killed me, all the bravery it took to go for it. So that was the inspiration.

So of course you weren’t implying that the word describes Julia.
Oh, no, no, no. Not at all! The farthest from. And I loved her gift in return [a similar necklace, with the words “L’il Cunt”]. It’s my rapper name.

Closer is an awfully dark look at love. What was your first reaction to the script?
You start out looking at [the four leads] like they’re animals in a zoo and you’re the anthropologist of love: “How strange and crazy and frightening these creatures are acting, and how funny.” Then all of a sudden the bars at the zoo start to disappear and you’re part of them, part of that species, and you start recognizing everything.

What did you recognize of yourself?
Pieces. We should hope that it’s not common for people to have those exact relationships. But I think we all recognize pieces.

Have you personally felt that kind of sweeping, desperate love?
Yes, I have. But I can’t talk about it. Relationships are so important and central to me in my life that I can’t be exhibitionist about them.

Are you in a relationship now?
I’m not going to answer. Sorry.

That’s quite all right. Someone should count up all the lies told in Closer—it’s a significant number. And your character, Alice, tells maybe the biggest one.
It’s an amazing part of Patrick’s structuring of the work, because you feel that Alice is the most honest one. I should say, I feel. That she’s the one who’s being emotionally honest all the time. Then you find out on the largest scale that she’s the biggest liar of everyone. But I think it’s important, because so much of this story is about authorship. The other characters are always saying they’re driven by love: Love makes them do things, they can’t help themselves. But she’s the one who takes authorship. That line where she says, “There’s a moment when you choose.” In the end, you realize she is truly the author of her life. Despite the whole muse thing—Dan [Law] steals her life for his book, and Anna [Roberts] steals her face for her photography show, and the whole concept of a muse denies that the muse invents herself, suggesting instead that it’s the author who creates this magical character—in fact this character created herself. She’s the driver, not the driven.

Yet you’ve been cast as a muse figure in a lot of films: Heat, Everyone Says I Love You, Beautiful Girls, Garden State.
I’ve played a lot of child roles, because I started at eleven, and children always end up being symbols in movies. They’re less real people, more idealizations of or nostalgia for what’s lost. Especially since I was never in kid movies, I was always in grown-up movies. In grown-up movies, the role of the child is to sort of be the prophet or something.

And now you’re reprising your role as a wise senator in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, one of the biggest grown-up-kid franchises ever. What was new the third time around?
You learn after your first blue-screen movie, and more after your second, the extent to which you have to prepare. [In most films] everything outside of you is given to you—your set, props, costars. In this, most of the time there’s something you have to fill in. You’re often talking to a tape mark, an X, instead of a character, and you have to think what they might be thinking, what’s going on, how they’re treating you. You have to make up the other half of the conversation. And you have to sometimes—most of the time—imagine your entire world around you. What the scenery looks like, or the chair you’re sitting on or the animal you’re riding. Because literally everything is blue and you’re sitting on a box. We usually have pieces of stuff. I don’t want to diminish the set builders; there is a lot of construction and design. But ninety-nine percent of the shots have some blue screen in them. That’s a lot of external imagining; I probably worked harder at that this time.

Is that pleasant or unpleasant?
It’s challenging. It’s like a different skill. I enjoy it because it requires you to go back to something childlike. Where you can take the box that the TV came in and pretend it’s a city, you know? It’s a big challenge for the imagination, which I can’t complain about, but I can’t say it was easy, either. My character was pregnant most of the time, so that was always fun, to be in action costumes running around pregnant.

Is there a birth scene?
I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone. I feel people know so much about it already, that whatever details we can keep quiet, it’s only going to be better for the audience.

You seem to love the process of learning. What did you read for Closer?
I read Alice in Wonderland a lot. A British writer wouldn’t name a character Alice without making some sort of allusion to that. I read A Lover’s Discourse, the Roland Barthes book. Julia gave me The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. And Mike gave us Silk, by Alessandro Baricco, a lyrical novel, very short, a lot of poetry. I think it just got us into the atmosphere of that passionate love.

At one point in the film, Larry says to Alice, “You have the face of an angel.” Do you, Natalie, worry how you’ll live up to a line like that?
Larry also says Alice has “the moronic beauty of youth.” I think I’ve got the moronic look. [laughs] It can seem angelic, because everything innocent and inexperienced isn’t hard to come by when you’re as inexperienced as I am.

But for a 23-year-old, you’ve got a lot of work and life experience. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?
I just feel that I have a different life experience from anyone I know. I definitely had a period where I was conformist, the high school years when you just want to fit in. But at the same time, as an artist, you want to keep things strange. It’s comforting to be different, because you look at the world from such a different perspective than other people. And that’s what makes art—a unique perspective. Usually when you hear of someone having experience beyond their years, that has a negative connotation. But it hasn’t been for me; it’s been really positive. I don’t feel jaded or that I have a burden of experience. I feel the world is so full, and every second so full of life. Every minute I’m so stimulated and interested and attracted by the world, sort of in wonder to the world. And it’s not related to youth, it’s related to how much you fill up your seconds.

What encounter or sight has knocked you out lately?
I’m living in Jerusalem [for two months], and it’s the most amazing experience. Just talking to people every day who have different experiences from everyone else in the world. People my age have been in the army and have seen crazy things, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific. And every time you learn about someone else’s life, all the details of their day, it’s shocking—and it’s surprising that it’s shocking. My job is to imagine what other people’s lives are like. But it’s very abstract to just imagine someone’s parallel life running alongside yours. When you’re actually introduced to it fully, it’s surprising how different it is from anything you could ever imagine, and how much fuller.

Can you recall a specific instance or conversation?
There’s a beautiful image I see every single day from my car. The stoplight is red and I’m idling at a crosswalk, and crossing the street are little Arab girls going to their Christian school in uniforms, and nuns, and American Jewish tourists, and religious Jews with their full beards and hats, and secular students. And they’re all crossing the street together, jumbling, fully fine, everyone lives together, they’re neighbors. I don’t want to idealize or romanticize it, because it’s not like they’re hanging out. But it’s amazing when you’re living in a place with the mythology of all this violence—I mean, it exists, but you also see, in the very place where it exists, that it’s possible to ignore it at the same time. Or defeat it, just by everyday people with each other.

Are you ever afraid?
Today I was driving next to a bus, and all of a sudden I had this thought, “Turn your head away so if it explodes it doesn’t hit you.” Then I thought, “But what if the back of my head gets hit and I can no longer see, because that’s the part of your brain where”—just these horrible thoughts, so I was like, “You have to move on.” I hate getting swept up in any paranoia of anti-Semitism, but you really realize what a target you are. On my way to the States to do Closer press, we landed in London, and they had armed guards escorting us from the El Al plane to the baggage claim, with those movable walls that are bulletproof. And it was only for the El Al flight. Anytime they make an attempt against anyone, it’s like, “They’re trying to kill me, kill my neighbor, kill anyone.” The whole concept of terror disregards the individual. I want peace, I want everyone to have dignity and independence and autonomy. But the very few, powerful people who commit these acts of violence can decide about that.

The view in Closer is that sex is a battleground. Do you agree?
I don’t necessarily. I do feel that people who say men and women are exactly equal in every way are silly. First of all, it’s hard to make a category of all men and all women. You can’t take one example and generalize, even if it makes it easier to categorize the world. But I do see that my girlfriends, already at 23, are thinking, “What career can I choose that will also suit having children?” And it is limiting. Whereas my male friends aren’t thinking that way. My generation is largely children of mothers who worked. My mom didn’t, so it’s interesting to contrast how my life was, having my mom around all the time, but also not seeing her working, versus my friends who got to see their moms working hard, but barely saw them. Mostly I think guys think about a job that will support their family, which pushes them away from family contact, while family pushes women away from careers. That’s an old problem. But I feel it’s resurging.

What other kinds of research did you do for Closer?
I visited strip clubs and talked to a lot of women who worked there, and I took pole dancing and lap dancing lessons to get the physicality right. [laughing] Well, try to. When you walk into a strip club, which I did for the first time for this movie, it’s such a complicated power issue. The women seem so fully in control. The men can’t talk, their jaws are open, they’re not allowed to touch anyone, so their hands are on their laps. Obviously, I’m talking about the nicer clubs where the women are protected. They can really get anything they want out of the guys, basically. But the men are paying for it, so they’re ultimately the powerful ones.

Some of my research and reactions really surprised me. For example, a lot of my friends are investment bankers, and it’s shocking to me that they have to take their clients out to strip clubs all the time; it’s the usual way business is done. You realize how that maintains the male-dominated status quo in the business world. I also thought about, why don’t women go to clubs to see men? I think because it’s not sexy for a man to be degraded, at least not in the popular culture. That whole power thing, having the power over a guy to have him come dance for you, would be humiliating and not sexy. So that was interesting to notice.

And then the other thing, I was trying to make a theoretical inference between stripping in a nice club where you’re not going to be hurt, and dancing or acting or any kind of live performance. What distinguishes acting that’s different from stripping? Is it that strippers are naked? Well, a lot of people onstage or in modern dance are naked. Is it the personal contact with the audience? No, there’s performance art that has personal contact; I mean, Cats has personal contact. [laughs] The closest I could come is that stripping desires to cause only one reaction, namely sexual arousal, while most art should be more open, try to get more than one response. That was surprising to me—the line was much fuzzier than I imagined.

What’s your dream for your life?
I just want to explore everything. I want to try new things all the time and never stop. I mean, always giving myself ample leisure time [laughs]. But never losing curiosity and wonder at the world.

Do you imagine you’ll have a family?
Absolutely. I mean, knock on wood, but I know that my relationships with people are the most important things I have in my life, and to continue creating those bonds is amazing. People are such amazing creatures, and to be able to make one—I mean, I can’t make anything. I can’t make a paper airplane, but I can make a person! That’s an amazing gift. If I’m able to, I would love to. It’s crazy, this thing grows inside you and then it crawls on the floor. It’s like Alien or something. Whenever a guy says, “Thank God I don’t have to give birth,” I’m like, “Are you crazy? That’s the luckiest thing about being a girl.”

You seem like a sunny person, but your characters are often melancholic. Where do you think that air of melancholy comes from?
I think I’m an optimist. I also think most of my characters have an optimism to them. But everyone has their sadnesses and their difficult moments. I definitely have had things in my life that make me see not only the pretty parts. There are things in my life that have been very difficult to go through, especially recently, but I won’t be exhibitionist about any of it. I talk about those things with my family and close friends.

Can you offer any specifics?
No. It’s also hard, because I’m a very open person. But you know how sometimes when bad things happen to you, and all of a sudden you just tell a stranger? And then you feel so empty afterwards, like you’re selling pieces of yourself that are important to you? I found it’s dangerous to be exhibitionist about those things, because it cheapens it if you’ll give it to anyone. The difficult things in people’s lives usually end up being the most meaningful.

One of your Harvard professors, lawyer Alan Dershowitz, has been quoted saying that you would excel as a lawyer, scholar, or creative intellectual. So why acting?
I love acting. I think it’s the most amazing thing to be able to do. Your job is practicing empathy. You walk down the street imagining every person’s life. And it’s such an amazing thing to travel all the time, and have your life constantly changing, and you’re not attached to anything that’s not meaningful.

But you have lots of attachments: a house on Long Island, a family you’re close to.
But I don’t really, like, live in my house [big laugh]. I’m in a different place all the time; it’s just sort of a place to sleep when I’m home. And what I mean is, not attached to trivial things. If I have my tribe with me, my family and friends, I’m fine anywhere. I can get princessy sometimes, but ultimately it’s all about wandering and finding and having your time to explore. So many people now in the States, it’s like an epidemic of work addiction or money addiction. I like being out of that.

Some people say acting’s not a serious profession. Did you ever wrestle with the question, “Is this enough for me, am I doing enough in the world?”
I’m in a silly job, but I don’t see why that’s a negative thing. [laughs] Serious is overrated. What’s so great about serious?