Natalie Portman’s new career. In the movie, she plays Sara, a young widow of war caring for her sick baby boy when a band of starving Union soldiers intrude on her life. It is a dark part, a role for a seasoned actress, a part that, before she went to college, Portman’s parents might have encouraged her to decline: Reportedly, her father’s general rule was that she should avoid doing things on-screen that she hadn’t done in real life. Now, stepping into her closet, Portman mentions that, for the record, she fell in love with the director, Anthony Minghella, while making the film fell in love with him on a professional level, that is. “I’m obsessed with him,” she says. “I would make his coffee for him. He’s such a wonderful man to work for.”
The feeling is more than likewise. Minghella is effusive on the subject of the new Natalie. “Directors fall in love with their actors all the time, but we really hit it off,” he said from his office in Los Angeles. Cold Mountain is to Oscar frenzy what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were to the Civil War i.e., a buzz machine. But through the clouds of flak, Minghella sees clearly the importance of Portman’s appearance, which, though just an interlude, is excruciatingly pivotal: the fulcrum on which the film’s antiwar theme balances. “It seemed to me that the role of Sara was the most prescient in the film,” Minghella says. “She begins the scene abhorring violence, and at the end she has become an engine of hate. That, to me, is part of what the film is about, which is that violence is a virus.”
Minghella describes depending on the 22-year-old actress mightily to withstand the intensity of the subtext and the intensity of Jude Law, whose character stumbles upon Sara in her isolated cabin. “In those scenes you need someone who’s adroit and a heavy hitter,” Minghella says, “so that they can stand up to it, and Natalie can.
On the one hand Natalie is so beautiful that not everyone is aware aower!’says s. “But she has enormous resources”
Wearing Zac Posen again on New Year’s Eve, 2002.
In Yigal Azrouel at a book party, May 2015.
In sheer Isaac Mizrahi at the Nicole Kidman tribute, 2015.
Wearing a Koi sweater at the NYC premiere of Cold Mountain, 2015.
She has this incredible fragility, but she’s got the mind of an adult, and you feel the intelligence.”
Portman’s new life is a little like the new house she’s not completely used to it yet, and it isn’t yet completed. There are adjustments to be made, attested to by the appearance of an electrician at the front door. “It’s really nice to just sort of chill out and not be distracted,” she says, chilling out down the hall from her new closet, in her butterfly-decorated living room. “But I miss my friends a lot. I mean, a lot of them are in New York. But we had a group of fifteen friends, and we did everything together at school. It was so easy. At night we’d just say, OK, let’s meet up at this place. And it’s not so easy anymore. Especially with me, with my work. It’s either three months where I’m in some other city where I don’t see anyone or this period of time when I’m free all day and all my friends have real jobs.”
To take up the slack during the days when she is away from the run of public appearances, she is in the rest of her new house attempting to readjust about everything or so it would seem. “I am on a little bit of a reading program,” she says. On hand on tables and shelves are books, lots of them. “I’m on a Philip Roth kick right now. So I read The Human Stain and American Pastoral and now I’m going to finish up the trilogy.” she says. Then there’s the celebratedly postmodern Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, whom she met at a reading; they subsequently had a brief epistolary relationship. Then there’s a lot of Tolstoy, alongside Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, about which she is a tough critic. “It’s the most perfectly written book of recent years, I thought, but there’s so little joy,” she says.
The trip to Guatemala was a kind of personal field trip, another continuing-education program, but this one was on the theme of Third World poverty. In a Mayan town, Portman met with women who were given bank loans in order to run their own businesses. When you listen to her describe the work of FINCA, which sponsors what’s known as micro-lending small loans to people in underdeveloped countries you can sense she’s done more than her homework and is perhaps ready to take over the World Bank, even if she seems to have settled into the role of actress for now. (Portman is considering various advocacy roles with the group.) “I’m working to be as curious as possible,” she says.
She’s also working at working as much as possible, or so it seems. There is a Portman frenzy of activity at the moment, new Natalie portrayals that accompany her new look. Debuting last month at the Sundance Film Festival was Garden State, a neo-romantic comedy in which Portman stars as Sam, a young woman who meets a young actor when he returns to his hometown in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. The movie is charming and witty sarcastic and quasi-existential in tone but built on a solid romantic chassis. Portman is the engine, a charming, glowing presence in the midst of stranger-than-fiction suburban New Jersey.
Just a few days after offering a tour of her new closet, Portman was to begin work on her next film Closer, directed by Mike Nichols. The film, which will once again pair her with Jude Law, concerns the machinations of a relationship when one person takes on an outside lover; it will no doubt be something her parents might have frowned on pre-graduation from Flarvard. (It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that they smartly encouraged her to skip the sex scenes with Jeremy Irons in Lolita.) “Natalie is a powerful emotional actress,” says Nichols, “as has been seen in The Seagull, the Chekhov play I directed her in, and the film called Where the Heart Is, made in 2000.” Nichols obviously enjoys her on-set presence. “She is remarkable to work with because her acting is characterized by great courage and truthfulness. Natalie is so beautiful that not everyone is aware of her power. But she has enormous resources.” There is, for instance, the way she deals with the weight of the trilogy, the overwhelmingness of being part of the Star Wars machine the conventions, the action figures, the endless questions from fanzines that some actors can handle and some cannot, but Natalie Portman seems fine. And yet who would have thought while she was growing up on Long Island during the time of the first Star Wars trilogy that she would ever be involved with intergalactic struggles of any kind? The only child of a doctor from Israel where Portman was bom and a mother from Ohio, she was raised in Jericho, a New York City suburb. (Her grandmother lives in Cincinnati, where Queen Amidala is considered a local by the Cincinnati press.) At age nine, she was discovered in a pizza place by a Revlon scout and was cast in Luc Besson’s cult assassin film The Professional.
Her parents were careful encouraging her to stay in school (as if she needed encouragement), even after George Lucas picked her to rule Naboo.
What impresses someone who is not George Lucas, who is, say, an independent filmmaker like Zach Braff who directed, wrote, and costarred with Portman in the very low-budget Garden State is that she does not use her Star Wars cachet to snag the lead in a giant megabudget action film. “We were an indie with no money, and she wanted to do it,” he says, still incredulous, adding, “She’s just such a movie star. There is something that happens to her on-screen that is just so spectacular, and it isn’t just beauty. It isn’t just acting. It’s this X-factor. It’s this special thing that not many people have.”
See the X-factor at work, witness the Cold Mountain premiere, in New York, on a recent winter night. The crowds are shivering outside the Ziegfeld in midtown, the marquee ablaze. The red carpet has been rolled out. Jude Law arrives, the cameras flash. Nicole Kidman arrives, and the paparazzi are beside themselves. Time passes the crowds do not leave. “We’re waiting for Natalie Portman,” a TV reporter says to her crew. It’s getting late. The news comes in a shout: “She’s almost here!” A British news crew makes last-minute preparations as the word comes in: “She’s a block and a half away.” She alights on the runway in jeans and a Koi black top, her hair, of course, the headline. “It was a good thing to simultaneously get rid of dead proteins and have a change in what I look like in the mirror,” she says, adding, “I like the hair. I think that anytime you sort of go against the grain of the look of the girl who is every guy’s dream you know, with the long, flowing hair then you’re sort of doing your own thing.”
TV interviewers come in close, to capture the dark eyes and the brighter-than-their-lights smile. She may be an adult, but she stands on her toes as she makes a point, a tiny pirouette. There are questions about Closer (“We start rehearsing in two days”) and about her life (“I’m playing”). Then she is rushed inside as the film is about to begin. When it’s over, she heads to the afterparty at Astor Hall at the New York Public Library, the perfect place for the first big premiere in Portman’s postgraduate career: It gives new meaning to hitting the books. She’s in the room and elbow-to-elbow with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tim Robbins. Sydney Pollack and Glenn Close. She chats, smiles, comments on the nature of violence as it is perceived by moviego-ing humans, for Cold Mountain is violent. “I always think it’s funny that there are more gasps when the little goat gets its throat slit than for anything else that happens,” she says, a veteran of Cold Mountain screenings by now. In general, she is beaming. “I think the reception is good,” she says.
We are now about to leave N a-talie Portman’s closet because she is about to leave her new home: There’s lunch with a friend, and she will soon pull out of her driveway on the sea and drive off into her new life in her environmentally friendly hybrid car. But before she goes, she explains her new feelings about her kind of new self and her latest clothes she discourses on her postgraduate fashion aesthetic, in other words. “I used to just go for what I thought was sort of classic and would not make me embarrassed ten years from now, looking back things that are sort of timeless, and also stuff that you don’t really pay attention to, so that when you wear it then it’s you and you always look like you; it doesn’t overwhelm you. And I’m a little girl. I’m a tiny girl. I can’t do too much frouf! Now I’m just trying to push my openness to everything.”
She has her constraints, of course. “First of all, I don’t like spending money. I have to feel that it’s, like, reasonable,” she says. “So recently something that I like wearing is anything that will make me laugh or other people laugh, or anything that I’m comfortable in. I’ve been finding these funny sweaters in vintage stores that were made in the sixties and are sort of like what you would imagine a schoolteacher would wear. Then I have one, a V-neck, that has an owl on it or maybe a couple of owls on it. And on one arm it says, some are wise, and on the other arm it says, some are otherwise.” At this point, it should be noted, Portman begins laughing and giggling, semi-uncontrollably. “Ah, that makes me laugh,” she says when she is done.
There are some things that have not changed for her, like her attitude toward shoes.“I think you will never, ever, ever in my personal life catch me wearing heels.” She still lives collegjally by her various sneakers, mostly canvas and space-age stretch materials (she doesn’t wear leather). “Sneakers are my mainstay,” she says. “I wear Converse. I have a pair of Yohji Adidas; those I’ve worn out those have holes in them. They’re white. And then there’s these Puma cross-strap things that I love, and my Nike split-toe Kenyan running shoes. That’s my little collection.”
Natalie Portman Biography and Life Story Photo Gallery
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