Natalie Portman on Jackie O: 'All the people in her life knew different versions of her'

Natalie Portman his played many iconic roles, but none more heavy with history than Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife and widow of JFK

Natalie Portman plays the iconic role of Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife and widow of JFK, in the biopic Jackie

 

Looking at Natalie Portman, you have to keep reminding yourself that’s she’s a 35-year-old mum. Her sylphic appearance and general weeness have changed little since her breakthrough teen turn in Léon (1994) and yet, paradoxically, the Oscar-winning actor has been a bona fide movie star for more than two decades.

Come February 28th, she may well grace the stage of the Dolby Theater – statuette in hand and, as was the case when she accepted the Academy Award for Black Swan, once again heavily pregnant – for her second Best Actress gong.

Her remarkable turn in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie – a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the days before and after the assassination of John F Kennedy – is a much-admired tightrope act. Portman’s eerie echo of a carefully constructed persona has earned rave notices from critics and from fellow thesp Tom Hanks, who said at the Palm Springs International Film Festival recently: “Jackie was a mystery, an enigma . . . so Natalie Portman was the only actor for the role.”

“She was intensely aware of her different selves,” Portman tells me. “She had a persona that she presented to the public that was very different to who she really was privately. And she was further splintered by different roles she took on. All the people in her life – her husband, her children, her best friend, her priest – all knew different versions of her.”

 Assuming masks is hardly a novel skill-set – hell, even the most unsophisticated of us have a telephone voice – but Jackie Kennedy would generalise the same principles to create not just a good first impression, but an indelible political aesthetic. In Larraín’s film, the stunned, grief-stricken Jackie has barely clambered out of her iconic blood-splattered Chanel suit when she begins toiling over images of Lincoln’s funeral with a mind to shaping her late husband’s legacy.

“I had no idea before reading the script,” says Portman. “She had the insight that she could do that. She had a real understanding of history and the importance of image in cementing mythology. I was really fascinated that she played such a big role in creating her own life narrative.”

More than 20 years have passed since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died, aged 64, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But the industry around her remains in rude health, with new, authoritative tomes appearing annually. It was all a bit of a minefield, says Portman.

“It was very hard to sort the quality biographies from the pulpy ones,” she says. “I made sure that I kept reading through the filming because it kept me in the right mindset. It helped to continuously give me new ideas. I was consistently impressed by her intellect and her wit. But I stopped as soon as the film was over. If I didn’t, I could have gone on forever.”

Psyched up

We should not be surprised that Portman put in the hours. Before graduating from Harvard with a psychology degree in 2003, Portman worked as a research assistant on Alan Dershowitz’s Case for Israel, co-authored a study on memory called “Frontal Lobe Activation During Object Permanence” for the neuroscience journal NeuroImage, and published “A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar” in the Journal of Chemical Education.

That’s a whole lot of learning only to go straight back into acting.

“Yes,” she laughs. “But school taught me other ways of observing. More generally it taught me that I had an ability to do the hardest things. I never thought I could sit up all night writing papers. I surprised myself. In the best possible way.”

Neta-Lee Hershlag – as it says on her birth certificate – was born in Jerusalem in 1981. The only child of Israeli fertility specialist Avner Hershlag and the Ohio-born artist Shelley Stevens, Portman returned to the US, aged three, but still retains dual American and Israeli citizenship. She is equally consistent in the matter of diet: aged eight, having witnessed a demonstration of laser surgery on a chicken at a medical conference with her father, she became a vegetarian.

“I think that I was very connected to animals,” she says. “As soon as I realised that we were killing animals for food, I was very moved by the injustice of it and felt compelled to act. It was one of those defining decisions that has stuck.”

 Portman spent much of her childhood in suburban Syosset, New York, and was discovered in a pizza parlour aged 11. Within a year, she had landed her first leading role as a Lolita-alike sidekick opposite Jean Reno in Luc Besson’s Léon.

Newsweek, among other organs, criticised her parents for allowing her to take the highly sexualised role. Portman subsequently gave erotically charged material a wide berth but doesn’t necessarily regret the experience.

“I’m happy with where I am. It’s not that I’ve made all good choices. But I do feel like you learn more from the mistakes. In the end, it’s hard to call them mistakes because you end up getting so much out of them and growing as a person.”

Last year, Portman made her directorial debut with A Tale of Love and Darkness, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir about the birth of Israel. The film, which took some seven years to get into production, made for an emotional homecoming.

“People usually make their first film about something that consumes their imagination,” says Portman. “I’m no different. As a child, I heard so many stories about that period in Jerusalem. That was where my imagination would wander as a kid. So that book completely captivated me. I think that storytelling is such a huge part of Judaism. We are people without a homeland, so that oral tradition was what bound us together.”

Life stories

Storytelling, by extension, was an important part of Portman’s home life, long before it became her profession. And what stories. Her Polish great-grandfather headed the Jewish youth movement in Poland. Her great-grandmother was a Romanian spy for British Intelligence during the second World War. Her paternal grandfather Zvi, an economics professor, moved to Mandatory Palestine after his parents died in Auschwitz.

That all sounds like she had quite big shoes to fill.

“I don’t know if I felt pressure in that way,” she says. “But I certainly was aware of my family history. I had heard every story over and over, for sure. Coming from a family like mine, it helps to give you a sense of rootedness. And of drive, I guess. It helped me to look forward and take my own path.”

That path, to date, has seen her take on everything from Padmé Amidala, the mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in the Star Wars prequels, astrophysicist Dr Jane Foster in the Thor sequence, the Belfast-shot stoner comedy Your Highness (“I loved Northern Ireland,” she trills), and a New York Public Theatre production of Chekhov’s The Seagull alongside Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Last year, she returned from Paris where her choreographer husband Benjamin Millepied – whom she met on the set of Black Swan – spent two seasons as the director of dance at the Paris Opera. Post-Jackie and baby number two, there are incoming movies made with Alex Garland, Terrence Malick and Xavier Dolan.

“I think the work only gets more interesting and fulfilling,” says Portman. “I love doing what I’m doing right now. I’m lucky to have such great experiences each time. It’s great to find yourself doing something that you enjoy so much and care about. And as I get older, I know how to make the experience more interesting and meaningful for myself.”

 - Jackie opens January 20th

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