Child of grace

A HARVARD degree in psychology was invaluable for Natalie Portman when she took on role of a tortured ballet dancer in the critically acclaimed Black Swan.

Child of grace

An actress known for her earnestness and determination, Portman had vied for this part for over a decade. When director Darren Aronofsky approached her, she had no difficulty in applying the rigours more usual to professional dancers during her preparations for this role.

Always über skinny and somewhat birdlike, Portman actually looks really unwell in this movie. She lost weight she never appeared to have had in surplus to begin with. So when she walks into the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to talk to The Irish Examiner, I am relieved to observe not only how much healthier and happier she looks in the flesh, but that she is also sporting a pregnancy bump. Movie sets are well known to be intense places and she is now engaged to the father of the bump, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who trained her for Black Swan.

The misogyny of the ballet world as reflected in this movie, and perhaps in the sensibility of the director, are in ways reminders of the popular modern idealisation of the female physique, epitomised by fashion and Hollywood.

“Ballet is really a female art,” says Portman, “but men are mostly the directors and they shape the social structure of this culture. Women are meant to stay skinny and look like children and they’re kept as children and they’re really taught to conform, which includes starving themselves.

“In the acting profession, it’s gotten slightly better. I think the standard is healthier now. Julia Roberts and Amy Adams and Reese Witherspoon are big stars who are thin, but healthy thin. In the US 50% of people are obese and another 10% have eating disorders. It’s a culture of excess.”

Portman was born Natalie Herschlag in Jerusalem in 1981, the only child of an artist mother and fertility specialist father. The family moved to the US when she was a toddler and she was first discovered by a modelling scout in a pizza parlour in New York when she was only 10. Hailed as a child prodigy for her performances in Luc Besson’s Leon in 1994, she has since ploughed a serious and steady furrow, working nearly continuously since, except for stepping back from acting to go to Harvard. Already a straight A student, she thrived in academia. Today, she laughs when she recalls her father’s attitude to her chosen profession.

“I’ve never been rebellious unfortunately. I was definitely a pleaser in just trying to make people happy and do what I’m told. My parents are very supportive, but they’re still not very sure about this whole Hollywood thing. My dad took me to the set of Black Swan last year and he was like, ‘don’t you think it’s time you went to grad school?’

“They’re not pushy at all and they’ve respected that this is what I love to do. They’re the reason I’m not totally crazy, because I always know they’re at home happy and loving me, no matter how badly I fail, which makes you free to do anything.”

Failure does not appear to be a concept which Portman has had to address in her college or professional life. In fact right now in Hollywood, there is so much awards buzz surrounding her performance in Black Swan, notwithstanding the many shortcomings in the movie, that she seems certain to bag a few gongs.

With a maturity regarding the realities of the entertainment industry, Portman has established her own production company, Handsome Charlie Films, and already she has several credits under her belt. The first full length feature she has produced, No Strings Attached, co starring Ashton Kutcher, opens in May.

“I’m kind of a workaholic. It’s not good to keep acting movie after movie because you need time to be a person again, so producing is wonderful. The advantages over being an actress are I can get people on the phone more easily as a producer. The access that it affords is amazing and it really gives you a different perspective on acting.

“I love comedies, so when I was sent No Strings Attached I was delighted to see this female character who wasn’t obsessed with marriage and fashion and it just made me laugh. In this age of technology, we’re afraid of true intimacy, but cheap intimacy is everywhere. You can’t pick up the phone and call anyone anymore, but you can see someone naked in two seconds.

“It’s this weird split between what technology has done to our level of closeness and connectedness.”

Another project which she’s also producing and starring in opposite James Franco is a stoner comedy called Your Highness which filmed in Northern Ireland last year.

“We were in several gorgeous locations in Northern Ireland. My God, it’s so beautiful there. Two years ago I worked with Jim Sheridan on Brothers. He is such a dear man. So yes, my contact with Ireland is growing all the time and I love it.”

Surviving in showbusiness and in Hollywood in particular is not for the faint hearted and it’s pretty clear that Portman’s intelligence and groundedness would have stood her in good stead anywhere, but here in particular. Let’s talk about that psychology degree again.

“Yeah, for this role, it was really helpful. A lot of highly successful and productive people are obsessive compulsive because there is so much compartmentalisation, organisation and discipline.

“To become a virtuoso, whether it’s in ballet or the violin, you need to obsessively work until you get it.

“It’s true that the person who’s most like us can be the most threatening because you feel they can usurp your place. When I was younger, I would get more competitive and feel threatened by people who were about the same age or similar. I know my own weirdness and I know that no one else is like me and I am not like anyone else. I can’t do what anyone else does. There is some sort of comfort in getting older and this kind of self knowing.

“For this role and being an artist in general, part of it is locating your darker impulses and acknowledging that they are there and that they’re part of you. Finding the things in you where you’re not your most generous self and using that for work is great, because then you have a place to put it.”

* Black Swan will be released on January 21.

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