Playing America’s ultimate first lady

Natalie Portman tells Helen Barlow about her Oscar-tipped role as Jackie Kennedy in the days after JFK was killed.

Playing America’s ultimate first lady

IN Pablo Larrain’s new movie Jackie, Natalie Portman looks like and sounds like Jackie Kennedy. Yet the 35-year-old actress maintains she hardly resembles the former First Lady. It’s all part of the craft of filmmaking, she says.

“I don’t really think I look that much like her apart from being dark-haired and female. The hair and makeup and wardrobe all do a great deal. It was also an incredible combination of Pablo knowing exactly what he wanted and giving me a huge amount of freedom regarding what I could bring”, admits the actress, who after failing to win a Golden Globe on Sunday (the Hollywood Foreign Press chose Isabelle Huppert for the French film Elle) nevertheless looks set to take her second Oscar after winning for Black Swan.

“Often Pablo would take me to a place that was so much more than anything I could have come up with myself,” she explains.

Portman was in a very different headspace when she came to work with Larrain (who directed No and The Club), as she’d just made her own directing debut with A Tale of Love and Darkness and had greatly enjoyed the experience.

She wanted a close collaboration with the Chilean director to construct her up-close-and-personal Jackie portrayal.

Larrain, the son of prominent right-wing Chilean senator, Hernan Larrain, knows a lot about politics and the world he wanted to create.

Ultimately he was very specific in his adaptation of Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay, which focuses on the week surrounding JFK’s horrific 1963 assassination in Dallas.

The events are recalled in flashbacks during Jackie’s interview with Life magazine’s Theodore H White (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port in Massachusetts.

“I remember the Warren Commission always saying Jackie Kennedy was sitting next to President Kennedy,” Larrain recalls.

“So the concept of the film was, what if we see everything through her eyes. The one guy who was filming [private citizen Abraham Zapruder] was very far away so my starting point was what it would be like to be close to someone who is assassinated in that way.

“The challenge was also in portraying someone so famous, and how to start the movie became important. We start with a very tight close-up that lasts 20 seconds then slowly I was able to ask Natalie to be a bit further back for a more classic narrative. But there are a lot of close-ups. I felt the necessity to be really, really close.”

The film is in many ways an homage to the woman who Larrain notes “brought her country together”.

Jackie single-handedly organised her husband’s funeral while clearly being in some form of shock.

The patrician Long Island native who had refused to change out of her blood-stained pink Chanel suit during the swearing-in of Lyndon B Johnson and for the flight back to Washington with her husband’s body, knew what she had to do.

Portman: “There are so many different feelings she was going through and that was why Pablo’s approach was so exciting because it comes at her from all different angles. She’s a young woman, she’s a symbol for all these people, she’s a mother, she’s a wife — she’s a betrayed wife — and she’s a person trying to figure out her way in the world. She’s also very sharp. I knew she was educated but I didn’t know how she was so understanding of history. Everyone is now writing about how they want to be perceived on Twitter, but she was doing that 50 years ago.”

One of Jackie’s most interesting creations is the myth of the Kennedy administration as a kind of Camelot, a term she used in her interview with White.

“There’ll be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot,” she famously said.

“Jackie was a queen without a crown, who lost both her throne and her husband,” Larrain is quoted as saying in the film’s blurb. When promoting the film at the Venice and Toronto festivals, however, he was reluctant to dwell on this too much.

“Americans will immediately get it, but the whole Camelot thing took me a while to understand.”

Jackie Kennedy at Shannon Airport in 1967 with her children John and Caroline.
Jackie Kennedy at Shannon Airport in 1967 with her children John and Caroline.

What makes the film interesting is that like the Camelot myth, it’s not strictly based on fact.

“You have all the official information and then there are things that happen behind doors,” he explains.

“We tried to have the camera inside that place to create that fiction. Jackie was incredibly mysterious, one of the most unknown of the known people. The challenge was to create cinema with emotions, mystery and atmosphere. The film is not necessarily chronological. It’s about somebody who is in a huge crisis and how she deals with it.

“I think one of the many exciting things about working with Pablo was that he didn’t have that sort of reverence that Americans have for the Kennedys,” Portman admits.

“Of course you have a responsibility to a real person to not be blatantly discordant with the facts of their life. But facts, as the movie talks about, are often versions of the truth.”

Portman notes how Jackie was a great editor of the truth of her own life. After her husband’s death she gave a second interview with family friend, historian Arthur M Schlesinger, which also became an important resource for Portman.

“In all of her interviews there are these huge gaps that Jackie deleted and it leaves so much open to the imagination regarding what she said that she never credited on public record. She didn’t want it included in this public personae she was creating. So the movie draws on the imagination of a person we respect as a very complex human being.”

Portman of course likes complex. Interestingly the film had come about after her Black Swan director, Darren Aronofsky, who is the film’s producer, handed Larrain Oppenheim’s screenplay.

Having just filmed an esoteric version of the life of Pablo Neruda starring Gael Garcia Bernal — Neruda was nominated in the Golden Globes foreign section — Larrain loved the idea. Though he would only agree with Portman in the lead.

Ultimately his mother, Magdalena Matte, was as excited as he was that he was making the film.

“My mother was 14 back when this happened and it had a huge impact on her. She went to my grandmother who said, ‘The queen looks so sad!’ And my mother said, ‘She’s not a queen, she’s the First Lady!’ She knew all about it.

“So I connected with Jackie through my mother. When I told her I was doing the movie she cried so much and I think as a Latin American, as a citizen of the world, what you take from Jackie is incredible humanity. I’d been making movies with male characters and it was the first time I faced a female character and it was moving. The way I connected with her was just through love. I’m thankful to have made this movie especially with such a wonderful actress.”

Jackie opens next Friday, Jan 20

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