INT: Natalie Portman

A decade ago, the film world was introduced to the luminous beauty and talents of Natalie Portman. Her breakout role as Mathilda, in 1994’s widely loved movie LEON (aka THE PROFESSIONAL), illustrated that she was a force to be reckoned with. She has worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, graduated from Harvard University, and at only 23 years of age, has become a household name. Before meeting her for the interview, I questioned if someone so young and accomplished could be sweet natured and not possess an ego the size of a continent.

Much to my delight, Natalie was every bit as adorable and charming as she appears in the media. She strolled into the interview room looking effortlessly stunning; wearing a tank top, cardigan, just a dash of makeup, and a huge smile on her face. She introduced herself, giggled, then announced, “You know, I’m going to go pee quickly”, and excused herself briefly. Nothing breaks the ice like a little urination.

When she returned, there was already a comfortable, down to earth glow about the room. I was excited to ask her about her new movie GARDEN STATE, which is opening in select cities on July 30th. If you see only one film this year, I can’t recommend this one enough. It is a rare cinematic gem that comes along every once in a blue moon to remind you of why you love movies. At the very least, it will give you an opportunity to see Natalie portray one of the most interesting, complex, oddball characters of her career.


So, how did you get to this project?

They sent me the script, and I thought it was such a fun character to do, because she doesn’t really hide anything that she’s thinking. She has all this weirdness sort of hanging out. Yeah, and then I saw Zach’s short film and I met him and he was wonderful. And I thought if it’s bad, it will be 3 bad weeks and it will be over quickly; and if it’s good, it will be wonderful, and it was so fun.

I read that Zach (Braff) wrote the character with you in mind. Is that true?

I don’t believe him. He says that, but I don’t believe him. (laughs)

Is that a flattering thing for you, if somebody were to do that?

Oh totally, that’s really flattering. A flattering thing to say, but I don’t think it’s true. I happen to have, like, inside information now from knowing him so well about his real celebrity crushes, and it’s not me.

Is there much of you in the character?

Zach will tell you that I am the character but I’m not at all, I don’t think. I think obviously you put a lot of yourself into everything you do, but I feel I’m a little more inhibited than she is, and obviously her very depressing life has affected everything, you know.

You’re more truthful than she is?

I guess, yeah.

Do you like hamsters like she does?

(laughs) Well that’s one thing that reminds me of a stupid story. They spelled hamster wrong on the hamster box thing, spelled it with a P, and I’m real anal about spelling. No one on set would believe me that hamster is spelled without a P.

You’ve worked with Woody Allen. Did you notice any similar directing styles with Zach and Woody?

No... very, very different. Zach’s much more hands-on, tells you a lot more, talks to you a lot more, and is a lot more social. You become friends with Zach and that’s sort of how he directs you, as a friend. He is very loose and very open. My experience with Woody Allen, maybe it was me too being like 14 and not knowing what the hell I was doing, but I don’t even think he knew who I was while we were working together. I think he maybe said, like, 2 words to me while we were working and was a very abstract sort of director.

You guys have a great rapport onscreen. Were there any funny behind the scenes moments that obviously didn’t make it into the film?

Oh there’s lots of stuff. I’m trying to see. While we were shooting that pool scene, we shot it at this woman’s house, like a mansion in New Jersey. They chose it because you could see the New York skyline. And when we got there, it was like the foggiest day of the year, the day that they paid for it, and obviously we just had to go with it. You couldn’t see any of the skyline. Then they were only letting people use this one bathroom downstairs in the house because they didn’t want people going all over, with like, a 50 person crew. Obviously by midnight, because we started shooting at about 7 pm through the morning, the bathroom was just disgusting, and the woman was like, “We’re stopping shooting!” (laughs) So Zach had to deal with her while directing and trying to finish the scene in this one night.

Did it help that all of you were in your 20’s working on this film, both behind the camera and in front? Did that help create the general atmosphere?

Yeah, there was this great energy on set, because everyone who was working on it, from the DP’s to the hair and makeup people, wardrobe and set people, PA’s, etc, were all in their 20’s. You know, because when you’re not paying anyone anything, (the crew) consists of people who need to be there and want to work and are passionate about film and about this film in particular. So there was a really great energy and we were always sort of joking around, and I think it sort of carried over into the film. It has a really youthful and loose energy to it, I think.

When you looked at this script and your character specifically, what struck you as different from all the other projects you see?

She’s just not reserved in any way. I’m an actress, so my whole life is trying to become other people, you know, and she’s someone who has no possibility of being anyone other than who she is. That’s the only way she knows how to be, herself, and that’s it, and there it is.  It’s just all open and out there. It was pretty exciting--the prospect of being completely free and open, and not trying to be a certain way. Just letting it all out, I guess.

What do you think about the idea of the movie representing our generation? Do you see that, and if so, what does it say about it?

Well, I think that our generation in this country right now is really lucky. A lot of us are living in very comfortable situations with a lot of options and opportunities. And as indulgent or spoiled as it is to complain about having all that choice, it’s like, the scariest thing in the world to have every choice, because you feel like making one choice will eliminate all others. You want to make the choices that will, you know, lead you to a place where you change the world.  Everyone’s trying to find their place and their unique spot, especially after 20 something years of just trying to fit in and conform to everyone. Then you reach the time where you’re like, wait, how am I different from everyone else? And you want to accentuate a difference and a uniqueness, and you see that throughout the film.

As a child actor, you kind of grew older on the screen. Do you hope at this stage of your career to be offered less young parts and more adult roles?

I don’t really mind. I’m just trying to do stuff that’s different from what I’ve done before. I’m not really making a conscious age effort, because it’s only going to be so much longer where I can play really young parts.  It’s okay to take advantage of it. I don’t really have that desire; I just want to do new things.

Was it a relief to do sort of a smaller project in between Star Wars movies?

Yeah! It’s really fun to work on something that is just sort of a passion project for everyone. You don’t get any disgruntled workers. On the big movies, a lot of people are like, *groan*, I have to come to work again today. And this is the sort of thing where everyone is all geared up to start and create and do something together. It also brings everything back to its basic elements. It’s not about big sets or big special effects or about how much money you’re going to make opening weekend. It’s about making something that you all created together and people will enjoy.

This movie has a very interesting soundtrack, and your character’s favorite band is The Shins. What are your favorite bands?

I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan (laughs). I listen almost exclusively to Stevie. I’ll also listen to a lot of like, old soul music, like Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers, and Aretha. Newer stuff- every once in a while I’ll listen to Erykah Badu.

Zach has put together a really good ensemble cast. What was it like working with Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, and Jean Smart?

Peter is really cool to work with. I mean, he is one of the greatest actors of our generation, I think. He’s a really smart, interesting guy. So that was a lot of fun, to be working with people in my age group, really for the first time. I’ve always worked with people much older than I am. And Ian, I’ve never met in my life but I’m honored to be in a movie with him--he’s an incredible actor. And Jean Smart I didn’t work with either.

Are you planning to do more small films like Garden State, or are you going to try another franchise after the Star Wars movies are over?

I don’t know, I don’t really look for stuff, it’s just what comes. Like I said, I really like to do things that I haven’t experienced before. Best way to learn new things and develop. Obviously I had such a wonderful experience doing a small film like Garden State. Small meaning, you know, in budget and scale, not about entertainment value. So yeah, I’d certainly go for other independent movies. I look for the best choices.

What’s it like working with a first time director like Zach? Do you bring a lot of experience from your long career at this point?

Yeah, I mean I’m definitely like an old hag. He is so good. I was worried I’d have to, you know, step in and save the day (laughs). He really knew what he was doing. He is so confident without being overbearing or a control freak or obnoxiously obsessed with the work. He created such an incredible atmosphere on the set. The way he described the way he wanted the movie to feel and look and come away with before we made the film, is how it feels and looks and what I come away with in the end now that it’s finished, so it’s really very impressive.

Before doing this movie, did you spend a lot of time in New Jersey? What are your thoughts on the Garden State?

I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in New Jersey. I have some friends from college who I spent some time with there, so I got a little bit of the vibe. I come from Long Island so it’s not that different. It’s great--it’s diverse like most states. It’s got its suburbs and its rural parts and sort of cities and slums and smelly parts and beautiful parts and beaches, etc.

Where are you from in Long Island?

I grew up in Jericho and went to Syosset high school.

Have you finished work on Episode III?

I finished principal photography last summer and we are doing three shoots this summer.

Everyone is talking about how it’s going to be the darkest of the movies. What can you say about that?

You know, I haven’t seen it, and it’s very hard to tell when you haven’t seen the film yet (laughs). So yea, I don’t know.

Once the reshoots/pickups are done, are you going to be happy to have that behind you or are you going to miss the experience?

You know, it’s great every time something finishes. As we all know, ends are always beginnings, and it’s always nice to move on to something new especially when it’s been a big chunk of your life. But also every experience changes you and moves you into a different place, so I will look back on it fondly.

Is there any chance you would do a sequel to Leon?

I would do any film that Luc Besson directed. But he hasn’t asked me yet. That’s not anything that’s real- you just made that up (laughs). But I definitely would.

Since that was your first film, has he helped to shape the way you approach roles and acting in general?

Definitely! I think everything I know comes from him and watching Jean Reno. I mean, obviously it was modified by my later experience, but Luc was definitely the prime shaper of my acting. At 11 years old, he was basically telling me what to do. He was giving me line readings and, you know, conceptual ideas about acting, so it really affected me.

You have some great comedic moments in Garden State. What do you remember about shooting the part of the doctor’s waiting room scene with the retarded Oscar lines?

Oh yeah. The producer is from Michigan, and he works with a charity there that’s associated with the mentally handicapped. I don’t know what the appropriate word is, mentally challenged, individuals in Michigan. And they did a benefit screening, and I was so humiliated (laughs). It was really rough. But yeah, it was funny. It was fun to do that scene and also being an actor, you always have those experiences of people coming up to you. I get it always with, “You had the baby in the Walmart!” (laughs). Oh! And there’s a good story from that. The dog in that scene that humps Zach’s leg, the cue for him, was “Love him up!” And the other one was “Who’s your bitch?” Very amusing.

Can you tell us more about Closer, the new movie you’re doing?

I finished Closer; I actually just came back from reshoots yesterday. We finished principal photography in March. It’s with Clive Owen and Jude Law and Julia Roberts and I. We play four people who have the nastiest love relationships with each other. It’s very different from doing Garden State. It’s very nasty and dirty and sad.

Are you going to be doing a lot more comedy?

I’m doing a comedy in the fall--that’s my next thing. That’s the only thing I know about.

Is that The Smoker?

Exactly. Well researched!

Are there any comedians that give you inspiration?

I love Lily Tomlin and Diane Keaton. They’re sort of my heroes.

There’s a little bit of Annie Hall in your character of Sam in Garden State.

Oh yeah, definitely. Diane Keaton can do anything: she can do serious roles too, like The Godfather. She’s just the best there is.

Do you have any favorite TV shows?

I don’t watch TV. I’m sorry. Oh yea, except for Scrubs! *wink* (laughs)

Source: JoBlo.com



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