Natalie Portman has been building one of the most impactful acting resumes on the planet since her scene-stealing debut in 1994 as a wannabe child assassin in Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional. Evidence of her subsequent success in establishing herself as a performer with star power, gravitas and range came partly from her roles in Heat, Beautiful Girls, Cold Mountain, Garden State and Closer but perhaps most impressively in the fact that she played one of the largest roles in the Star Wars saga of films (from 199-2005) and yet is in no way defined by it. Natalie recently was interviewed by Buzzine in Los Angeles to promote her latest movie Black Swan, a psychological thriller set in the world of professional ballet dancers and directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Izumi Hasegawa: This is a dream role for you. Can you tell us why?
Natalie Portman: I danced when I was younger, until I was about 12, and I guess I always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art--this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film relating to dance. So when Darren [Aronofsky] had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world but also had this really complicated character--two characters to go into--and especially with Darren who is a director that I would do anything for–it was something completely exciting.
IH: Mila Kunis talked about her excitement of being able to eat a Double Double as soon as she was done with her training. Can you tell us what your first meal was when you were done with training?
NP: I believe the first meal was pasta for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
IH: This film is about transformation, and you make a complete transformation on film. How do you approach transforming yourself for something like this?
NP: It was a great challenge, and I had really, really amazing support. All the teachers and coaches and the choreographer, obviously, and the director, first and foremost, were shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time--Mary Helen Bowers--and she started very basically with me, but we would do two hours a day for six months. That was really just strengthening and getting me ready to do more so I wouldn't get injured. And then, at about six months, we started doing five hours a day where we added swimming. So I was swimming a mile a day, toning, and then doing three hours of ballet class a day, and then two months before, we added the choreography. So we were doing probably eight hours a day, and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer's life. You don't drink. You don't go out with your friends. You don't have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, and you really get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.
IH: Can you talk a little about working on the choreography and what that experience was like?
NP: The choreography were different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting. She was the premiere Swan Lake coach for Odile/Odette, so she worked very specifically with me on everything, from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements, that are sort of ballet acting. It's little gestures that you can do that really differentiate between those two characters.
IH: Can you talk about working with Barbara Hershey?
NP: Darren did a really beautiful thing where he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film that he would hand to me on important days of shooting so I should feel my mother. And Barbara wrote really, really gorgeous letters that were really in character and gave that sense.
IH: Given that you have a degree in psychology, what would be your professional diagnosis of your character?
NP: This was actually a case where something that I learned in school did translate into something practical, which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD, and ballet really lends itself to that because there's such a sense of ritual. The wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance... It's such a process. It's almost religious in nature. It's almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads, and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor too, because when you do a film, you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything, and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis.
IH: Did you feel like she was of a Russian descent?
NP: I didn't really consider her to be Russian. I remember them saying that they named her Nina because there's a little girl connotation in it.
IH: So much of this is about obsession. How do you find your own balance, and how do you pull yourself out of that as an actress, and what works for you to get going and keep going?
NP: As soon as I finish a scene, I'm back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting, I want to be myself again. I'm not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences, but I just go back to my regular life after. One of the reasons that I think Darren and I had such sort of telepathy during this is that I feel like he's as disciplined and focused and alert as he could possibly b,e and that's what I try to be. I'm not a perfectionist, but I like discipline. I'm obedient. I'm not a perfectionist. I think it's important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone that you work with, and that's the goal everyday--just keeping focused on that.
IH: There's already Oscar buzz around your role in this movie. How do you feel about that? And how did it feel for the first time to be in those shoes?
NP: The best thing you can hope for, when you make a movie and you put your soul into it like all of us did, is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. So it's a great, great honor. I like wearing flat shoes. The thing I was happy to stop wearing was point shoes. Point shoes are torture devices. Ballerinas get used to it, so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval.
IH: Was there ever a Chekhovian influence on your character in this film?
NP: I did think about it a lot, actually, and probably because of the name, although I feel like this has a very different ending than The Seagull, obviously. But there's this young girl who needs to name herself instead of being named by a man because obviously, in The Seagull, when he tells her she is a seagull, she has to name herself later. She has to give herself her own name. There is a lot of that in this too, where she's being told who she is. Our Nina in this film has to announce who she is rather than have that projected upon her.
IH: The movie got the Green Seals Award. Can you talk about being a green set?
NP: Darren is a huge environmentalist and talks about it all the time and made sure that there were no water bottles anywhere on set, which is a huge deal. We should not have water bottles anywhere, and we were drinking tons of water, obviously, because we're dancing and expending so much energy, and everyone was given containers and there were things to fill it up on the set. Then it has to do with everyone gets lunch every day and instead of having Styrofoam, which most movies have for your containers. You can have eco-containers. That's a daily thing where hundreds of people are just wasting stuff that's poisonous. That was all from Darren.
Fox Searchlight's Black Swan is in theaters now.