Natalie Portman gives the performance of her life in biopic Jackie, which focuses on the immediate aftermath of the assassination of JFK. Jackie emerges as a powerful champion for her late husband’s legacy, while struck down by her own grief. Janet Christie hears more
Natalie Portman’s face fills the screen as she takes a long drag on a cigarette, then exhales elegant plumes skywards. Portman is portraying Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s biopic about the president’s wife in the week after his assassination. Jackie is giving an interview to a journalist, giving him what he wants, a blow by blow account of her husband’s murder, laying herself bare, revealing her shock, grief and anger. Then she tells him he won’t be writing any of this. He won’t even be telling the American people that she smokes. What the public will get is a stage managed state funeral and the idea of Kennedy as an icon that still endures today.
Portman doesn’t smoke, but she did for the film, immersing herself in the role of shattered wife and First Lady who is both at the heart of history in the making, and its manipulator.
“Um yeah, I smoked a lot in the movie,” says Portman, sounding as if she enjoyed it. “They were real, because it’s hard to make fake cigarettes look real.”
Portman isn’t doing a Jackie. When we talk she’s warm and friendly, but there’s a distance because she’s on the phone from New York at the end of a day of press junkets for the film, and this is just one of many interviews she’s given today. Words aren’t wasted, time is at a premium and she’s straight into discussing the film.
“It’s a portrait of a woman and a particular moment in her life that affected history. That’s always impressive, when someone’s private emotional life affects the whole world. The central story of this film is how she was able to grab hold of the narrative and really control it, which is remarkable and very ahead of her time. That she had that presence of mind, when she was going through incredible turmoil, to think about crafting the legacy is quite impressive.”
She adds: “I think this was inspired very much by her being a scholar of history. Even when JFK was courting her, she translated three entire books about Indo-China from French to help him understand Vietnam. She was really impressive in her understanding of history and that it is written much more than it is made. That’s an incredible insight to have when you’re part of it.”
Jackie has already won Portman a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress, a Golden Globe nomination and the reviews rate her performance alongside co-stars Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt. Produced by Darren Aronofsky, it is Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first film in English, one he agreed to do on condition Portman played the lead.
“I was really excited by the idea of working with Pablo Larrain because I knew he would bring something very unexpected to it and was able to take it places I don’t think it would have gone on its own. He found emotional, unexpected truths, and he’s not afraid to do things that are controversial or unconventional.
“Because he’s not American he doesn’t have the worshipful reverence about the Kennedys. It’s not disrespectful in any way, just human, and I hope it does a greater service to a person than just worshipful portraits.”
Portman is best known for Darren Aronofksy’s psychological thriller Black Swan, for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress, a Golden Globe and BAFTA in 2010, but she has starred in more than 25 films, from her first role in Luc Besson’s 1994 action thriller Léon when she was 12, Closer (Oscar nomination and Golden Globe award), V for Vendetta, The Other Boleyn Girl and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Stage roles include The Seagull opposite Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Philip Seymour Hoffman, while she also wrote, directed, produced and starred in A Tale of Love and Darkness, based on Amos Oz’s memoir, and wrote and directed Eve starring Lauren Bacall. There are documentaries too, The Seventh Fire, about Native American gangs, and Eating Animals, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about the meat industry.
And Jackie is not the only film Portman has due for release this year: there’s Planetarium opposite Lily Rose-Depp, about clairvoyant sisters, Alex Garland’s sci-fi Annihilation, Song to Song, written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring an ensemble cast including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Michael Fassbender, plus in the pipeline a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court judge and gender equality and civil liberties champion.
“The last one I haven’t filmed yet, that will be a long time,” she says.
It will be a long time because Portman is pregnant for a second time, with husband choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who she met on Black Swan and married in 2012. They already have one son together, five year old Aleph, with the baby due in the spring. I congratulate her.
“Thank you,” she says politely. Is her son looking forward to being a big brother? “I don’t discuss my family, I’m sorry,” she says, again politely.
Fair enough, she’s an actor, let’s get back to her work.
“Annihilation I’ve finished and Planetarium is out already in France,” she says.
Clairvoyancy, sci-fi, a feminist judge, it’s safe to say Portman doesn’t go for the easy eye candy roles, preferring something with a challenge.
“I always want to try something different so sometimes I make a romantic comedy, sometimes an action movie, sometimes a small dramatic film, all challenging in their own way,” she says.
With a degree in psychology from Harvard, Portman is no airhead. Does she think having an insight into the way we think helps in getting inside the heads of her characters?
“No, I think it’s very much a skill of imagining someone else as in their life. I don’t think you can ever know what someone else is thinking. I don’t think we even know what we ourselves are thinking half the time.”
At this stage in her career Portman has acted, produced and directed and has the luxury of making choices.
“I think I’d like to direct again,” she says. I don’t know exactly what yet, and to keep acting. Producing is not much of a focus for me, because I don’t think it’s necessarily my strongest suit.” She gives a little laugh.
Perhaps she’s thinking of last year’s Jane Got a Gun, which she co-produced, which had a difficult incubation with changes in cast, director and release date delays, but in the end garnered good reviews, not least for Portman as the lead.
“Yeah, it wasn’t… I just realised that that’s not… you know…” She tails off, marshalls her thoughts and starts again. “There are people who are really wonderful at that job and I’m not one of them, so it’s better to entrust someone who is really talented at that and I can focus on my other creative pursuits.”
Given that producing no longer appeals, Portman plans to split herself between acting and directing, counting herself lucky to do both.
“Directing is so all-consuming, you need to know every detail, and in acting you are able to immerse yourself in a character and focus on that.”
As a child Portman studied ballet and practised endlessly for Black Swan, so did she go through a similar process for Jackie in which she’s on screen for almost the entirety of the film? Portman demurs.
“I feel like I really always make myself go back to who I am. It’s important for me to return to myself at the end of the day. But it’s nice in something like this where you don’t have a lot of breaks in filming to just stay in it. You’re really just immersed in the world and don’t get distracted.”
Portman was cast by director Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) to play Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender but was replaced by Marion Cotillard when she left to make her directorial feature film debut with A Tale of Love and Darkness which premiered at Cannes and Toronto in 2015.
“Yeah, I had the opportunity to make my film and wanted to jump on that because I had been working on it for about ten years. It was really important to me and was an incredible experience. But Macbeth’s incredible too,” she says.
With dual American and Israeli citizenship, being born in Israel before moving to the US when she was three, then living in France before returning to LA last year, does Portman have a different perspective to that of your average movie star?
“I don’t think there is an average movie star,” she says. “But I feel I definitely have a specific perspective because of being from many places and having lived in Israel and France and the US. But I’m sure there are people with similar perspectives.”
Away from the cameras Portman works with FINCA [Fighting Poverty with Microfinance and Social Enterprise] and teamed up with the Free The Children charity to support improving educational facilities for girls, donating her American Film Institute’s Black Swan premiere dress to raise funds for their initiative in Kenya.
“I think we’re so lucky to have the attention on us as actors and to use some of that for people who are doing really wonderful things to improve our world. It’s part of the responsibility of having a spotlight, so I get a lot of meaning and understanding of the world through these incredible interactions I’ve been able to have, travelling and learning with these groups.”
At this point the PR interrupts. Natalie has to go.
Portman is apologetic, “Sorry, they’re packing up. I’ve got to get on a train.”
With the clock ticking there’s just time to check biographical details, some of them culled from the unreliable internet. Quoting them to well known people is always fun and the interview becomes a rapid fire game of True or False.
Born on 9 June, 1981 in Jerusalem?
Birth name Netta-Lee?
“No! My name is Natalie, always was.”
Mother is Shelley Stevens and father Avner Herschlag, a fertility specialist?
So he’ll be pleased with her at the moment?
Maternal grandparents Bernice and Arthur Stevens from Austria and Russia?
“Paternal grandparents Mania (née Portman) and Zvi Yehuda Hershlag were Jewish immigrants to Israel after Zvi’s family died in Auschwitz?
“I don’t know if it was Auschwitz, but they died in a camp in Poland.”
One of her paternal great grandmothers was born in Romania and was a spy for British Intelligence during the Second World War?
“I don’t know if that’s a family myth, but it’s been said.”
True or not, it would make a great film. She could play the lead.
“Yeah it would.”
Any Scottish connection?
“Yes, I have a very close cousin whom I adore, who lives in Edinburgh with her husband and daughter. They used to live in the Borders and I have lots of memories of visiting them there, where they lived communally, growing their own vegetables and studying philosophy. And I love visiting Edinburgh too,” she says.
Did you keep anything from the set of Jackie?
“Yes, a lighter with the letter J on it.”
All that smoking, pre-pregnancy of course. What’s next for you?
Is it possible to make films and be a mother?
“Yes of course. But it bothers me to answer that, because that’s a question that’s asked of women so much, whereas I feel my husband equally makes his life around being a parent. So yes of course it’s a big part of making life decisions and the daily choices of how we spend our time, but it’s something for everyone who’s a parent, man or woman and it’s an issue, a joyful issue.”
One more question says the PR.
OK, if you were to make Jackie again, what would you change?
“Oh, good question! But... I don’t know. It was a really amazing experience and I don’t know that I would have changed anything. I really loved working on it and all the people on it. I have to go,” she says.
OK, good luck with the film. If you’re happy with it, it’s a good sign, I say.
And good luck with your baby.
“Thank you. You too,” she says.
“I’m not planning to have one. I’ll try not to,” I say.
She laughs. A throaty chuckle, and she’s gone.
Jackie is released on Friday, 20 January