"Even though so much has been written, we know very little," says Pablo Larrain of America's most famous first lady. "She is the most unknown known person there is."
There is, it turns out, a not-so-simple trick to playing Jackie Kennedy.
"I watched her on film and listened to her on tape, and I realized she had two different voices," Natalie Portman explains as she settles into a chair in a hotel suite in Beverly Hills, where she's been holed up doing media interviews ahead of the Dec. 2 opening of Jackie, Fox Searchlight's impressionistic $9 million biopic of the iconic first lady. "She had one voice when she was speaking in public. It was very feminine, coy and breathy. But she had another when she was speaking in private. Faster, deeper, much more biting. I learned both voices."
In addition to mastering the icon's tone-switching, the 35-year-old Oscar winner also had to figure out how Jacqueline Kennedy walked, drank, smoked, danced, cursed, laughed, cried and — in one harrowing sequence — blanched in terror while scrambling out of the backseat of a presidential limo. What's more, she had to learn to do it all, for 33 days last winter, while Chilean director Pablo Larrain had cameras inches from her face as he shot what has to be the most intimate look at the inner life of a first lady ever captured on film.
"If you go to a bookstore, you will find an insane amount of biographies about Jackie," says Larrain in his thick Chilean accent. "But even though so much has been written, we know very little. She is the most unknown known person there is. You can see the mystery in her eyes. And that is why I made this movie — so the audience could see what she saw and feel what she felt."
At one point in 2010, Steven Spielberg was considering producing a Jackie Kennedy miniseries for HBO. A hot script, set entirely during the week of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, had been making the rounds, and Spielberg took a meeting with its writer, Noah Oppenheim, then an executive at Reveille Entertainment who had been moonlighting as a screenwriter. Oppenheim, now the NBC News exec running the Today show, had been fascinated by Jackie all his life. "I'd always thought that Jackie's story had never fully been told," he says. "She'd been written about ad nauseam and been portrayed on TV and film. But it had always been through the lens of her being a style icon or her relationship to her husband. She'd never been portrayed as a fully formed human being."
In the end, Spielberg decided to make a film about a different presidential era — he went on to direct Lincoln. But it wasn't long before other filmmakers started circling. One in particular all but stalked the writer. "I was driving, and I got this call out of the blue from Darren Aronofsky," Oppenheim recalls of the first time he heard from the avant-garde filmmaker of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan (the film that earned Portman her Oscar and Aronofsky a director nomination). "He somehow got my cell number. He was incredibly enthusiastic about pursuing it."
At the time, Aronofsky was involved with Rachel Weisz, and it was assumed that he'd acquired the script to cast her in the title role. But in 2011, he and Weisz broke up and, after Black Swan reached theaters and was a hit, Aronofsky suddenly found himself being asked to make his own dream project. "I'd been trying to make Noah since I was a teenager," he says of the 2014 film that starred Russell Crowe. He told Oppenheim he still wanted to produce Jackie, just not direct it.
Years dragged on as Aronofsky searched for a new director. "There were many phone calls where I would very obnoxiously demand to know what the hell Darren was doing with my script," says Oppenheim. "He just told me to be patient."
Then, at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, Aronofsky saw a screening of The Club, a dark Chilean comedy about child-molesting priests, and right away, he knew he had finally found his man. "I was like, 'If this guy isn't a master, he's on the path,' " says Aronofsky, who approached Larrain at a festival party and suggested working together.
Larrain, for his part, was skeptical. "I thought it was party talk," he says. After all, he was a foreign filmmaker known for a moody, unconventional style, and he hadn't yet made an English-language movie. Why would Aronofsky pick him to direct a biopic about the most famous first lady in American history? "I asked him, 'Why a Chilean?' " Larrain recalls. "Darren said he thought it would be interesting for a non-American, because you wouldn't have the historical baggage. I said, 'OK, man, but I have one condition.' " That condition was Portman, who had read the script earlier, when Aronofsky still was thinking of directing. "I just immediately saw Natalie when I read it," Larrain says. "It had to be Natalie. So Darren said he'd set up a meeting, then it'd be my problem."
Larrain, 40, met the star in Paris, where Portman was living at the time, and outlined his script changes. "I told her we were going to get rid of any scene where Jackie is not onscreen — we were going to make it with her in every frame," he says. So that Portman wouldn't have to travel, he promised to shoot in Paris, where Larrain also was editing his other 2016 project, Neruda, a drama about the Chilean poet. Then Larrain played his ace card. "I told her if she didn't do the movie, I wouldn't do the movie," he says. "No pressure."
After Portman agreed, Larrain filled out the cast: Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, Caspar Phillipson as JFK, Billy Crudup as the journalist who interviews Jackie after the assassination (think a cuter, fictionalized Arthur Schlesinger). Meanwhile, Larrain's brother, Juan, a producer on all his films, had White House sets constructed on soundstages outside Paris ("We probably built 70 percent of the place," he estimates), and production began in December 2015. There were no rehearsals — Larrain doesn't believe in them — and not much blocking, either. Instead, for much of the shoot, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine held a Steadicam and followed the actors as they improvised movements around the set. "I kept having Stephane get closer and closer," Larrain says. "With the camera on his shoulder, it was the exact height of Natalie's face. So it was like they were dancing."
Larrain had made some other changes to the script — adding a priest played by John Hurt — but wasn't a slave to the page. "We did entire scenes in different locations with different intentions," says Sarsgaard. "Pablo would be like, 'Remember that scene we did yesterday? Let's do it again, only in whispers.' I kept thinking, 'I really hope this guy knows what he's doing.' "
One scene Larrain didn't take many liberties with was the assassination, which he shot over two days outside Washington, D.C., with second-unit footage filmed at Dallas' Dealey Plaza. "I was really dreading that day," says Portman. "It was the most horrific thing you're imagining. The shock and trauma and public nature of it. And on top of that, you have the limitations of the real footage. Which way was she turning? What was she doing physically? It's a lot to ingest."
Unlike most re-creations of the event, which present the slaying from a more comfortable, Zapruder-like distance, Larrain's version brings the cameras into the backseat with Portman. For Larrain, it was the only choice. "For the entire movie we are very close to her — why would we run away from her in that moment?" he says. "You have to be there to see the blood and to see her emotion. That's the whole point of the film."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.