Throwback Thursday: Natalie Portman Made Her Big-Screen Debut in 'The Professional' 20 Years Ago

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman
 Moviestore Collection/Rex/REX USA

This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Two decades before the Scarlett Johansson starrer Lucy opened July 25 at No. 1, French director Luc Besson's first English-language film, The Professional, opened respectably in fifth place. THR called the 1994 movie, which grossed $45 million worldwide on a $16 million budget, a "stylishly executed, ballistic thriller."

One reason Besson had done the film was to prepare linguistically for his next production, 1997's megabudget The Fifth Element (where he would meet future wife Milla Jovovich; they divorced in 1999) with its American star, Bruce Willis, shot on a British soundstage. Besson, now 55, speaks more-than-serviceable English but sometimes prefaces a non-French conversation by saying, "Speak slowly, as though you're speaking with a child."

The Professional's place in cinema history is secure as then-13-year-old Natalie Portman's first full-length film, five years before her turn in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace. That role was light years away from The Professional's brutalized orphan who's taken in by a taciturn hit man (Jean Reno). "I never thought I'd find American parents who'd let their child be part of this film," casting director Todd Thaler tells THR. "When people say I discovered Natalie Portman, I say, 'No, I'm the guy who convinced her father to let her do it.' "

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