Natalie Portman Sounds Off on Israel, Netanyahu, French Anti-Semitism and the “False Idol” of Oscar
With strong opinions on everything from the Israeli elections ("I'm very, very upset") to Hollywood's worship of awards, Portman will unveil her directorial debut, 'A Tale of Love and Darkness,' her way — all in Hebrew — just a short flight away from her new home in Paris: "I like being a stranger in a place. You’re kind of an outsider, and I think that's what makes you. It's the only way I've ever known."
This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It’s 8 a.m. in Los Angeles on a late-April morning, and Natalie Portman, 33, is not quite her usual glamorous self.
The past few weeks have been tough for the globe-trotting actress turned style icon turned writer-producer-director. First, she was in London for six days, finishing the sound mix of her new film, an adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz‘s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, which marks her feature directorial debut; then she flew to Los Angeles, where she oversaw the movie’s color-timing. In just a few hours, she’ll head to Beijing for two days of promotional work as a spokesperson for Dior, and after that she’ll be back in L.A. for four days before traveling to Cannes for Darkness‘ out of competition debut May 18.
All of which might explain why she seems so guarded about this interview. She sits, ramrod straight, plunking her iPhone in the middle of the table and hitting “record” before she has said a word, as if challenging me to quote her with razor-sharp accuracy — which, I must admit, casts a pall over our conversation.
“Did somebody burn you?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I just, when I’m talking about delicate issues, I want to make sure that everyone’s accurate, you know.”
This may not be the best way to start, but it does make a point: During the next 79 minutes, Portman is going to be blunt.
Portman with co-star Michael Fassbender in the upcoming ‘Weightless.’
On Benjamin Netanyahu, newly re-elected as prime minister of Israel, the country of her birth: “I’m very much against Netanyahu. Against. I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was re-elected. I find his racist comments horrific. However, I don’t — what I want to make sure is, I don’t want to use my platform [the wrong way]. I feel like there’s some people who become prominent, and then it’s out in the foreign press. You know, shit on Israel. I do not. I don’t want to do that.”
On her first film as a producer, Jane Got a Gun, whose initial director, Lynne Ramsay, reportedly left just days before the shoot: “I’m as mystified as I think everyone was, and it was pretty devastating. I mean, maybe she’ll speak to it one day. I don’t know. I got there one week before we were supposed to start, in Santa Fe, and it seemed like there had been stuff going on that I had sort of been sheltered from. And yeah, it was really, really difficult, and we were lucky that [director] Gavin [O’Connor] came on so quickly. She didn’t come on [set]. I saw her like the week before, but on the first day, no. I can only imagine something very difficult was going on for her, and it was devastating.”
On Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, who included her name and private email address in a chain of hacked emails about the Gaza conflict and “Jews being slaughtered for their beliefs” (which circulated among Hollywood names such as Sony’s Michael Lynton and Ryan Seacrest): “I was very unhappy to be included in those emails, and I told [Kavanaugh] so. I wrote to him that I didn’t want to be part of that group. I didn’t want to be receiving those emails at all. I find them very disturbing.”
On former Dior fashion designer John Galliano and his drunken, anti-Semitic rant: “I don’t see why not to be forgiving to someone who is, I mean, someone who’s trying to change,” she says. “However, I don’t think those comments are ever OK. I don’t forgive the comments, but … we’ve all done things that we regret.”
On life with her husband, French ballet dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, 37, whom she met on the set of Black Swan in 2010 and married in 2012: “The disappointments are always in myself, and like, when you’re faced day to day with someone looking at you, it’s like a mirror that you have to yourself, and you can see your own good behavior and bad behavior. And it’s a beautiful challenge to be the best person in the mirror that you can be. I mean, I don’t beat myself up over it, but I’m not always as generous as I feel like I could be.”
“Our DP [Slawomir Idziak] wanted to shoot with two cameras plus a Blackmagic camera, so we had rich coverage for everything,” says Portman, on the Jerusalem set of ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’
She blushes slightly as she says these last words, and it strikes me how nervous she is. Her fingers twirl a metal stick used to prop up the number of our table, hardly ever letting it go.
Her diffident manner seems at odds with the boldness of her actions, and I realize as we speak just how brave she has been. In November, she moved lock, stock and barrel to Paris, following Millepied, who had accepted a job with the Paris Opera Ballet; she bought the rights to Oz’s memoir, a landmark work about growing up and becoming a writer in the early years of Israel, then shot it in Hebrew, writing, directing and starring in a project that hardly had “commerce” written all over it; and she’s been fearless in proclaiming her Jewishness, even though she now lives in a country where anti-Semitism is terrifyingly on the rise. I ask if Portman feels nervous about being Jewish in Paris. “Yes,” she says, “but I’d feel nervous being a black man in this country. I’d feel nervous being a Muslim in many places.”
She’s a curious mixture of the strong and the fragile, the diffident and the brave.
I ask if she’s ambitious. “Yes,” she says, without hesitation.
Insecure? “I wouldn’t define myself as insecure.”
From left: Clive Owen, Portman, Mike Nichols and Jude Law at the ‘Closer’ premiere in 2004.
She seems torn about Paris, where she lives with Millepied and their 3-year-old son, Aleph. “It’s been really interesting,” she says. “I’ve been to Paris so much in my life that I felt [at first] like it’s very similar, and then when you live in a place, you start realizing how culturally different we are, deeply culturally different.” In what ways? “Oh, in millions of ways. I feel like this country has a lot of religion and a lot of freedom around that; and there, the religion is almost like love. Love and intellectualism is their sort of way.”
Then there’s politics. Portman grants she’s “quite leftist” (particularly in relation to Israeli society), but in Paris, she says, “You really feel like a capitalist, [and you feel the] socialist difference in a major way. Like, the strike thing is a real phenomenon. You think it’s just a stereotype, but it’s totally the case there. It’s really about like ‘giving it to the man.’ “
She admits she doesn’t read much in French (she can comb through magazines but doesn’t attempt a daily paper) and says she speaks English when at home in her book-lined apartment. But she can keep up with conversation.
“I love that people at dinner want to have a serious conversation — and only a serious conversation,” she says. “They’ll be upset if you don’t have something interesting happen. I love that my kid wants to go to art museums after school — like, ‘Take me to the Pompidou.’ I love that it’s also not elitist, as it is in New York. You can afford to go to the philharmonic or the opera much more easily because all of it’s subsidized. And there’s a huge culture of cinema there.”
Says Portman of author Amos Oz, whose book she optioned for her directorial debut: “He said: ‘The book exists. Don’t make a film of the book, go make your own piece.’ ” She was photographed April 26 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.
By contrast, she rarely watches French TV, and indeed doesn’t watch much TV at all, except to catch up with American shows on her computer (Broad City and Transparent are favorites).
“We really don’t have a television,” she says. “Everyone told me [to get one]. My guilty pleasure is cooking shows, and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, just watch French Top Chef and you’re going to be fluent.’ “
Less than two months after she relocated to Paris, terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people. Portman was on a four-day trip to Kenya — at one of the rural schools she supports through the nonprofit group Free the Children — when the incident occurred.
“I went to visit a school that we actually helped build with Dior that was an all-girls school in Kenya, like the first girls’ secondary school in the area,” she says. “Someone I was with was looking at the news and said, ‘Oh my God! There were just attacks in Paris.’ ”
Portman called Millepied and was shocked to learn the details. Was she shaken by the killings?
She looks at me directly and stops twirling that metal stick.
“Listen,” she says. “I’m from Israel.”
Portman won the best actress Oscar in 2011 for Aronofsky’s dark thriller ‘Black Swan.’ She was pregnant with son Aleph, now 3, when she accepted the statuette.
Portman’s connection to Israel runs deep. The actress was born there in 1981 to an Israeli father and an American mother, then moved to the U.S. when she was 3. An only child, she grew up on Long Island (actress Bryce Dallas Howard was a classmate and remains a close friend), where her father was a gynecologist.
She started acting with the 1994 thriller The Professional, and her career soared when she was chosen to play Queen Padme Amidala in the second Star Wars trilogy (1999’s The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith).
Looking back, she acknowledges that making those films posed challenges. “I really liked all the people I worked with, [but] the experience was hard for me because I didn’t really understand what was going on with the bluescreens and everything. I just was, you know, I was like 16 and had never done that before, and I was kind of confused.”
She took a break from acting to enroll in Harvard in 1999, majoring in psychology. A gifted student (in high school she had entered the Intel Science Talent Search with a paper titled “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen From Sugar”), she was a research assistant to famed law professor Alan Dershowitz. (She does not address recent allegations that he had sex with a minor, which he vehemently has denied.) “He has quite different politics than I do, but I really, really like him,” she says. “He’s a very good friend. We just have different opinions.”
After Harvard, she acted in such films as 2007’s My Blueberry Nights and 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl before hitting her high-water mark with Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan, about a ballerina losing her grip on reality.
Aronofsky had met her at a party just after making his directing debut on Pi. A few years later, he contacted her when he was formulating Swan. “I had had this idea for many years of doing something in the ballet world,” he says, “and I found out that Natalie had done dancing as a youngster and liked ballet a lot. We met at the Howard Johnson’s in [New York City’s] Times Square and got a coffee there. It was at least eight years before we did Black Swan. We went to a few ballets and checked them out and went to one ballet rehearsal. She was very thoughtful. She definitely spoke her own mind.”
During the shoot, he says, “She [damaged] a rib and didn’t tell me about it. She just knew she had to muscle through it. Each time she was lifted, she was in pain.”
The role won Portman an Oscar.
I ask whether she keeps it in Paris. “I don’t know where it is,” she says. “I think it’s in the safe or something. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it in a while. I mean, Darren actually said to me something when we were in that whole thing that resonated so deeply. I was reading the story of Abraham to my child and talking about, like, not worshipping false idols. And this is literally like gold men. This is literally worshipping gold idols — if you worship it. That’s why it’s not displayed on the wall. It’s a false idol.”
Says Portman of being Jewish in Paris right now: “Yes [I’m nervous], but I’d feel nervous being a black man in this country. I’d feel nervous being a Muslim in many places.”
Portman optioned A Tale of Love and Darkness eight years ago and has since spent considerable time working on the $4 million film, which is being sold in Cannes by Voltage Pictures and CAA and has not yet secured U.S. distribution. Other than shorts, this is her first film as a director.
She met Oz and his wife, Nily, over tea in their Tel Aviv apartment, then persuaded the writer to let her option his work. The story centers on his relationship with his troubled mother, who killed herself when Oz was 12 years old and whom Portman plays in the movie.
“The language was really what [drew me], his obsession with words and the way words are connected in Hebrew, which has this incredible poetry and magic,” she says. “It’s obviously almost impossible to translate, but there’s just incredible beauty to that. [Jews are] a people built of words, people built of books, and it’s quite beautiful to see that, which is a strange thing to start for a movie.”
After working with another writer whom she does not name, she decided to tackle the screenplay on her own. “I started thinking about it, and then I made my shorts, and I started writing a little bit, and then I would put it away and go work some more, and then I’d come back to it,” she says. “My process from school is to sort of handwrite my structure … and revise it and everything, and then once I have that, then to start actually writing it at the computer.”
Getting the language right required meticulous research.
Portman’s career took off when she was cast as Queen Padme Amidala in the second ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.
“[Hebrew] was a biblical language that they modernized,” she says. “It was a language nobody spoke until the ’20s or something. Nobody spoke it. They spoke Yiddish or Ladino in the Sephardic world and their [home-country] languages. That’s why the story of the language is a very unique and remarkable one. Then [with the formation of Israel], they made it almost a law that everyone had to speak the language. Like, you would get a ticket if you were talking Yiddish in the streets. You know, we have a country that has people from 40 countries coming in. We [had] to unify with the language.”
A 40-day shoot got underway in Jerusalem in January 2014 and passed relatively hitch-free.
Now that it’s finished, Portman is eager to return to acting. “I don’t think I’ll stop unless I’m made to by lack of opportunity,” she says.
The actress-director makes no predictions about her new film’s commercial appeal. She says she won’t keep an active production company, knowing she only wants to make passion projects.
“You know, if you’re trying to actually build something that becomes like an entity, you have to think about, you know, something that’s financially sustainable and great and pushing things that aren’t necessarily your own personal passion,” she says. (Her company, Handsomecharlie Films, which she ran with Annette Savitch, produced Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, out in 2016, as well as Jane, out in September; the Portman-produced documentary Eating Animals comes out later this year.)
On Darkness, she was adamant about shooting in Hebrew, whatever the cost. Recalls producer Ram Bergman: “She said, ‘It’s got to be a love letter in Hebrew.’ I said, ‘It will make things harder.’ She said, ‘I don’t care.’ “
Portman showed a rough cut to Aronofsky. “He was always like, ‘Remember why you wanted to make it in the first place at every step of the way,’ ” she says. “I think he would have told me if I was in big trouble.”
Portman in her first acting role opposite Jean Reno in 1994’s ‘The Professional.’
It’s hard to imagine her ever being in trouble. She seems far too careful, far too controlled — so serious, it’s a stretch to envision her throwing caution to the wind.
I’m told by Aronofsky that there’s another side to her —”We just laugh and hang out, and it’s very sincere and fun. She really enjoys life,” he says.
Thor director Kenneth Branagh speaks of her having a “formidable and occasionally forbidding kind of concentration,” and yet, he adds, “She certainly has a ticklish sense of humor.”
But on this morning, she’s all business. Which is a shame. I keep sensing there’s more to her than she’ll ever allow to seep out for public consumption — at least not while her iPhone is recording.
She remains a stranger to me, and perhaps that’s the way she likes it. When I ask her whether she misses L.A., her answer comes closer than anything to capturing who she is:
“I like being a stranger in a place. You’re kind of an outsider, and I think that’s what makes you. It’s the only way I’ve ever known.”