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Interview: Natalie Portman

17th January 2011

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Natalie Portman is impossible. First of all she’s tiny. And I mean tiny. Standing all of 5’ 3” with a physique so slight it looks barely able to support her loose brunette tresses, framing perfectly symmetrical vulpine features emanating a glow that can only come from an A-list celebrity with a top quality make-up artist. When she speaks, she does so with a considered intelligence and eloquence that sets her apart from her airheaded contemporaries and shows both a thorough understanding and appreciation of her craft, interspersed with a playful sense of humour and childlike wonder that calls to mind the earlier roles of an actress we’ve seen mature on screen.

Natalie PortmanSince her controversial breakout role in 1994’s Leon Portman’s star has continually been on the rise in a string of challenging and interesting projects from Beautiful Girls, Garden State, an Oscar-nominated performance in Closer, to the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The latter was filmed in her summers off from studying Psychology at Harvard; a degree that stood her in good stead for tackling her latest role in Darren Aronofsky’s twisted psychological thriller, Black Swan.

“It was challenging, you know? This one was much harder to shake than most because it was so all-consuming,” she says of her role as Nina, a New York ballet dancer obsessed with perfection, given the role of a lifetime as Swan Lake’s Swan Queen. But to play the part of the Black Swan effectively she has to discover her dark side; a journey that comes with so much pressure from within and without that the fragile Nina begins to crack, and the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur. Portman is notoriously hard-working and determined herself, and in such an intense and immersive part, there was a danger of life imitating art.

“I try and distinguish pretty clearly what’s real and what’s not but there are always strands of your character that you don’t even realise are in you that linger afterwards, because you have to internalise so much that it goes into your brain in ways you don’t really understand until months later. I like to shut off the character as soon as I finish, and it was really difficult on this one, probably because I had so much training outside of work to do.”

That training wasn’t a simple process either. For Natalie to convincingly portray a top flight dancer was an extremely long and unforgiving process, from months before a foot of film had been shot and all through production:

“I started training a year before the film. We were doing five hours of training a day that was three hours of ballet, then we would swim a mile and tone for two hours. Then about two months before shooting we started working with the choreographer, Benjamin Millipied, and with various ballet coaches who worked on very detailed work from fingertips to elbows to turnout. After every take I had like five people giving me notes – Darren (Aronofsky), plus all these ballet experts.

“I think the trickiest part was balancing the physical with the emotional, because you need so much concentration. You have your concentration face which is all furrowed, and half the time they were just trying to get me not to have my tongue sticking out. Then to add to that I have to be acting in this scene, and all those demands are quite contrary to one another, and having to do those at the same time was probably the most challenging.”

That Portman lists that as the most challenging aspect of her performance says a lot, considering like all dancers she suffered her fair share of injuries:

“There were constant foot things and strained muscles, but the worst thing was the dislocated rib, which happened during a lift. That’s when one rib goes under another rib. It happened in the middle of the film, so for the second half of filming I couldn’t really take a deep breath.”

But rather than take the precious diva’s way out she danced through the pain, both in commitment to her role and out of respect to the professional dancers she had been working with for so long, and whose art she has had a fascination with since childhood.

“It’s good to understand what real dancers go through because they’re constantly dancing through really difficult injuries, and they don’t want to give up their spot so they’ll just dance with a sprained ankle or a torn plantar fascia or some really extreme things, but they’ll just dance beautifully on stage and then they’ll limp off into a bucket of ice, it’s pretty shocking. You really understand the discipline, the rigour, the willingness to work through physical pain. Theirs is truly an art of passion. No one’s becoming rich and famous off becoming a ballet dancer any more so there’s something incredibly beautiful about that as well.”

Natalie’s eyes are wide now and she’s clearly impassioned. Working on this film for so long and being so immersed in the role and the ballet world has clearly been an exciting time for her, but now that it’s all over, what has she taken away from the experience?

“I suppose I learned how much I could do. I don’t think I expected how hard it was going to be, and I feel lucky that I didn’t expect it because I went in with all this excitement about getting to do ballet and it sort of propelled me through those difficult moments. I’m not sure that would have been possible had I expected that hardship.”

It’s a hardship that’s proven worthwhile, as the awards season heats up and her name is continually tipped for a Best Actress nod, having given a career-defining performance in a dream role. Natalie, of course, takes it in her stride.

“Well it’s obviously very flattering, but at the same time the real rewarding thing, apart from the work itself, is the audience reaction which has been so overwhelming. I mean it’s really exciting to hear people’s different takes on what the movie is about and what it means and what’s real and what’s not real. Just to see people engaging so passionately in it is your greatest dream when you’re making a movie.”

Beauty, brains and humility? Like I said, she’s impossible.

Black Swan is released on 21st January

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