“I saw cocaine for the first time a month ago in Spain,” says Portman, her large, innocent, Audrey Hepburn eyes popping wide open as she curls her tiny body into an armchair. “I mean, for the first time in my life somebody was like, ‘You want a line?’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’” she says, recalling the unbelievable moment.
Her only sniffing addiction is to handbags, to make sure they don’t contain a trace of leather, as her strict vegetarianism extends to the materials she lets touch her skin. She wears sneakers every day (usually Converse), and for special events, like the Oscars or Golden Globes, a brand called Beyond Skin, vegan footwear that looks a lot like Easy Spirit. She doesn’t wear diamonds to such events, but rather “conflict-free” earrings, such as $3 knockoffs from a place called Claire’s that she swears look just the same. She drives a Prius. She had wanted it in black, but when they didn’t have it in stock, she settled for lavender. She has no idea what kind of jeans she wears. “Citizen?” she asks.
Portman, however, is anything but a bore. Anyone who has spent real time with her invariably comes away mesmerized; first by her exquisite beauty, which she seem oblivious to, and then by the thing that sets her apart from almost every actor in Hollywood – a total, intelligent absorption in everything but herself. Her curiosity about the world knows no bounds. She will talk breathlessly about her old law professor Alan Dershowitz’s ideas on justified torture, or about how the New Zealand Moriori tribe’s philosophy of nonviolence doomed them to extinction, or how the two-party system is hampering American politics. She never sounds pompous, because it’s all punctuated with “like”s, goofy laughs, and the word “super” which she frequently uses as a prefix to adjectives. “She’s got a little bit of the spaz going on,” says Peter Sasgaard, who worked with her in 2004’s Garden State. Still, highly educated people often walk away from her questioning their own intelligence. “Sometimes when I am talking to Natalie about a book or a film, it feels like I’m in grad school. And she’s the professor,” says Aleen Keshishian, who, like Portman, went to Harvard and has been managing Portman’s career since its start. As Dershowitz, one of her several prominent admirers, puts it, “She’s not one of those Hollywood stars who plays on her stardom to have you listen to her on other issues. She’s worth listening to because of her own inherent intelligence, experience, and background.”
Besides all that, she exudes a warmth and authenticity that carry over onto the screen and have made her one of the most moving actresses working today. Mike Nichols, who directed her in 2004’s Closer and who has become her mentor, sees her on a very short list of all-time icons. “It confuses people to think that someone so completely beautiful could really be a first rate actor too. It’s hard to grasp, but it’s happened. It’s happened a few times before, with Garbo and Louise Brooks.” Just the other night, at the 50th anniversary of New York’s Public Theater, he was reminded of Portman’s odd, transcendent power when the petite actress was onstage surrounded by many other actors. “I said to [the person] I was with, ‘Look. Everybody, if they’re near Natalie, they look like they’re out of proportion.’”
Given her thirst for probing complex questions, it’s no surprise that she jumped at the chance to work on the controversial film V for Vendetta, written by Andy and Lary Wachowski, the brothers who made the Matrix films, and produced by Joel Silver. Based on the 1989 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the film takes place in a post-World War III, totalitarian Britain. Its hero is V, a masked vigilante who blows up London landmarks, takes over the airwaves, and urges citizens to overthrow their tyrannical government. Although the original was written in response to Thatcher’s England – with V an updated version of Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605 – the film plays as a commentary on the Bush administration and its police-state tactics. It is one of the most genuinely subversive films to come out of Hollywood since the 70s.
“I started reading it out loud,” says Portman, who plays a mild-mannered girl who is imprisoned by V before falling on lover with him and, finally, carrying his torch of destruction. “That’s always a sign to me that it’s something I want to do.” Throughout filming, Portman, Larry, Andy, and director James McTeigue plumbed notions of violence through a book-and-film circle, passing back and forth such works as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, White Nights, an autobiography by Menachem Begin, the 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, and a documentary about the Weather Underground Organization, the 1970s radical group.
“People are asking, ‘Does this movie justify violence?’” says Portman. “I think it takes you to look at terrorism from a new perspective. It puts it in new shoes so that you can see reaons where the methods of terrorism might be justifiable…. I think when you make any kind of art you’re trying to open a conversation – you’re not trying to tell someone what to think.” The seriousness with which she contemplated those issues is reflected in her performance, a subtle yet powerful transformation from good girl to revolutionary. As McTeigue explains, “Natalie transcends the actorly thing… She’s not just drawing on past actor experience. She’s drawing on autobiographical experience and fiction experience.
If you ask Portman, naturally, the autobiography is tedious. “I get really bored reading about myself,” she says a little guilty, and a little embarrassed. “Really nice, good parents. I grew up really well, Happy.” Indeed, the Hershalgs – he is an Israeli doctor; she is an artist and homemaker from Ohio – were Long Island’s anti-Lohans, their household the epitome of safe, supportive, and wholesome. Natalie’s idea of a crazy good time was watching Dirty Dancing, the ultimate Long Island Jewish girl movie, which she has seen countless times. “That was my movie growing up.” It was Natalie who pushed the acting thing, and her parents resisted. When a Revlon scout approached the nine-year-old in a pizza parlour and asked if she wanted to get into modelling, the hammy little girl said, No, but I would like an agent. When, at age 11, she landed her first film, Luc Besson’s The Professional, a love story of sorts between a hit man and the waif-like orphan he takes in, her father didn’t hesitate to address his issues. “My dad had stipulations on how many drags on a cigarette I could take [in a scene], how many times I could curse, I wasn’t actually allowed to inhale. My dad would have people behind me blowing the smoke out.”
Audiences found her enchanting, and, as much of her fan mail revealed, many dirty older men found her titillating. “I think I saw one [letter],” Portman recalls. “My parents didn’t allow me to look at anything after that.” She did, however, read the many editorials “about how my parents should be in trouble for allowing me to be in that movie. It was really upsetting. They kept saying ‘Lolita-esque.’ I had no idea what Lolita was” Ted Demme’s 1996 film, Beautiful Girls, in which, as the self confessed “old soul” on ice skates, she stole Timothy Hutton’s heart, didn’t do much to quell the unwanted attention. Finally, Portman’s parents and her manager, Keshishian, decided that, moving forward, it would be best for young Natalie to keep a low profile and simply not engage. There would be no talking to fans and no signing of autographs, except for children. (Her aloofness at public appearances has occasionally led paparazzi to call her “cunt.”) And when it comes to choosing film roles, she steered clear of anything too erotic. She turned down the actual role of Lolita in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film of the Nabokov novel, and she turned down the ice storm (1997) because there was too much sexual content. She even turned down Havana Nights, the sequel to Dirty Dancing, which, naturally, was harder to resist.
Her performance in The Professional captured the attention of major directors – Woody Allen, Michael Mann, and Tim Burton, who cast her in small roles in, respectively, Everyone Says I Love You, Heat, and Mars Attacks! – and she landed a starring role opposite Susan Sarandon on Anywhere but Here. While many teenage actors might have struck while the iron was hot and moved to Hollywood, Portman went to college. It was simply a given. The decision to go to Harvard, above Yale or Columbia, where she also applied, came from her grandfather – on his deathbed. “I was like, ’Where should I go?,’ and he was like… ‘Harvard,’” she recalls, laughing. “No explanation, nothing, and he died two weeks later.”
Harvard freshmen tend to be an insecure, arrogant group, and nothing threatens them more than a person who’s really good at something. “I felt I had to prove myself more,” says Portman, “and it made me nervous all the time because I felt that people always thought I was there because I was famous and not because I deserved to be there. And so it makes your stupid comment in class even stupider. Everyone’s got a moment when they say something lame. Nut me, I was like, Oh my God, I’m just confirming everyone’s belief here – everyone thinks I’m the dumb actress.”
But Alan Dershowitz, who taught her in a seminar on neurobiology and the law, says she was one of the most remarkable students he’s had. He still cites a paper she wrote debunking a new method of lie-detector tests, well before this particular practice had come under question. “She was really on the cutting edge,” says Dershowitz, who, for a time, had no idea that Natalie Hershlag was a Hollywood movie star. “I think there were a lot of people in the class were really were taken with this new methodology. She just ripped it apart.” Eventually she became his research assistant, and he encouraged her to go to graduate school in psychology.
Still, her self-consciousness about being an actress was apparent. Dershowitz recalls one evening when the students from the seminar came over for dinner. “She was embarrassed,” he recalls, “saying, ‘I hope you don’t see this movie or that movie.’” To some classmates, she came off as aloof or mistrustful. One student notes how, at the beginning of freshman year, she tried overly hard to pepper everyone around her with friendliness, but then withdrew from the masses, hanging out only with the jock types who were members of “final clubs.” Another, who shared the laundry room with her, recalls the awkward time he held the door for her. “She looked at me as if I were a stalker,” he says. Many classmates were stunned, says one student, when they saw her on David Letterman, being overly coy about where she was at college and sounding like a ditz. “It was a huge disconnect,” this student says.
On either side of her college career, and over one summer during it, she completed three episodes of Star Wars, for which she was paid enough millions on the back end that she could have retired at age 18. (However, she now makes about half of what her comtemporaries like Kate Hudson and Lindsay Lohan make, due to her choices of smaller films.) At once she became a bankable, global household name, the face of deity in the Star Wars pantheon, and, in the eyes of some important directors, a bit of a hack. She now admits that, for a time, Queen Amidala hampered her career. Episode I – The Phantom Menace was downright suffocating. One can see how Portman suffered – delivering lines like a robot and being crushed under the weight of a headdress the size of an armadillo, all the while trying to sell romantic chemistry with a nine-year-old. Although the next two episodes were improvements, they didn’t exactly expand her acting horizons. (Sample dialogue – Anakin: “You’re so beautiful.” Amidala: “It’s only because I’m so in love.” Anakin: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”) One reviewer called their romance “a love affair between a hothead [Hayden Christensen] and an ice bucket [Portman].” “After Star Wars,” she admits, “people were really like, ’Uh, I don’t know if she can really act.’”
But the dearth of interesting scripts coming her way opened her up to something special: Zach Braff’s 2004 directional debut, Garden State, the sort of film she wouldn’t, at face value, take at this point in her career. “Now, I wouldn’t be like, ‘Let’s work with the first-time director who’s in a television show that I haven’t seen.’” But the movie, whose budget was just $2.5 million, allowed her to do something she’d never quite done before: play someone utterly kooky. For Braff’s part, he had landed someone who ultimately could get the film financed, as well as his dream actress. His only reservation was that she might be too pretty. “I said to her, ‘I don’t want you to wear makeup,’” recalls Braff. “Some people will laugh, ‘Oh, it’s Natalie Portman, so who gives a shit,’ you know? But women, I think, in general are terrified about that. She wore the most minimal makeup I’ve ever seen any person on film ever wear.” Sarsgaard was particularly impressed by her instinctual, non-interlectual approach to acting. “You think of someone who went to Harvard and is very well read and all of that,” he says. “As far as I saw her, the camera rolls and she goes. She doesn’t whittle the scene down into its finer elements.” Around the same time, she stood out as the lonely, desperate Civil War widow in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.
Her biggest leap was undoubtedly in Closer, Nichols’s 2004 film about the ugly ways four beautiful people treat one another. Portman took on the erotically charged role of a stripper. “I will not allow myself to be on a porn site, which happen,” Portman says, explaining her modesty. “I don’t want to be used by someone else for turning me into something I’m not.” But for Closer she agreed to shoot a scene topless – only because she was working with Nichols, someone she’d come to trust since being directed by him in his Central Park production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. “I was doing everything because I knew that Mike was going to get my permission about everything and talk to me… And he was like, ‘That stuff’s going to be burned if we don’t use it.’” Indeed, it was destroyed.
Portman earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her performance, but she never got puffed up over it. “She said such a Natalie thing after seeing Closer,” recalls Nichols. “She said, ‘I’m not awesome yet.’” In fact, she e-mailed Dershowitz and said, “Please don’t watch Closer. It’s embarrassing to have my teacher see me half-naked.” (“It was embarrassing,” Dershowitz admits.) While most Oscar nominees gleefully rifled through their gift bags which are worth more than $100,000 these days, Portman, Keshishian recalls, showed zero interest. “I honestly don’t know what she did with it. She probably gave it to her grandmother or a friend.” For Portman, the most important thing she got out of doing Closer was Nichols’s devoted friendship and mentorship. “[Mike] will take me out to dinner and be like, ‘This guy’s not treating you right.’ He’ll take me out to dinner and be like, ‘You need a new agent,’” she says, referring to her change from ICM to CAA. “You send him a book, he reads it the next day. You ask him for advice on a script, he reads it and gives you notes on it. I call him and I’m like, ‘I’m stuck with this character.’ He’ll spend three hours on the phone with me and give me his thoughts. And he doesn’t have anything to do with it, you know? It’s not his movie.”
As for Nichols, who has had that sort of affinity only with Meryl Streep and his old Second City colleague Elaine May, he says, “I love her very much. I feel something akin to the way I feel about my kids.” Since V for Vendetta, she has created yet another older, male admirer – this one more unlikely: Joel Silver. Known for his brashness and liberal use of obscenities, he becomes positively gentlemanly in her company, says one observer. “she is remarkable,” Silver gushes. “She is the oddity – this is beautiful, intelligent, warm-hearted, fantastic person, you know?”
Following the accolades brought about by Closer, Portman did another very Natalie thing: she left Hollywood in the dust and went to Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, to study for six months, kicking back with spoken Arabic, spoken Hebrew, the history of Israel, the history of Islam, and the anthropology of violence – a course taught in Hebrew. And for the past few years she has thrown herself into her charitable work with the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), an organisation she discovered through a meeting with Queen Rania of Jordan that provides micro-loans to poor women in developing countries who are starting small businesses. Between trips for FINCA to Uganda, Guatemala, and Ecuador, she has had one-on-one sit-downs with members of Congress, including Hillary Clinton and John McCain, to discuss the organisation and its issues. “McCain really cared,” she says. “Sincerely. I mean, I’m an actor so I can pick up on bullshit pretty quickly.”
The only things calling her back to Hollywood are interesting projects – really interesting projects. Up next is Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, a drama set against the Spanish Inquisition about Goya’s relationship with two subjects. What she’d really love to do, somewhat surprisingly, is a romantic comedy. In Portman’s opinion, comedy is the most socially valuable genre. “That’s the movie we want to watch a thousand times. That’s the movie that when you’re sick you watch. When you’re sad it makes you forget.” She only wishes that every female lead in every romantic comedy didn’t have to work in fashion. “The girls are either a model’s agent or a photographer’s assistant or a stylist or a fashion designer,” she says, annoyed, “because they want to have cute clothes.”
Hollywood – the ass-kissing, backstabbing, social-life aspect of it anyway – simply holds no interest for her. In fact, it gives her the creeps. “I always make sure that anytime I go to a Hollywood event I have five school friends with me, because they’re like my monitors. They’re like, ‘That person’s nice, that person’s not. That person won’t even look me in the eye or shake my hand to say hi.’ You sort of see how people are by how they relate to people around you. With me, everyone’s like. ‘Hey, how are you?’ Like, super-over-exaggeratedly sweet.”
But even the most obnoxious antics of the Nicole Riche – Paris Hilton – Lindsay Lohan set won’t illicit any snottiness from this young woman. To start with, she barely knows who Paris and Nichole are. As for Lindsay, she thinks she’s a sweet girl and has a Long Island bond with her, starting with Lohan’s signed head shot from The Parent Trap hanging at the local bagel shop. “You can’t judge anyone else,” says Portman. “Every moment in my life I’ve always known my parents would go to the end of the earth for me. And when you have that kind of rock, you can’t judge anyone who doesn’t, and most people don’t.”
Still, she’s had her moments of Hollywood craziness. With her dad, the doctor. Her wildest night in recent memory was in December in Madrid, while filming Goya’s Ghosts. “We went to this club that had really fun music and we were dancing with people from the crew until five in the morning. It’s the latest I stayed up the whole time I was there. I was with my dad. I was like, awesome.”