We’ve watched Natalie Portman grow up before our eyes for over two decades. From playing the 12-year-old who’s taken in by a hitman in “Léon: The Professional” to the “Star Wars” prequels and most recently her Oscar-winning performance as a ballerina driven to her breaking point in “Black Swan,” she’s undergone a very public evolution.
The ambitious film (in theatres Friday), told in Hebrew, looks back on Oz’s childhood set in the early years of the State of Israel. Portman was born in Israel and moved to the US when she was three. Her fascination with her home country is evident in her tender adaptation, in which she also stars as Oz’s mother, whose personal struggles lead to her overdose on sedatives.
Business Insider sat down with Portman in New York City to talk about what led to her making the movie, the legendary directors she called on for help, why she’s not on social media, and how she plans to introduce “Star Wars” to her five-year-old son.
Jason Guerrasio: How did you end up reading “A Tale of Love and Darkness”?
Natalie Portman: I was just reading it as I would normally pick up a book and then all of a sudden as I was reading I just started seeing the film. I think that’s a testament to Amos Oz’s writing but also has to do with the fact that this time period and these kinds of stories I’ve been imagining my whole life because of the family stories I’ve heard growing up. It felt a very clear thing for me to direct.
Guerrasio: So you got into producer mode: seeing shots and wondering if it could work for the screen.
Portman: Yes. I just enjoyed it and then couldn’t stop thinking about it and imagining it and so I contacted Amos Oz and asked his permission to make the film.
Guerrasio: How was selling him on that?
Portman: I was introduced to him through my agents and then got to meet with him in Israel and he was really immediately so generous. Considering that I had never directed anything before and at that time I was 27.
Guerrasio: So you hadn’t even made any of your short films yet?
Portman: I think I had done one short but I don’t even think he saw it. He knew me as an actress a little bit. But he was really generous with it and he asked me to make my own thing. “The book exists so just don’t try to film the book, make your own piece,” which was very freeing.
Guerrasio: Had he been approached before about making the book into a movie?
Portman: He had been approached by a few filmmakers in Isreal to make the film and the thing he told me that he didn’t like when they adapted the scripts was that they tried to explain why his mother did what she did. He said, “Don’t try to give an easy explanation, it is a mystery to me still and I’m still trying to figure it out.” It’s not something that you can give some kind of pop-psychology.
Guerrasio: Did you seek his notes when you wrote the script?
Portman: At every stage I sent him the script any time I got to a draft that I felt good with. And he would send me notes back but it was interesting because they were never creative notes. It was just, “This was actually December ’47, not February ’48,” those kinds of things.
Guerrasio: He was the fact-checker for you.
Portman: Right, which was great because he was the most accurate fact-checker of all — it’s his life.
Guerrasio: I read that you reached out to some of your former directors: Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick. What were you seeking from them?
Portman: All of them really influenced me just by working with them and getting the great luck of observing them in action, but I really leaned on them most I think during the editing process where I got to show them the film and get their feedback. It was really helpful mainly because they are such different filmmakers and they were all very encouraging of me making my own thing. They would say, “Obviously, I would do this this way but you need to do it your way.” Especially Terry, he always said to me, “Paint from life. You paint from your perception of the world.”
Guerrasio: Would it get overwhelming if they critiqued the same scene differently?
Portman: Absolutely. You have to be careful when you’re getting feedback because people will give you conflicting feedback all the time, but ultimately you end up following your own inner guide. Darren in one scene where there are gun shots, I had the boy running before the shots and he was like, “If you put it after it ups the tension by a thousand,” and I was like, “Oh, obviously.” [Laughs] He said it and immediately it became obvious and clear and was so much better. Sometimes people say something to you and you’re like, “I respect you so much, I love what you do, but I disagree. I don’t think that’s right for the way I see it.”
Guerrasio: And that’s part of being a director.
Portman: Yeah. And I think that was actually something that I saw with Darren a lot when he worked. He was totally open to anyone’s suggestions and if they were good he would take it and if they were not good he would say, “No, I disagree.” It’s the best way to be because there’s no ego about who the idea comes from, it’s just using the best one.
Guerrasio: How hard was it to see yourself on-screen constantly throughout this whole process?
Portman: It’s hard. And I think it was good for me because normally I can’t watch myself at all and watching myself makes me cringe and I cover my face and it’s very hard to watch. I think people who aren’t in film experience that when they hear their voice on an answering machine or something. So to have to watch myself in a way that was constructively critical was really good for me because it made me a little bit more easy on myself because I wasn’t allowed to walk away screaming.
Guerrasio: But that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out tomorrow and binge all of your movies.
Portman: No. That will never happen. [Laughs] But as a director you have to, you don’t have the option of saying, “I’m not watching this.”
Guerrasio: Will you direct again?
Portman: I would love to. I don’t have a particular plan right now because I’ve been so focused of getting this into the world that I feel now that it’s coming out that I can really think about that more.
Guerrasio: You’ve spent a lot of time in France recently. What have you observed about how female artists are portrayed there compared to here in the US?
Portman: It’s really interesting because the issue we have with female directors here is not the case in France at all. Especially with the young generation, there are even more women than men making movies right now. And I don’t know exactly what it is but you can see how cultural the phenomenon is because I think part of it has to do with there being socialised child care and a great support system for working women there that’s government-supported. And also because of government funding for films there’s probably more regulation on what percentage of money goes to each gender as opposed to it being privatised here.
Guerrasio: It’s still news when a female director makes a big movie like “Wonder Woman” or a smaller movie that gets a lot of attention, but over there —
Portman: It’s commonplace because it’s mainstream, which is great. I can’t wait for it to get that way here.
Guerrasio: Do you feel it’s moving that way here?
Portman: I think the press is doing a wonderful job of putting the pressure on the decision-makers in Hollywood to support more female directors. I hear more than ever people actively searching for women to direct, actively wanting to finance women’s films, which is not to say it is easy, but I think it’s been a great instance of how journalism has put pressure on business to be more fair between genders.
Guerrasio: Can you find it yet in the scripts coming your way? Characters that are outside the box of the typical female characters in Hollywood?
Portman: I don’t know if the scripts are changing so much. I mean, I’ve been working for almost 25 years and made over 40 films and I worked with my first female director, on a feature, last year [“Planetarium”]. And it’s still the only one. But now I feel like in the past year I’d say I got three or four offers for films that had female directors so in my career I haven’t had that opportunity before. That’s exciting.
You’re doing something else completely different for you, playing Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie.” What was the prep for that?
Portman: I read every biography I could get my hands on. There were like 20 of them, which was interesting because they are not exactly high literature, they are pulpy. But the [Arthur] Schlesinger transcripts ended up being the most useful of anything. But it’s interesting because she edited them herself so there are gaps in there. The tapes are released so you can listen to them, not just read it. That was really helpful to get the accent, which is very particular. And we recreated a lot of the White House tour for the film, so that was helpful to see how she walks and how she moves and her facial expressions. And then there’s the public versus the private voice. When she was doing interviews it was a lot more girly and soft and then when you hear her talking to Schlesinger at home you hear the ice in the glass clinking and the voice is a little deeper and her wit comes out more. So you get this real sense of the two sides.
Guerrasio: You mention how long you’ve been in this business, and you’ve kept your private life just that. Are you surprised how much celebrities have to put themselves out there in social media now? I’ve noticed you’ve kept yourself off of it.
Portman: It is interesting just generationally that you see that people are much more comfortable and that’s part of life now for this next generation of actors and just people in the world. But for those of us who were living when it didn’t exist, it feels like the last thing you want to do. [Laughs] It’s so much unwanted interest in your privacy that you don’t want to invite anymore.
Guerrasio: I can only imagine how social media would have handled the leadup to the “Star Wars” movies you starred in.
Portman: Oh, yeah. And you see the amount of bullying and negativity that goes on that is really, really intense and I feel lucky that I came of age before all of that came on.
Guerrasio: So you visited the “Rogue One” and “Episode VIII” sets, right?
Guerrasio: With your son?
Guerrasio: What was it like being back on a set of that size? Would you ever do something that big again?
Portman: It was so fun to get to visit as, I guess, a tourist. It’s fun to get to try all different things and it’s fun to get to go back and forth. I think the important thing is who you work with, that makes the experience amazing no matter if it’s big or small.
Guerrasio: Has your son seen any of the “Star Wars” movies yet?
Guerrasio: This is a conversation I have with parents a lot: Do you start with “Episode IV” or do you start with “Episode I” when you introduce your children to the “Star Wars” saga?
Portman: [Laughs] I talked about this with a friend of mine. I feel you have to start with “IV” because then all of the revelations — like Darth Vader’s the father — are surprises.
Guerrasio: I think you’re right, but the argument is then, “Well, ‘Episode I’ is so much tamer.”
Portman: Well, you know, the thing is “I” is very much for kids, but I think for the story you have to start with “IV.”
Guerrasio: Does your son even know you’re in the movies?
Portman: Yes. Other children make that clear. [Laughs]
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