"I loved the experience of making this," Natalie Portman says of Pablo Larrain's Jackie, the new film in which she stars as Jackie Kennedy, as we sit down on the Fox lot to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Portman, the 35-year-old Israeli-born actress who has grown up in the movies since making her film debut at 12 in The Professional, looks and sounds eerily like the former first lady in the film, which jumps around in time, covering, in no particular order, her first solo exposure to the public on a Feb. 14, 1962 TV special; the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of her husband; the days of personal and national mourning thereafter; and a closed-door interview she granted a week after her husband's death. She is in every scene, has received tremendous notices for her work and might well garner a second best actress Oscar six years after her first, for Black Swan. "I had one of the most incredible creative experiences - if not the most incredible creative experience - of my life," she says.
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Natalie Hershlag was born in Jerusalem but raised in different parts of the United States, where her father's medical studies and jobs took the family. The frequent moves weren't necessarily welcome at the time, but may have helped to prepare the only child for her bright future: "When you move to a new place as a kid," she says, "you have to learn how to adapt, you have to learn how to assess a social situation, and understand how you fit in, and then play the role that's needed in that group." In other words, you have to act.
Hershlag and her parents consumed plenty of performing arts during her early childhood - going to Broadway each weekend "totally formed my obsession," she says - and soon she was acting in school and summer camp productions. But things became far more serious the age of 10: "I was just at a pizza place, after dance class, with my mom," she remembers, when a recruiter for a modeling agency asked her mother to bring her in for a meeting. "I was excited," she recalls. "As a 10-year-old girl, it was super-flattering." But after that meeting, she realized, "I'm not interested in people judging me by what my appearance is," and requested instead to be connected with their acting agents. They obliged.
Soon, she was going out on auditions "for everything." The first job she landed was as an understudy for an off-Broadway musical. Then, at 12, she was approached about doing a movie for Luc Besson called The Professional, in which she was to play a young girl whose family has been murdered and who becomes the protege of a professional assassin. "My parents, of course, were completely concerned about the material," she recalls. "It was violent, it was sexual, there was profanity, I was smoking in it. They were really concerned. But I was a very, very headstrong kid, and really fought with them and was like, 'You guys are gonna ruin my life if you don't let me do this.'" So, after serious negotiations between her father and the filmmakers, she played the part, she changed her last name to Portman and the rest, as they say, is history.
The next few years were complicated for Portman. Her big break had led to other amazing gigs - acting opposite Al Pacino in 1995's Heat, Woody Allen in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You and Jack Nicholson in 1996's Mars Attacks!, to name just a few - but she would return to her normal life and face bullying and ostracization from others. "I came home crying every day," she says of that time, "and that's when I moved to public school" and things got better. She says there's no question who deserves credit for keeping her sane, grounded and protected during those tough years: "I have remarkable parents," she says. "I've never seen disappointing behavior from them... Neither of my parents were ever involved financially at all in my career - at all. They were just very much parents - protective parents who didn't want me exploited and they prevented it from happening. I had a very, very sheltered experience as a child actor."
As the years passed, Portman grew to love her unusual path. As she puts it, "I was able to have this sort of double life, where I could have a great school experience and great friends and interesting academics, and then go and have this really artistic experience." For instance, during her junior year in high school, on top of attending classes and preparing to take the SATs, she performed on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank, her dream part at the time, in eight shows a week over a nine-month period. "That was maybe the craziest work thing I've ever done," she says with a laugh, "but it was amazing." What's most amazing, in a sense, is that her grades clearly didn't suffer, as she soon was accepted at Harvard, no less, and happily tabled her acting career, save for projects that could be done during the summers, in order to pursue a psychology major.
Those breaks are when she made 1999's Anywhere But Here, 2000's Where the Heart Is, 2004's Garden State and some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which dribbled out in 1999, 2002 and 2005. ("That was really, really difficult," she recalls, noting that it was the first big film shot digitally and demanded blue-screen acting, which was new to her.) And, during one, she had the opportunity to perform The Seagull in Central Park opposite Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and under the direction of Mike Nichols. "It was incredible," she says of that turning point in her life and career, during which Nichols, who died in 2014, became a mentor and father figure to her. "He was an incredible influence on me, both professionally and personally, from the time I met him for the rest of my life, because even though he's gone now I still hear his voice in my ear all the time."
Even as Portman's accomplishments and opportunities continued to grow, there was a part of her that still questioned her career path, since she comes from a family of academics. "I was still at a time of my life when I think I hadn't fully accepted that I was an actress and this is what I loved," she explains. "Even when I was 25, my dad pulled me aside and was like, 'OK, now I think it's time for you to go to graduate school.' I was a little taken aback, but it was good because it kind of forced me to declare myself and be like: 'This is what I love, this is what I'm interested in, I find meaning in it and I find joy in it, and that's what I want.' But it took me awhile." As she came out from under her parents' wings, she began to make professional decisions on her own, and started to shed her "good girl" persona by playing a stripper in 2004's Closer, the Nichols film for which she received her first Oscar nomination; a foul-mouthed rapper in an SNL video; and a badass in 2005's V for Vendetta. "It wasn't a decision," she insists. "It was just interesting opportunities."
Portman's foray into adult parts continued with 2006's Goya's Ghosts, 2007's My Blueberry Nights, 2008's The Other Boleyn Girl, 2009's Brothers and the list goes on. But the game-changer was 2010's Black Swan, a project about a ballerina experiencing psychological issues that Darren Aronofsky had first approached her about a decade earlier, before she'd even started college, and before script, financing and scheduling issues forced such a long wait. "But it was very lucky it happened exactly when it happened," Portman notes, "because physically I was at the end of where I could have done that, and then emotionally I was at the beginning of where I could have done that." Of the year of hardcore training that the film required, Portman acknowledges, "It was a lot. It was really fun, though." And it paid off in numerous ways. The $13 million film became not only a critics' darling, but also a huge breakout hit, grossing nearly $330 million worldwide; she won the best actress Oscar; and her choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, became her husband in 2012.
Over the years since, Portman and Millepied have started a family (she gave birth to son Aleph in 2011 and currently is pregnant with her second child); she directed a film for the first time, 2015's A Tale of Love and Darkness, a Hebrew-language film made in Israel ("I really saw a film in my head for the first time and became completely obsessed with it," she says, adding "It was one of the great experiences of my life"); and she and Aronofsky began discussing Jackie, which he had planned to direct in partnership with another actress, but wound up instead producing. After he recruited her to star, Portman signed off on Aronofsky's suggestion that the film be directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain, who had never made a film in English or with a female protagonist, and now would have to handle a great American story. She says she never regretted it for a moment.
Jackie is not the first project for which Portman has played a person who actually lived - she's previously played Anne Frank and Anne Boleyn - but it's the first in which she's played someone whose face, voice, mannerisms and even specific behaviors at certain times are known to generations of Americans. "This was definitely a completely different challenge, and that scared me so much," she confesses. "I overdosed on material, I read everything I could find, I watched the White House tour [that Mrs. Kennedy provided TV viewers in 1962] obsessively with my dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein, who was amazing, and we worked a lot on accent and voice; I listened to the [Arthur M.] Schlesinger [Jr.] tapes also, which were really helpful in sort of comparing the public voice versus the private voice; and just took it all in." She also studied the Zapruder tape, since she would have to reenact it precisely. "I really didn't want to do it," she admits. "I really didn't want that day to come." In the end, though, she says she "found it really challenging in a technical way."
Portman shares her character's delicate, porcelain features, to be sure, but she had to work for - and nails - the regal poise, purring voice, proper accent, dazed look and frosty demeanor of the public Mrs. Kennedy. She also creates a fascinating portrait of what the real woman might have been like when she was away from the cameras and at her most vulnerable, confiding in her trusted friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), bickering with Bobby Kennedy (a miscast Peter Sarsgaard) and Jack Valenti (Max Casella), pondering life's meaning with a priest (John Hurt) and trying to shape her husband's legacy during her on-the-record/off-the-record exchanges with the journalist in Hyannis. The bottom line? Portman has, once again, given a performance for the ages - one that has been called "perfect" by The New York Times, and similar kind words by many others - and may well be joining the elite club of two-time best actress Oscar winners on Feb. 26.