'Jackie' Director Pablo Larraín on Casting Natalie Portman as Mrs. Kennedy: 'I Couldn't Imagine a Movie Without Her'

Natalie Portman in 'Jackie'
Natalie Portman in ‘Jackie.’ (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Chilean director Pablo Larraín has had an exceedingly busy 2016. Earlier this year, he debuted The Club, a sober story about disgraced priests living together — in supervised isolation — in a remote coastal town. And this December, he’ll follow that stinging drama up with two high-profile gems: Jackie (Dec. 2), starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy during the week following JFK’s assassination; and Neruda (Dec. 16), featuring Gael García Bernal as a detective on the trail of communist poet/politician Pablo Neruda in ’40s and ’50s Chile.

Taken together, they continue the 40-year-old director’s career-long interest in the relationship between leaders and citizens — he previously helmed the Oscar-nominated 2012 political drama No — as well as reconfirm his eagerness to shake up traditional genres. While in New York City in October for the New York Film Festival, Larraín spoke with us about casting Natalie Portman for Jackie, his fascination with the former first lady, and the differences between his latest two films.

Yahoo Movies: The Club came out in February, and now, within a span of two weeks, you’ll have both Jackie and Neruda in American theaters. Are you tired? And was this deliberate?
Pablo Larraín:
Somehow, my brother [producing partner Juan] and I created this unexpected accident. We were going to make Neruda, and we needed our lead actor Louis [Gnecco] to gain weight. Then we had to wait for Gael [García Bernal]. And my brother couldn’t find the financial elements, so we had to push it back six months. When we pushed the production for six months, I was like, “What are we going to do now? I’m unemployed! It’s so weird.” So I did a play, and then we crazily went and shot The Club.

So you did The Club waiting?
Waiting for Neruda, yes. So Neruda was about to get made, and then The Club goes to the Berlin International Film Festival and gets an award there [the Jury Grand Prix]. At the afterparty, everybody is so weird, because you have your award in your hand and a drink in the other one. And nobody wants to leave it there, because, I don’t know — you could lose it or something. Actually, my brother left it in a taxi, but that’s another story…

So [Jackie producer] Darren Aronofsky, who was head of the [Berlin] jury, shows up, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” He was very generous and nice, and a week later, he sends me the script for Jackie. I then came to Brooklyn to the office of Protozoa [Aronofsky’s production company], and I’m like, “Look, man, I’m about to start production on a movie.” And he goes, “Right, but, look, this is an invitation, and you can do what you want.” And I just said, “Let’s do it!” But I did ask for Natalie and said that if she wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t make it either. That complicated things a little bit, because we needed her, and once she was on board, the movie got made really quickly while I was in post-production on Neruda.

Gael García Bernal and Pablo Larraín
Gael García Bernal and Pablo Larraín on Oct. 5, 2016, in New York City. (Photo: Mike Pont/WireImage)

Neruda seems like a subject you’d have greater knowledge/familiarity with…
Yeah, Neruda is in the water in Chile.

And Jackie seems like something more foreign to you.
Absolutely. Of course.

Was it daunting to tackle a project like Jackie, to which you didn’t have a deep personal connection?
That was my first question to Darren — why are you calling a Chilean guy to do this? Because, of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I don’t feel any attachment to the American presidency. I do have it for my own culture, for my own flag.

I first spoke with my mother — that’s what I did. [Laughs.] I called my mother and told her that someone in the world wanted me to make a movie about Jackie Kennedy. She was crying and said, “Just go and do it, son.” I was like, “Mom!” And she was like, “Just go and do it!”

I’ll tell you, man — I just started Googling. That’s when I found the White House tour, which was not in the script. I’m not lying, I watched it like 40 times. It’s 50 minutes long, and I would just rewatch specific scenes and moments multiple times. I just fell in love with her.

For me, it was also a very big, new opportunity. Jackie is my seventh movie, and the other six movies are based on male characters. So it was an opportunity to have an approach to a woman that, after all I’ve learned, is the most unknown of the known people. No one really knows who she was, that’s the truth. And that mystery couldn’t be more exciting.

Watch the Jackie cast talk about recreating the assassination:

What, in particular, did you find most fascinating about her?
I just thought she had an incredible sensibility and political smell, and she was very sophisticated in terms of communications. The previous idea I had of her, that she was more about fashion and fabrics and style — it was just the skin of someone who was incredibly complex. I didn’t connect with the big history. Of course, it’s in the movie — that’s the ground. But I did the film through her eyes, through the way she smells, through the way she walks. That’s why 60 to 70 percent of the movie is super-close-up on her. She [Portman] wouldn’t care. It’s very intimidating for an actor to have someone like this [mimics getting right up in my face]. And she’ll take it.

My connection was my fascination with her humanity and that woman at risk. It’s a woman in danger. She has the elements that I think a good movie needs to have: rage, curiosity, and love. If you have those elements in a character, then you can put her in a dangerous perspective — I’m not talking about physical danger — and then you can create an interesting accident that can go somewhere.

You said you wouldn’t have made Jackie without Natalie Portman. Why was she so key to your vision for the film? And how did you work with her, to prepare for the role?
I never do rehearsals. I don’t like them. I think we read the script once, but in pieces — just talk. I’m sure there are a lot of actresses who could make a great Jackie, but not for me. I couldn’t imagine the movie without her. I’d never met her, personally…

You just knew, from her prior work alone, that she was your Jackie?
Yes. I never met her before. I met her in Paris, when I just said, “Come and do this movie. And I will propose to the writer to wipe away all the scenes where you are not in it. So it’ll be you the whole movie.”

I think most biopics are so obsessed with the image. You’ll be in a meeting, and the production designer — Jean Rabasse with Jackie and Estefania Larrain in the case of Neruda — will show up with a thousand pictures of the person. Then makeup artists will show up to say we’ll do this and that. And the same with costume design. Then, all of a sudden, he or she looks just like the person. It feels to me that a lot of biopics do that, and they focus so much on it, and then you get to the set, and you’re like, “Where’s the movie?”

Natalie resembles the real person. But I’m not that into the way they look. I mean, of course we worked on it — c’mon, there are a lot of professionals, and they did an amazing job. But it’s not where my heart is. I look for someone who can create the illusion of that person. I’m not a journalist or a historian.

Jackie and Neruda are both interested in legacies and tradition and the way words and images shape history. Yet here, you’re focused less on people who are influenced by leaders and more on the leaders themselves. Was that an intentional shift?
What happens is, there’s a political context in both movies — and, I guess, in all the movies I’ve made. Those circumstances will affect the character in a way that they think they can control. What I’m looking for is to try to find a way to look at the things they don’t control, and they think they do. That will create an uncontrollable effect on the character that will bring them into a situation that is absolutely volatile. That volatility is where I think you can connect to other things that are more abstract — like human desire, poetry, fascination, love, friction, danger, death.

Both Jackie and Neruda are unconventional biopics — if you even dare to call them “biopics.”
Yeah, I don’t do it. [Laughs]

Watch the Neruda trailer:

Was there resistance to taking such unconventional approaches to major historical figures — especially since you’re titling the films Neruda and Jackie?
Not really, no. I guess at this point in my life, when somebody invites me to make a movie, I assume they know what kind of filmmaker I am. So I don’t think anybody was expecting the classical biopic. And especially in Neruda, which went so far! It’s a movie about the Nerudian world — his cosmos. It’s not about him. It’s like going to his house and playing with his toys. That’s what we did. It’s a very cubist movie.

That’s why Picasso is the hidden key of the film. He’s there, helping Neruda and whatever. But the reality is that was my entire approach. That if you look at it close, like Guernica, you will see multiple ideas. And then if you go far, it will be almost like a patchwork out of different ideas that will create one single thing that’s very hard to describe.

Yes, it’s a hard movie to describe.
[Laughs] It’s so hard to talk about it!

And the more you talk about it, the more the complications arise. Whereas Jackie is an easier one to discuss.
Yeah. It’s a little bit clearer, that’s true.

One of the things I loved about Neruda was its focus on his poetry and how it had this enormous impact on others’ lives.
Yes, it’s so dangerous to mix poetry and cinema.

It struck me that his poetry and the written word were the key to the film. And in Jackie, too, — whether she’s showing off items in the White House or manipulating a journalist’s article, there’s something similar going on, about how words and images define personal and national histories.
It’s about people who have control of their own image. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but someone told me — and it’s probably true — that Jackie Kennedy was the most photographed woman of the 20th century. And Neruda, when he got the Nobel award in the ’70s, he read a speech, and in it, he specifically referred to these two years in the ’40s [covered by the film]. At the end of the speech, he says about these years that he doesn’t know if he wrote it, lived it, or dreamed it. And that was the key of Neruda.

In both cases, they were trying to shape their public image. And Neruda used this persecution not only to write one of his biggest books, but also to create and shape his own legend, in order to become the giant he was, in order to protect his people. You could say it was something he did for himself, but then just like a mirror, it was a reflection for the people and the political project that he was protecting.

Jackie, meanwhile, was someone who, by trying to protect JFK’s legacy, made him a legend. And in turn, she became an icon without knowing it. That’s why at the end [Editor’s note: Spoiler alert], she’s in the car, and I put the scene in when she sees the mannequins of herself.

That’s a phenomenal shot.
I saw it on Google, man. You can Google “Jackie Kennedy Mannequin,” and there’s a guy right here in New York, off-loading Jackie Kennedy mannequins from a truck. I couldn’t believe it. I went to our production people and said, “We need to make these mannequins,” and they were like, “They’re very expensive.” I was calling my brother, who produced it, and saying, “How do we get this made?” He found a way, and we had 14 mannequins. I wanted 60, and he told me, “Forget it.” It’s, like, the reflection of Camelot on her. She made JFK a legend, and she became a mannequin.

It’s amazing to see someone trying to control an image and then it just going somewhere else that they can’t control. That gap is where I try to focus my eyes. Because that is what I think cinema does. What I try to do is just fabricate an accident. You put a lot of things together, and then they just go into an unknown direction.