Some romances are written in the stars; others are written because of the stars, as is the case for Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm‘s otherworldly obsession in the upcoming Reese Witherspoon-produced movie Lucy in the Sky.
Inspired by real-life astronaut Lisa Nowak’s mental unraveling after she manned the space shuttle Discovery’s STS-121 mission in July 2006, Legion creator Noah Hawley crafted a sci-fi-tinged psychological journey into the damaging effects of one astronaut’s life-altering voyage that triggered a violent episode of near-fatal attraction. The film follows Portman as Lucy Cola, a star-gazing space-traveler who, after returning to earth from a lengthy mission beyond the atmosphere, has a steamy affair with her mysterious coworker, Mark (Hamm), who thrusts her world into a state of philosophical chaos. Still, as Lucy’s grip on reality loosens, her feelings for Mark intensify, leading to the film’s increasingly trippy exploration of a cosmic alignment of two disparate hearts (that ultimately leads to an epic conclusion too bonkers to spoil here).
Also starring Dan Stevens, Ellen Burstyn, Zazie Beetz, Colman Domingo, Tig Notaro, and Nick Offerman, Lucy in the Sky rockets into theaters on Oct. 4. Ahead of the film’s release, which follows its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, read on for EW’s full conversation with Portman and Hamm, in which they discuss their characters’ zany chemistry and Witherspoon’s impact as a producer.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Natalie, I think this is your first trip back to space since Star Wars, right? How did it feel going back to space?
NATALIE PORTMAN: That’s correct, I believe! [Laughs] Jon was a great copilot. Actually, he’s the pilot and [Lucy] was his specialist. It was really fun. It was definitely getting to act out a childhood dream of being an astronaut.
What was your research like with actual astronauts?
JON HAMM: I met with a Canadian astronaut who stayed on the international space station for over a year. Living in space, sort of as a neighbor to earth for that long was a real trip, he said. I found that interesting about the script. The point of the movie is [exploring] that connection these people have because of this shared experience that only 10 or 15 people in the world have. There’s just nothing else that prepares you for it. In a sense, the research for the role is impossible, because very few people can be off-world in a real way. It’s a real trip, and that’s what we were trying to say with the film: What is the feeling that Lucy goes through and how do you come back from that?
You guys build that insane chemistry so well. Why was that particular relationship dynamic so appealing to you?
PORTMAN: It’s so unusual to get to see a woman have an existential crisis…. to see a woman say something that we don’t often talk about. I watched documentaries on astronauts, and there was one who said that when he was in space, he could get to an angle where he could put his thumb out and it would cover the earth completely. Having that perspective and then coming back, what that does to you, and having no one to be able to talk to about it, it seems like the only antidote could be some overwhelming passion to make you feel that something does matter, that it’s not just everything you’ve ever seen can’t be covered up by your thumb in front of you.
It’s an interesting psychological concept, but one thing that grounded the movie in contemporary terms: As the kids say, Jon’s character, Mark, can be best described as a f—kboy, right?
HAMM: Yes and no. Mark’s one of the only people that can ground Lucy in cosmic reality. For Lucy, it’s more about “Who do I talk to?” The part that turns sexual is about her connecting to him on another level, because they’re the only people who [understand each other].
PORTMAN: They’re almost the same person, but he’s just 10 steps ahead of her. In him, you see where she might end up. He’s going for his second term. He’s further down the road of her existential crisis, with a little nihilism. It’s a warning signal, but she’s drawn to it.
HAMM: We’ve all had people in our lives or relationships where we’ve been like, this is probably a bad choice, but, for right now, it’s probably the best feeling. You certainly have those moments where we’ve all been like, I know what I’m doing is probably not smart, but it will be fun.
Did you do any sort of bonding activities to build chemistry for this?
HAMM: Natalie and I together hosted Saturday Night Live.
PORTMAN: [Laughs] We had dinner a few times. We kind of knew each other. We’re neighbors! We see each other in the neighborhood!
HAMM: I always run into Natalie with her kids, her mom and dad.
PORTMAN: My mom thinks Jon is someone I went to school with because she recognizes him…. She’s like, “You guys went to high school, right?” Like, really? No, mom, he’s a really famous actor — a really good actor. ‘
Noah also had me watch The Right Stuff as a reference for the hazing vibe at the astronaut training level, which I thought was really helpful because you see how the guys operate together, but, then, imagining how a woman might pop into that was helpful, although it’s funny because it comes off differently. The stuff that comes off playfully between The Right Stuff’s guys comes off almost as bullying with the girls. It’s different when you change gender.
I was also the worst bowler ever, of all time.
So, the scene where you guys are bowling and Lucy’s messing up, that’s real?
HAMM: Natalie’s an adult in a child’s body. The ball weighs more than her.
PORTMAN: I’m a gutter-only bowler. It wasn’t written like that! It was written that Lucy does well no matter what, but that wasn’t possible!
HAMM: That said, I guarantee, for the real Natalie Portman, give her a week and I bet she’d be a really f—ing good bowler
PORTMAN: That’s really nice, but I have no tangible skills. Nothing I’ve ever tried to cultivate has really come to fruition, so, we can talk about that later.
So your chemistry was already good, but did you guys have any contact with the people who inspired this story?
HAMM: Not on my part. We’re telling a different story. It’s about [Lucy] processing being systemically disregarded. Why is she passed over? The answer is: because she’s not like a bro, and it’s a real “F— you.” Why do we have different expectations for women? We’re all human, and if we can do the same job, we should get the same opportunities and be paid the same. Who gives a s— how long your hair is or what junk’s between your legs?
PORTMAN: It’s not a depiction of them, it’s inspired by the idea that someone as high-functioning and as successful as one of the very few people that’s chosen to go to space, the few dozen ever of all time, that they could have such a dramatic breakdown, and what would inspire that existential crisis you face when you come back after seeing the earth looking so small when you’re away. I read about the [real] story, but it’s not about those particular people.
What were Reese Witherspoon’s contributions like as a producer?
PORTMAN: Reese is an amazing person and an amazingly involved producer. She wasn’t on set because she was filming her show at the same time, but our script was the product of her input, ideas, and notes when she was developing it, and also in the post process, she was involved in watching and talking about it with us and Noah. She’s so sharp, smart, and generous. She’s been like a real sister and role model just for that, being able to do everything and be kind and generous while creating work for hundreds of other people.
Do you remember any conversations you had with her on how she wanted you to play Lucy?
PORTMAN: She was generous in not trying to control it and respecting my own process… She has such an amazing eye for finding stories about women that feel like people we know or feel like, even when it’s things that we can’t imagine ourselves doing, in places we can imagine ourselves getting to in an extreme state, and to find women that feel more like us than fantasies of how other people want us to be for them.
HAMM: Reese, like Natalie, has been working and successful since she was a kid, so when you work with people like that who have been around the industry for so long, they have such perspective on stuff. It’s confidence! When I talked to Reese about the project and working on set with Natalie, there’s a sense of working with professionals — no pun intended. [Portman laughs].
I’m glad you guys had the experience, I just wish Reese had better bowling tips for Natalie.
PORTMAN: [Laughs] Maybe I’ll get her to teach me!
HAMM: Reese is a s—y bowler!
PORTMAN: I bet she’s really good! She’s good at all the things!
We can save this for Lucy in the Sky 2.
PORTMAN: Yes. We’ll have a bowl-off!