Natalie Portman on Terrence Malick's 'Wild and Free' Improvisatory Groove for 'Song to Song'

Nick Schager
·Writer
Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman in 'Song to Song'
Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman in ‘Song to Song’ (Broad Green)

Natalie Portman gave one of last year’s finest performances as grieving First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie — a one-woman tour-de-force that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. For her follow-up, she’s in the ensemble of Song to Song, a lyrical drama about love, regret, betrayal, and grace set in the Austin, Texas, music scene (and co-starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, and Cate Blanchett). It’s the 35-year-old actress’ second collaboration with legendary director Terrence Malick (the first being 2016’s Knight of Cups). As a former schoolteacher-turned-waitress who falls under the devilish spell of Fassbender’s music bigwig, Portman turns in a performance of both sultriness and vulnerability that’s perfectly in tune with the film’s sweeping, swirling poeticism. With Song to Song now in select theaters, she spoke with Yahoo Movies about her lifelong love of Malick’s films, the director’s “guerilla-style” filmmaking approach, and the way her unconventional collaborations with the director inform the rest of her work.

This is your second collaboration with Terrence Malick. Had you always wanted to work with him?
I had always wanted to work with Terry. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers. I actually asked to meet him when I was 20 or so, and it just took ten years for him to find a moment that I guess I could fit into his films [laughs]. So that was a pretty amazing opportunity.

You signed up for both Knight of Cups and Song to Song simultaneously — how did that come about?
The two projects were filmed back-to-back, and he basically told me right at the beginning that he was interested in having me do both films. There were a few of us who did both of them — Cate [Blanchett] also did, and Christian [Bale] did a part in this one but isn’t in this cut. Terry told us ahead of time that he wanted to do these back-to-back, and then he started telling me about the character for each of them, so I could prep. I didn’t shoot many days on either one, so it was not exactly back-to-back for me [laughs]. I had a couple of months in between.

Given what happened with Bale on Song to Song (and has happened with many other prior Malick actors), were you worried you might also be cut from one of these films?
It’s kind of comforting to me, because I’m always like, “Oh, if it’s really bad, he’ll just cut me out” [laughs]. It’s not like I’m so worried about it. I feel more free to try things that don’t work.

He’s also known for having an unconventional approach to filmmaking. What is that process like, on set?
It is very different. It’s great to take that sort of difference and bring it into other films. I feel it really affected how I worked on something like Jackie, where we actually did have a good deal of improvisation, and moving around with the camera, and also the camera improvising. Because on Terry’s films, everyone improvises — the camera, the actors, all at once. You become very aware and connected with each other, because you have to really be sort of dancing with each other all the time. And we’re shooting digital, so the takes can go very long. You have to invent, or try to be interesting, for a half an hour at a time, even though everything you’re searching for are these flashes, these moments, because that’s what he ends up using in the film. Although at the time, I don’t think we necessarily knew that.

It’s a very unusual process. Almost guerilla-style. You know, you hop in a van with seven people and go to a new location, change clothes in the van, and then you hop out, you improvise something, you hop in, you go to another location, and so on. It’s a very wild and free feeling.

When I spoke with Pablo Larrain last year about Jackie, we discussed the camera’s close proximity to you throughout that film — and that’s also true in Song to Song. Do you find it daunting to constantly be shot in close-up?
[Laughs] Well, you don’t always necessarily feel it. Hopefully you don’t — obviously, that’s not what you want to be focusing on. But I think you can kind of absorb the camera in a sort of way, and use it, communicate with it, because that’s how an audience experiences the film, through that lens. So you can kind of use the camera and the operator of the camera as part of your performance, and part of who you’re communicating with.

Does Malick give you background information about your character, or scenes, before shooting? Or is it more about giving you (and your castmates) an idea and then letting you explore it on camera?
He’s definitely asking you to contribute more than we usually experience on a film. And then he gives you a lot of references. He gave me a lot of films and books, and then he gives you — or at least, me [laughs], I don’t know how it is with anyone else — he gave me dialogue pages, or sometimes it was even long monologues that he would type out the night before shooting, or even on the same day. Then he’d say, “Find what speaks to you.” So you’d find one or two lines out of pages and pages that felt like something you would say, and you’d use that.

But then, you don’t always get what the other person has. In terms of dialogue, it’s not like you’re saying something and waiting for them to say something specific back. So yeah, it’s very improvisatory, but you also have a guideline of what your character is going to go through, and what their background is, what their story is, what their motivations might be.

Is it difficult to segue between more conventional projects and these Malick films, because the process is so different? Or is it a benefit, creatively, to be able to get away and do this more exploratory work?
I think it’s great. I think it gives you that energy when you go to other films. When I go do a film that’s shot in a more conventional way, or is more conventional with the script, you bring that energy with you: “Okay, let’s discover something interesting I can do in this moment. Or how can I sort of lead the camera in a way that it moves with me or I move with it. What can I add to this that isn’t just there.” Because I feel like, although you’re always supposed to do that, sometimes you forget when you’re just translating a script onto film. Sometimes you forget how much you should be adding to it.

Is that the biggest takeaway from these collaborations?
There are a lot. I think freedom from rules is a big part of it. That there are all these things that seem like the way you have to make a movie – and that’s not really the case. You can do anything. And also, that accidents are good. That there can be happy accidents. If it starts to rain, shoot in the rain, don’t cancel the day. It’s the general freedom and openness to chance, and trying to capture moments of beauty.

Considering the illustrious history of narration in Malick’s films, what was it like recording voiceover for Song to Song?
It’s actually the scariest thing to me, because the Linda Manz narration at the beginning of Days of Heaven is maybe the most beautiful film voiceover in the history of film for me. It just feels like poetry in such a true way, and it’s really, really hard to do. You want to bring that level of beauty. Also, obviously, it’s impossible to achieve what she [Manz] did there. So it’s a challenge.

‘Song to Song’: Watch a trailer:

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