She’s grown up before our eyes, that Natalie Portman. A stone-cold 12-year-old in The Professional (1994). Making hay with Pacino in Heat (1995). Playing underage over-smart in Beautiful Girls (1996). Star Wars. Harvard. Garden State (2004). Closer (2004). A Golden Globe. A degree in psychology. V for Vendetta (2005), which afforded her the opportunity to be, for a fleeting moment, the hottest girl at Comic-Con, and inspired a band to call themselves Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head. Now, she’s directing (she helmed a segment of the new anthology film New York, I Love You), and producing (the family drama Hesher), and venturing into both comedy (David Gordon Green’s Your Highness), and Norse mythology (she just signed on to play the female lead in Thor).
Yet, for all we’ve witnessed, watching her blossom into adulthood, go off to college, fall in love with Darth Vader, and come back a strong, self-assured young woman, what do we really know about Natalie Portman? That she was born in Israel? That she’s a vegetarian? We know that when Portman was 11 years old, a scout from Revlon approached her at a local pizza joint on Long Island and asked if she would be interested in pursuing a career in modeling. (Portman declined.) We know that she’s one of the most famous people to have an Erdös-Bacon number, an academic-entertainment industry designation bestowed upon the rare few who’ve published papers in the field of mathematics and are connected to Kevin Bacon by less than six degrees. (Portman’s number is five.) We know that she devotes a considerable amount of time to various social and political causes, including FINCA, an organization that promotes microcredit lending in developing countries. (We’ll let her explain how that shakes down.) We also know that she has campaigned for several Democratic political candidates. (People in red states might have actually hung up on her in the days leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, when she logged hours at the phone banks for the Obama campaign.)
But all of that is just information—valuable information, but information nonetheless. What we’re after is substance, some kind of material truth. There’s a common grumbling that we know too much about celebrities today, that the flow of data and images and the strange cult of online personality in the early 21st century has manifested a damaging transparency in the famous-people business—that celebrities aren’t what they used to be, that they wear flip-flops and buy groceries and post strange messages on the Internet, that they’re just like us, and who wants that? But maybe the real problem is that we think we know more about celebrities today than people did in less media-saturated eras, when in actuality we really don’t know much about them at all. How else can one explain the fact that Natalie Portman, now 28, famous for more than half of her life, easy to spot and accessible to know, remains a veritable enigma to us? We’ve been able to fly to the moon for nearly 40 years (see this month’s Society page), but one of the best-known actresses in the world, we can’t seem to crack in any real way.
To that end, we asked Jake Gyllenhaal, Portman’s co-star this fall in the Jim Sheridan war drama Brothers (and a veritable riddle himself—he supports the ACLU and likes to run, but what else?), to find out something about her that we don’t already know, to secure for us a portrait of her that touches upon certain intangibles. After much deliberation, Gyllenhaal decided that he was up to the task. The two actors spoke recently in Los Angeles.
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: I thought I would start off our interview with a little section that I’d like to call The Icebreaker. Are you sitting down?
NATALIE PORTMAN: No. Why? Should I be?
GYLLENHAAL: No, but, you see, I have some questions that I think might lead us to talking about some important issues and get at who you are as both an actress and as a person.
PORTMAN: Oh, okay.
GYLLENHAAL: So let’s begin. Mount Rushmore honors four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. If you could add any person to Mount Rushmore, who would it be and why?
PORTMAN: This is an amazing question. Gosh . . . I have to think about that one. [laughs] Let me stew on it for a little while . . . I’m trying to think of someone who has amazing enough features, but it also needs to be the face of a person who is a meaningful human being. Obviously, when you think of Mount Rushmore, you think of Lincoln.
GYLLENHAAL: Lincoln’s face was just extraordinary. I think that part of the reason we make that association is because he was one of first presidents to be photographed. His face was just so impressive. As he went through the Civil War, it just got more and more worn—he wore his stress and his obligations on his face. But to think of someone whose face can be shown next to Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt, and Jefferson . . . That’s hard. I don’t know why I started off with that question.
PORTMAN: Do you have an answer to that one?
GYLLENHAAL: No, I don’t. I was just thinking that because you do so much wonderful work in the world, you must have met so many amazing people . . . There are more questions to come. This is just the Icebreaker section—although we might have just broken the ice. Okay, growing up, what were some of your favorite toys to play with?
PORTMAN: Oh, that’s really good. I was like a total clichéd ’80s child. I had Barbies, obviously, as well as My Little Ponies and Cabbage Patch Kids, but I used to destroy them. I used to draw all over their faces and cut off their hair.
GYLLENHAAL: Do you remember Garbage Pail Kids?
PORTMAN: Oh, yeah. The cards.
GYLLENHAAL: They had names like Raked Jake and stuff like that.
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. He was like a Cabbage Patch Kid who’d been raked over.
PORTMAN: [laughs] I remember as a kid being really scared of the Smurfs.
GYLLENHAAL: The Smurfs?
PORTMAN: Because that bad guy, Gargamel, was so terrifying. I was scared of a lot of cartoons. I’m kind of wussy like that.
GYLLENHAAL: That’s interesting because you seem so fearless.
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. Looking at all these things that you’ve done and contributed to the world so far, I would have thought that the evil wizard Gargamel would’ve been something you could have very easily stepped over.
PORTMAN: Thank you for saying that, but I’m far from fearless. I’m afraid of everything. But maybe when you’re afraid of everything, it sort of seems like you’re scared of nothing.
GYLLENHAAL: Well, there’s no courage without fear, so you must have great courage because you’re afraid of everything.
PORTMAN: That sounds like something from a Batman movie: “There is no courage without fear . . . ”
GYLLENHAAL: [laughs] Yeah, but I do think that’s true.
PORTMAN: No, definitely . . . Well, I don’t know that it’s true about me, like, “I mean, totally! I’m totally fearless!” [laughs]
GYLLENHAAL: So, then, let me ask you this: If you could get into a time machine, to what place and period would you travel?
PORTMAN: Well, right now, I’m very fascinated with 1920s Berlin. I mean, probably the more interesting thing would be to go to the beginning of civilization or precivilization—like polytheistic times. It would be interesting to see what came before modern religion and culture—what circumstances created the environment or the need for it. I actually felt like I was in a time machine last week when I went with Jay-Z to the Laserium in Los Angeles (click here to learn more about the Laserium). Have you been there?
GYLLENHAAL: Is that the laser show that was at the Griffith Observatory?
PORTMAN: There’s a new one now at Hollywood and Vine. I think it’s the one that was at the observatory and it moved down there. But, dude, watching this display is like you’re in the ’70s. There were all these lasers, and out of the lasers, this man emerged with a noose. The lights were just going up and down, and side to side . . . It was like a Zeppelin show. You could just see how these lasers were once the peak of technology and why everyone was so stoked about them.
GYLLENHAAL: I hope you were sober. Were you sober?
PORTMAN: I was so sober, but I’ve been really tired lately, and that feeling kind of resembled being out of sorts—for me, at least.
GYLLENHAAL: I went to the Smithsonian just the other week—probably around the same time as you were at the Laserium. I saw this show that Liam Neeson narrated about black holes. I think they had it at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City first, and now it’s at the Smithsonian. But it was also one of those things where you felt like you were being transported back to the ’70s. We watched it in this dome, so it kind of felt like a black hole. It would have been weird if we were having these parallel hallucinatory experiences at the same time.
PORTMAN: Those kinds of shows really do take you back to a more innocent time when that stuff was superimpressive . . . Well, not even a more innocent time but maybe a more drugged-out time.
GYLLENHAAL: Okay. What’s your favorite food?
PORTMAN: Well, I don’t think you can really improve upon Carvel ice cream cake.
GYLLENHAAL: I’m more Baskin-Robbins style myself.
PORTMAN: Oh really? I am so Carvel. Did I just bring us back to 1985 Long Island?
GYLLENHAAL: Who would you rather have dinner with, Barack Obama or Nicolas Sarkozy?
PORTMAN: Uh, Obama.
GYLLENHAAL: I read recently in this book about Barack Obama called Renegade that he and Michelle first kissed at a Baskin-Robbins.
PORTMAN: Maybe I should switch over from Carvel then. That might be enough to convince me.
GYLLENHAAL: What song best describes your current state?
PORTMAN: My current state . . . I’m trying to think of a song that feels like sleepwalking. [laughs] I don’t know. I’ve mostly been listening to dirty rap lately. That’s sort of my scene.
GYLLENHAAL: Your affection for dirty rap is something that people really don’t know about you, which I think is fascinating. You do incredible things for the world, and then you listen to just completely obscene hip-hop music.
PORTMAN: Really, really obscene hip-hop. I love it so much. It makes me laugh and then it makes me want to dance. Those are like my two favorite things, so combined . . . I’ve been listening a lot lately to “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by the Ying Yang Twins, where the lyrics are like, “Wait ’til you see my dick”—which is just amazing because it’s whispered. [whispers] “Wait ’til you see my dick . . . ” [laughs] Crazy. So I just listen to it like I’m a five-year-old, like, “Oh my god! I can’t believe he just said that!”
GYLLENHAAL: It’s interesting that you think the lyric “Wait ’til you see my dick” describes your current state. I think people are learning more about you right now then they ever have in an interview. I’m proud of that.
PORTMAN: [laughs] Well, you’re really good at getting out the dark secrets. But actually, as far as the more general state of things right now, I think it’s kind of an exciting time. I mean, everyone is cutting back. It’s happening in every industry—including our own. But I think that’s going to translate into a situation where people aren’t motivated by money as much as they have been in the recent past. A lot of my friends from college went into fields like banking for financial reasons—obviously people have school loans and things to pay off.
And now, all of a sudden, they’re doing jobs that they hate and they’re not making as much money as they thought they would or they’ve lost their jobs entirely. So I’ve started to see people looking more toward their own passions and what really excites them. Obviously it’s much easier to say that you’re going to follow your passions when you’re financially secure, but at least we can take solace in the fact that we now have the time to pursue the things that we really want to pursue because now the option of doing things just for the money isn’t necessarily there.
GYLLENHAAL: If you were out on the job market and had to put your skills down on a résumé, what would you write?
PORTMAN: As far as skills go . . . I don’t have that many skills.
GYLLENHAAL: Oh, come on!
PORTMAN: I’m serious. I really wish I could make something. I mean, you’re a really good cook, you know how to build things—you can make things with your hands. I can’t make anything . . . Well, I can make chitchat, but not much else. I mean, I’d basically have trouble with any job that doesn’t require me to wear silly clothes and talk in funny voices.
GYLLENHAAL: And so you’re an actor.
PORTMAN: And so I’m an actor.
GYLLENHAAL: There’s very good money in that—not a lot of skill required, but very good money.
PORTMAN: [both laugh] I agree. Lucky. I mean, I can ride a bike, but I feel like most people can do that.
GYLLENHAAL: You could be a bike messenger . . .
PORTMAN: I could totally be a bike messenger.
GYLLENHAAL: That would be a badass thing. I would see a movie about you as a bike messenger in an instant—it would be like Quicksilver , that Kevin Bacon movie.
PORTMAN: Oh yeah. A chick bike messenger.
GYLLENHAAL: If you did that, I would see that movie.
PORTMAN: I can’t really see that so much . . . But we’ll take that pitch out next week.
GYLLENHAAL: I’m interested in this because you’re a traveler: What are your cures for jet lag?
PORTMAN: Cures for jet lag? I don’t have any. Why? Are you having bad jet lag these days?
GYLLENHAAL: No. But I’ve been finding that it’s a tendency for most magazines to ask celebrities about their cures for jet lag. I’m fascinated by it. I heard there’s this new drug coming out that’s like melatonin. It’s natural, but it’s been modified more specifically for sleeping.
PORTMAN: I get freaked out by pills. Everyone I know is always like, “I’m just going to take a Valium or an Ambien on the plane.” But I can’t do any of that stuff—it scares me.
GYLLENHAAL: My favorite situation that I was ever in was when I was on a plane with a group of people and all of them took Ambien except for me, and two of them had adverse reactions. They were awake and aggressive . . . Apparently aggression is one of the side effects of Ambien.
PORTMAN: And they were completely unaware, right—like they didn’t remember it after?
GYLLENHAAL: No, I think they remember it. Everyone else was dead asleep, and these two people were like, bashing their heads against the side of the plane, trying to jump out. So I was like, If taking this pill means that there’s even a 30 percent chance of me getting aggressive like that, then I would just rather stay at peace.
PORTMAN: You’re a very peaceful man, Jake.
This is an excerpt of the September cover story. To read the full Natalie Portman interview pick up a copy of Interview.