New Again: Natalie Portman

Actor Natalie Portman first graced the pages of Interview at a mere 13 years of age. The year was 1995, and her filmic debut in Luc Besson’s dark thriller Léon: The Professional (1994) was stirring critics and audiences with its depiction of a 12-year-old girl named Mathilda (portrayed by Portman), who begins a questionable relationship with a hitman after the murder of her family.

Now, over two decades later—with many a lauded film to her name—Portman has taken on another role that’s sure to be polarizing: beloved First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She is the focus of Jackie, a new biopic directed by Pablo Larrain, which will premiere at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival after it begins next week. With a historical character like this—one who is so sharply defined in America’s collective memory—there’s always the question of representing the subject visually and vocally, but the more important issue is altogether slippery: capturing her “essence.” While we await the film’s stateside arrival at Toronto International Film Festival in September, we’ve reprinted Portman’s aforementioned feature from Interview‘s February 1995 issue below.

Natalie: A Star/Friend is Born
By Ingrid Sischy

At thirteen, this professional has just blown away the screen in a kind of friendship movie we’ve never seen before. But then, when it comes to friendships, Natalie Portman already sounds like an old pro.

INGRID SISCHY: Where were you born, Natalie?

NATALIE PORTMAN: I was born in Israel, in Jerusalem. And when I was three, we moved to Washington. When I was seven, we moved to Connecticut, and then, when I was nine, we moved to New York where we’ve lived ever since.

SISCHY: What do you think all that moving did in terms of making friends?

PORTMAN: It made me more able to adjust to new people and to make new friends easily. It’s a lot easier to make friends when you’re younger, because kids are a lot less judgmental than adults. They’re more like, “O.K., let’s be friends.” Not, “So, what’s your job?” [laughs] “What’s your marriage status?”

SISCHY: Do you have any friendships with people from a different generation than yours?

PORTMAN: I don’t personally have them, no. Although I do have a friendship with my parents.

SISCHY: Talk about that.

PORTMAN: The best part about being friends with your parents is that no matter what you do, they have to keep loving you. [laughs] And no matter what they do to me, I have to keep loving them, too. I’m with my friends more than I’m with my parents, but I know more about my parents than I know about my friends. That’s something you get out of living with a person. You really know a person when you sleep so near to them, or when you eat with them. And sometimes just watching a person doing the things they would only do at home lets you know who they really are.

SISCHY: Like what?

PORTMAN: Like picking their nose [laughs]. That’s when you know someone is really comfortable around you.

SISCHY: What about the rest of your family? Do you have any brothers and sisters?

PORTMAN: No, I’m an only child. Which is kind of bad, because having a brother or sister is like another form of friendship. That’s something I’ve missed out on, except I know that I couldn’t be doing what I am doing now if I had brothers and sisters. Because my mom devotes so much of her time toward me. She’s an artist, and my father is a doctor. I’ve been brought up in what you might call a pretty conventional family.

SISCHY: Or what a lot of people would call “normal.” But the funny thing is, there really is no such thing as a “normal life,” is there?

PORTMAN: Well, if there is, nobody’s told me about it yet. I mean, even my life’s not normal because I’m acting, right? [laughs]

SISCHY: Let’s talk about your acting, and also about people’s perceptions of you as an actress. Because your first movie, The Professional, got a lot of people talking. To those who understand how great the movie is, you’ve become a major young actress. And to some of those who don’t, I imagine you’ve become something of a target for the fake moralists.

PORTMAN: Right. I hate when people do that. Who are they to say? Who are they to judge me or my parents? Their kids are probably also going around judging people like that, when in real life I’m not the one who’s playing with guns or smoking. But a lot of those kinds of judgments come from what’s in people’s own minds. They’re the ones who have the problems. Like one critic who wrote a really mean article about how my parents should watch out that I don’t turn into Linda Blair. The article said something about how my “budding breasts were provocatively pointing out from a white t-shirt.” I sat there reading that article wondering, what movie did this guy see? [laughs]

SISCHY: In fact, what you showed up there was a fully dressed person who’s at a certain stage in terms of physical changes.

PORTMAN: Right. And as my friend’s mom said, “She can’t control what’s going on under there.” [laughs] But sometimes people’s reactions tell more about themselves. There was a lot in this movie that wasn’t pretty. But it is just a movie. It’s pretend.

SISCHY: You’re right. It is just a movie, and in fact what made it so strong for me is that it captures a sense of things that a lot of people are experiencing right now in real life. The sense of all the violence everywhere and the abuse and the neglect and all the anger. And, of course, all the loneliness. I think the loneliness of both the little girl you played and the man in that movie was the bridge that connected them.

PORTMAN: Exactly.

SISCHY: And that’s why, to me, The Professional is an amazing friendship movie. It is not a sexual movie, but rather a piece about soul mates whose bond transcends age, nationality, sex, and experience.

PORTMAN: It’s also about two people who by themselves are so unhappy, but when they’re together they’re very, very happy just because they have each other’s companionship. They’re taking care of each other. They’re nurturing each other. Because love can be platonic, right?

SISCHY: I think so. Tell me about your real-life friends.

PORTMAN: I have lots of friends from all over, because we’ve moved a lot and I’ve gone to a lot of different schools and different camps. But basically I have, like, five really close friends—girls and guys. I like being friends with both because you can do different things with both. Sometimes you just feel like playing football. [laughs] That’s why we have guy-and-girl relationships. See, the good thing about the girls’ part is that they can be sensitive and they can express their feelings toward each other. Guys have guy/girl relationships so that they can have their own guy thing plus the sensitive thing with the girl. Girls have girl/guy relationships because we are expected to be so emotional and sensitive and stuff, and sometimes you just don’t feel like being that way.

SISCHY: Aren’t you talking about cultural expectations versus the nature of who people really are? There’s that terrible pressure at your age to act like a boy or act like a girl in ways that other people think is right. But guys should be able to talk about sensitive stuff with each other. Just like girls should be able to play football with other girls.

PORTMAN: Well, I think you have to be a very open person with a very open mind to be able to do that.

SISCHY: That leads to my next question. What do you think fame does to friendships?

PORTMAN: True friendships? Nothing. My really good friends couldn’t care less that I was in a movie and people recognize me.  But some people, I’ve found out, aren’t my real friends. Which is kind of scary. But I’m glad I have that thing to look at. Because I know that if it was the other way around, I would be attracted to somebody because they were in a movie. But I wouldn’t hang around a person just because they were in a movie. If they’re really like a bitch—excuse my French—I wouldn’t be friends with them, you know? And you can tell when someone likes you just because you’re in a movie, because all they talk about is the movie, and all they talk about is the movie business.

SISCHY: [laughs] What about when a friendship breaks up? What do you think you should do if a friend, or someone that you thought was your friend, really lets you down?

PORTMAN: Sometimes it’s better to forgive and forget. And sometimes, on the other hand, it’s better to leave the friendship. Obviously, in a friendship there are always things, good and bad, that go on between people. You can’t take away what’s already happened. And if it’s something that’s really terrible, I think you have to forget about the friendship.

SISCHY:  What if you’re really close to the person?

PORTMAN: Then you try to forget about what they’ve done and forgive them. But some relationships aren’t true relationships. And it’s usually when the other person does something really terrible that you realize it. And that’s when it’s time to move on. But no one can live without friendship, because what would you do all day without friends? Everything you think of that keeps you occupied is a friend. Like, if you read, your book is kind of your friend, because it’s like the book is telling you its story and you’re being the listener. And if you’re listening to music, then the music is your friend; or if you’re with a person, then that person can be your friend because you’re communicating. Friendship is anything that you get something out of that is very, very important to you. And that’s why there are those people who are so close to you that you don’t know how you’d live without them. And they are the ones that, even if they do something terrible, you have to keep. Otherwise, you’re just going to be lost without them.