Natalie Portman: How studying psychology helped her in her latest role

She's petite and seemingly fragile, but appearances can be deceptive. Natalie Portman, at 24 years old, has been a professional actress for more than half her life. With 18 films to her name plus a degree in psychology, she's a formidably smart young woman.

Having performed promotional duties for all three films of the second Star Wars trilogy, she is media savvy, which is just as well given that her new film, V for Vendetta, has plunged her into murky political waters, where one man's freedom fighter may be perceived as another man's suicide bomber.

"I don't think there's a message about terrorism in the film. It creates a complicated story and I think it's all about what the audience brings to it," insists the Jerusalem-born actress who plays Evey, a young woman rescued from gang-rapists by V, whose disfigured face is concealed beneath a curiously creepy Guy Fawkes mask. Set against the futuristic landscape of a totalitarian Britain, the pair become unlikely allies in a battle against tyranny.

"Even though the film is set in this specific place and time, it is an imaginary futuristic place and time. And because of that you can make whatever connections you want to different things," says Portman. "Some people have seen this movie and are like: 'Oh, it's like Hitler's government, someone rising against that' and that sort of universal thing that we'd all agree with."

After three Star Wars outings, Portman was more than eager to tackle V for Vendetta - exchanging Queen Amidala's painstaking three-hour hair-and-make-up routine and clunky dialogue for a shaved head and an exhilarating sense of personal rebellion.

"I literally begged for this part. I flew out to San Francisco and read for the role. And thank God I got it," she says earnestly. "I just think its so rare to find a movie that's really entertaining and really fun on a big scale and on an impressive visual scale, that's also really so interesting and is going to give you something to think about afterwards. I've not seen a movie like this - that's this big and this interesting - in at least the past 20 years. Not since the Sixties and Seventies has there been some evidence of a big studio movie being compelling and visually exciting, entertaining, smart and interesting and something you could fight about afterwards. Big, big Hollywood movies have been disappointing until this. James McTeigue and the Wachowskis have made something incredible," she says, referring to V for Vendetta's notoriously elusive screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, who were also responsible for the $3bn-grossing Matrix franchise.

Illustrated by David Lloyd and written by Alan Moore, the graphic novel V for Vendetta was conceived in the 1980s amid an era of oppressive Thatcherism. The villain of the piece is John Hurt's Hitler-esque British chancellor, who could just as much be President Bush or Tony Blair. But press Portman to name the enemy, and she demurs: "I'd rather not say. Obviously I have my own version of who the obvious candidates are but it's amazing hearing peoples' different reactions as to who the targets are. I sat with someone yesterday who literally had a framed picture of Bush on the wall of his office here in Los Angeles and was saying how much he loved the movie and how he thought it was the greatest anti-fascism movie ever, whereas other people see it as a completely anti-Bush thing. It's funny because you interpret it according to your own beliefs.

"What was really amazing about making this film, and I think it speaks so much for the British Government, is that they allowed shooting at Whitehall," she says, adjusting her rigid body language as she relaxes into her stride, hauling both stiletto-sandalled feet onto the expensive pastel upholstery of a Beverly Hills Hotel sofa where she perches, cross-legged.

The daughter of the Israeli fertility specialist Avner Hershlag and the American artist Shelley Hershlag, Portman enjoyed a relatively normal upbringing, growing up in suburban Syosset, New York, and adopting her grandmother's maiden name to protect her family's identity.

But now, as one of a handful of Hollywood's openly political Jewish actors, she has no problem debating terrorism, having studied 'the anthropology of violence' in graduate school.

"Being Israeli has become a much bigger part of my identity in recent years because it's become an issue of survival," says the actress. "I am personally sort of a pacifist and I am against violence. My gut feeling is that hurting other people is wrong, whether or not it is state-sanctioned. It's all violence and I don't make distinctions. All violence is wrong in my mind. I don't like it but I also know that it's sort of the way the world is. My reason sort of goes against my idealism and my optimism about the potential of people to live without violence and obviously people saying, 'oh it's natural for people to be violent'. So obviously I understand why it exists, but personally that is my stand and it's very hard for me to agree with any sort of violence."

She recalled the sufferings of her grandparents during the Holocaust when she filmed V for Vendetta's concentration-camp-style torture scenes. "Fortunately my grandparents escaped, but their whole family perished in the Holocaust," she explains. "There were stories in the house of what had happened to them and it wasn't that much talked about. I had to go on a website to read my grandfather's descriptions of what happened to the family, but it is absolutely something I have lived with and have grown up with.

"I loved that this film is an abstract thing because, after the Holocaust, people said it would never happen again but now we have Rwanda and Bosnia. Maybe V for Vendetta can remind us to stand up against such despotism."

Portman was discovered in a New York pizza-parlour, aged 11, and made her film debut in 1994's Leon, opposite Jean Reno. "I had a bad experience when Leon first came out," recalls the actress. "In hindsight I'm really proud of that film though at the time it was unnerving to find myself being suddenly looked upon as a sexual object when I was still only 12."

Then, having featured in an eclectic array of films, from the mega-budget Star Wars to independent films like Free Zone and Garden State, she risked her career by taking time out to study. "I'm going to college," she said at the time. "I don't care if it ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star."

Today she has no regrets about her four years at Harvard followed by a further year's Hebrew and film studies in Jerusalem. "My parents have always stressed education over success, over money, over everything," she says, "and I think college was great in terms of how it has made me want my career to be as interesting as school. And with fascinating material like this, its all about finding the questions that don't have answers.

"I don't want to ever be working just for money because then you are no different than a prostitute," says Portman, who not only shaved off her hair for V for Vendetta but also voraciously researched her role despite the fact it is a work of fiction. "I read Antonia Fraser's book. It's a great background to the whole Guy Fawkes story - which is not even really the Guy Fawkes story, like there were several other people involved and Guy Fawkes was the first one caught, becoming the poster boy! I also looked at lots of other things like Menachem Begin's book, White Knights, plus Macbeth!

"But don't get me wrong," she grins, suddenly self-conscious that she's sounding like the school swot. "I don't want to have a super-snobby intellectual career. I have the most amazing friends in the world who are doing such interesting and different things, and are their own people, and are my complete base of support along with my parents. They are inspiring and always doing different, interesting things so I remember how to be a person by being around them.

"Like, you can play a person if you are a person in real life. Its hard to be like, 'I just pretend to be a human being on TV!' So the most important thing about college is that now I really have a life and I've got that forever," she says.

Portman recently completed work on Milos Forman's costume drama Goya's Ghosts with Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgard, and Paris, je t'aime with Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe and Marianne Faithfull.

"I use my psychology background all the time," she admits. "I could use it to mess with people but that would be a mean thing to do! Actually I don't think I know enough to really mess with people but there's always studies that I've read or something I've read in college that I'll remember when I'm reading a script about a certain disorder, like 'this person might be a little bipolar or associative', those kinds of things.

"I just finished Goya's Ghosts in Spain, and my character had this disorder and I was able to call up one of my professors and she just gave me a whole run-down on symptomology and videos and examples of what the person might behave like. Its a great resource to have, these great professors," says the actress.

Her idea of fun is spending months with a voice-coach, so that in V for Vendetta she sounds almost more British than her Phantom Menace friend and co-star Keira Knightley. "I had a great coach who worked with me every day for a month before the film began and then she was with me on set. For the first couple of months I spoke only in a British accent and my family and my friends were freaked out by it when I'd call!".

'V for Vendetta' opens today

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?