Natalie Portman: Not just a pretty face

Having graduated from Harvard, the former child star Natalie Portman is revealing a grown-up talent, says Leslie Felperin
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The Independent Culture

It's peculiar how low a profile Natalie Portman has, given that she's starred in two of the most successful films of the last 10 years. An army of science-fiction geeks around the world know her for playing Queen Padme Naberrie Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and its successor, Attack of the Clones. (The third and final episode,The Revenge of the Sith, comes out next year.) But name-drop the 23-year-old actress at a dinner party, as I did recently, and you're likely to be met with blank stares.

"She was the disturbingly sexy 12-year-old girl in Luc Besson's Léon, aka The Professional, when she started out," I suggest to my bemused-looking fellow diners, none of them film buffs. A few recognise her then. "And she was the pretty young mother in Cold Mountain who tries to cop off with Jude Law." That does the trick for the rest, which is odd considering that last film didn't set the world's box offices aflame.

It's not so surprising many viewers don't automatically remember her in the Star Wars movies considering she spends most of her time in those films caked under layers of weird make-up, and sporting increasingly ridiculous wigs. But get ready to see a lot more of her because now that she's finished getting a degree in psychology from Harvard, Portman has been busy, not just finishing off Revenge of the Sith, but also making two proper grown-up films where she plays more recognisably human characters.

First up will be Zach Braff's sleeper-hit indie movie Garden State, in which Portman plays a kooky epileptic with whom the main character (played by Braff) falls in love. She reveals a surprising aptitude for comedy in the film, but in the upcoming Closer, she reveals a whole lot more - real dramatic range, yes, but also plenty of flesh playing waitress-cum-stripper Alice, in this US-set adaptation of the hit West End play by Patrick Marber, due out in January.

Given that she's been in the film business now for more than 10 years, Portman handles interviews like a pro - polished, articulate and media savvy - but her body language is all little-girl-lost. I meet her in a London hotel room, where she's wearing trendy jeans and stripy T-shirt. Her tiny frame sits folded in an easy chair, as if trying to make as small a target as possible. Has she consciously chosen films to help her break away from her Star Wars role, I ask? The reply is so bland it sounds like something out of the press kit. "I don't treat my choices in movies that consciously, or in terms of the whole picture," she says. "A role has to be something that interests me at the moment, that I can be obsessed with and passionate about, and believe in fully."

Trying to get more specific, I ask what in particular about Garden State attracted her. "I really liked the script and the character," she says. "It was unlike anything I'd ever read. I mean, I read the same script over and over again, it sometimes feels. And this was so different from all of that. It didn't fit into a genre. Hollywood feels safe, and there's often the tendency to take something that was successful and make another version of it. And that's how these categories have been created - the romantic comedies, the thriller. But this didn't fit into any category. The character wasn't the usual love-interest character, she had her own strangeness, and a host of problems. I just found that really unusual, and then I met Zach Braff, and he was confident and funny, and knew exactly what he wanted to do with the movie. He could answer my questions, and was really open to input."

Portman expands on how important it is to her to have a "team-mate" relationship with her directors. "A director doesn't just tell me what to do, and I do it," she insists. "I bring my ideas, research, knowledge and opinions to the table. I listen to them, but I feel that we are team-mates. They have the final decision on the issues, but it is a conversation."

When how much bigger a departure it was playing a pole dancer in Closer is brought up, Portman backs so far into her chair I fear she's about to leap out of it like a startled cat and run from the room. Ever the trouper, she soldiers on and tries to laugh it off. "People keep describing her as a pole dancer!" she says with a trace of irritation. "I mean, in the movie there are about two scenes where my character is a stripper or pole dancer, and there's then, like, five scenes where she's a waitress. It's funny that people keep defining her as that."

But then she lets down her guard a bit and relaxes. "I want to try and do all different things, and when I was younger I wanted to stay away from doing overtly sexual roles, because I didn't want my public image to interfere with my personal development. After Léon, it was such an experience, I realised that people could take it and make it their own thing. All of a sudden I was reading reviews that were talking about the development of my breasts under my T-shirt, and that was so upsetting to me as a 12-year-old to read about. You know, men writing me about me in that way," she says, remembering a painful period in her life. Indeed, her look is uncomfortably arousing in Léon, with her lipstick and lacy Madonna-style gloves, and precocious air of abused-child sorrow. Not since Brooke Shields in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby has a child actress been so erotically filmed by a French director.

As if to get as far away as possible from Léon, Portman chose more wholesome roles, playing Al Pacino's daughter in Heat, a sunny-natured Midwestern single mother in the forgettable Where the Heart Is, another small-town love object in Beautiful Girls and an ingénue in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.

What's changed now that she feels at ease with a more erotically charged part, like that in Closer? "Now, it's not like they're not going to write about me in that way, but I feel like I'm stronger in my own personal development and won't be influenced by it," she explains. "I didn't want to become either hypersexual or prudish because I was reacting to something that was out there. I think I have a good concept of myself now, and that does change still, but it changes more according what's happening inside me as opposed to what other people think." It helped that the director was Mike Nichols, who directed her in a stage production of Chekhov's The Seagull in New York, and whom Portman looks on as "a second father". She explains that: "I trust him completely, and he's more protective of me than I am myself. So I felt comfortable doing anything to explore stuff knowing that he would make it work in the end."

She sticks closely to the party line on the Star Wars films, gushing that, "It was an amazing experience to work with great actors like Ian McDiarmid, Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen - all of them are incredible people, and I really enjoyed working with them. And similarly with George [Lucas]. He's really been an innovative force of the technology of film, I mean he's like constantly thinking a generation ahead - what tools he needed to make the next steps in film."

Portman, like everyone else on the film, has been forbidden from talking about any of Revenge of the Sith's plot details. All she'll say is: "It's probably been the most challenging acting experience of my career, because you have more than just the imagination of what your character is going through - you also have to imagine your setting, often other actors, you're often working with a taped mark instead of an actor, or a blue screen instead of a set."

As we move on to the subject of her childhood and her life outside the film industry, Portman surprisingly becomes more relaxed. She was born Natalie Hershlag in Israel, to a doctor father and an artist mother, but moved to the US when she was three. She doesn't remember Israel at all. "I was too young," she says. "I have, like, vague memories of my first years in the States. My real memories - real clear memories - probably start about nine or 10. I studied it a lot at school. And I realise because I moved around a lot, I don't have friends from when I was really little; and I don't have siblings." She was supposedly "spotted" by a casting agent in a New York pizza parlour which is how she got the role in Léon. After the film's problematic reception, she stuck close to her family, and even employed her mother as her agent.

Going off to Harvard has been her first taste of independence. "I just wanted to become a person who always sought out new experiences and knowledge," she says. "I try to fulfil my curiosity, and keep it sustained. It's not only through education that you can seek out that understanding of the world, you can through meeting people and travel, and talking to people, reading. There's a million and one ways to expand yourself. At college, people were looking after us, but we had a lot more independence. I'd never walked down the street on my own until I went to college."

Presumably because of her petite size, her big brown eyes, and general air of vulnerability, Portman has most often been compared with Audrey Hepburn. But given the Jewish background and the child-star beginnings, a better comparison would be with another Natalie: Natalie Wood. Like Wood in her youth, Portman projects a wholesome image - she's an A-student, a vegetarian, and a political activist who worked hard on John Kerry's presidential campaign. However, one can't help suspecting she has wilder depths, especially since until recently she was dating the hellraising Gael Garcia Bernal, the young Mexican star of Bad Education and Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Portman insists she never had a rebellious phase, but laughingly concedes it might be coming up. "Yeah, I'll be 40, and I'll be like, 'I hate everyone!' and will pierce my nose," she jokes. The girl is so clenched and controlled, I only hope for her sake she does. Portman goes wild - now that will be fun to watch.

'Garden State' opens today. 'Closer' opens in January