“Real, grounded, a down to earth kind of woman.” Add the words brainy, svelte and enchanting to Natalie Portman’s description of Jane Foster, comic adap Thor’s bright spark, and you’ve got yourself a pretty accurate portrait the 28-year-old performer herself.
Meeting Total Film during the San Diego cyclone that is Comic-Con 2010, where she’s promoting said hammer-hoofer, Portman is ever-so-slightly timid and, yes, breath-catchingly beautiful. Not that you’d know from Thor. “It was a rare opportunity to be the girl in one of these movies who’s a woman and who has a career,” articulates the elfin one. “I remember after the hair and make-up test, before we started shooting, they said, ‘No, no, no it’s too much make-up, tone it down.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, they’re not just trying to hot me up!’”
Though, really, it doesn’t take much. Attired today in a perfect marriage of smart and casual, pairing (very short) flesh-coloured shorts with a breezy pale-pink blouse, she’s effortlessly dazzling. Small wonder that the gossip rags report Portman had both Demi Moore and Angelina Jolie flustered when their respective partners co-starred with her in up-and-comers Friends With Benefits and Artifacts. (Brad Pitt declaring Portman “cute as a button” can’t have helped.)
Perhaps they suspect what we already know: intellect is incredibly sexy. And Portman has grey matter in spades. A Harvard psych grad with her own Erdős–Bacon number (think six degrees of Kevin Bacon for nerds), the Jerusalem-born actress is the spiritual love child of Albert Einstein and Audrey Hepburn. Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis surmises: “Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven.”
Clearly Portman’s in demand, with countless projects clamouring for her attention. A spot of spring-cleaning, then… The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake? “Nope. I really like the books, but I’ve not been approached at all. Any of that is pure rumour.” Directing? “I directed two shorts a couple years ago, and I hope to be doing more. It was a really great experience.” How about raunchy clinches in racy ballet flick Black Swan? “It’s not raunchy – it’s extreme!”
Whew, we’ll get back to the latter in a bit. But yes, near everybody loves Natalie Portman, and it’s not hard to see why. Briefly contemplating every question we put to her, she springs back with considered, expressive responses (sample dialogue: “Jane is a well-loved character, but also one who is really open to finding new colours”). And the multi-lingual lovely has established herself as more than just a brain with boobs. She’s one of the few actresses whose appeal is unrestricted by genre, engaging equally with fanboys (V For Vendetta), ladies (Brothers), and bog standard movie-lovers (Garden State).
Which brings us to the genre-baffling Thor, a theatrical mash of comic book flamboyance and Shakespearean melodrama. Her second foray into the Technicolor whirlpool of comic movie adaptations, Portman credits her involvement entirely to one man: Kenneth Branagh.
“It was sort of actually not something I was dying to do,” she explains, “not Thor in particular, but a big movie. When I heard Ken was doing it, I said, ‘Wow that is a daring and interesting idea.’ Then I met Ken and he was someone I was extremely interested to get to spend three months with. It was probably the first, or one of the first times, that my expectations were actually exceeded.”
Anybody with a doctorate in subtext might read the name ‘George Lucas’ into that, though Portman is far too polite to elaborate. But it’s telling that, despite her Star Wars run-ins with the dreaded blue screen, it was Brit director Branagh’s pull that had Portman itching for a second pop.
“Working with blue screen and that whole universe is something that is a skill and something that you really need to learn and practice,” the actress muses. “If acting schools were created today, that would be a technique that you would learn. And getting to experience that with Ken’s guidance – who’s the master of attacking text and character from every angle – was a new way to approach blue screen acting. It was an exciting challenge to go at again.”
That challenge also extended to her character, a scientist exploring the theory of inter-dimensional space. Portman seems genuinely elated that the role, which could easily have suffered the saucy love interest kiss of death, didn’t involve “you know, the sort of sexy cleavage, glasses kind of thing”. In fact, she’d be happy to return should Thor merit sequels – just don’t expect to see her pitch up in hero mash-up The Avengers: “I’m not in The Avengers, but I am in the future Thor films if and when they happen.”
Before Thor, Portman’s pirouetting in Black Swan is guaranteed to spin heads. Opening this month at the Venice Film Festival, it’s directed by Darren Aronofksy and has been steaming away on the backburner since 2000. “The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot,” the actress says. “[My character] Nina is someone who’s trying to find her own artistic voice, and she has to lose everything to gain that vision and that sense of self. It’s very hard to describe.”
Not only has the thriller – about two competing ballet dancers performing in Swan Lake – bred buzz thanks to Portman’s lesbian love scene with co-snog Kunis, it’s also the first time she’ll be appearing in the buff. No biggy, though. “Previously I was figuring out my own sexual identity, likes and dislikes and all that stuff,” she says, shrugging off her former reservations, “and it’s weird to be doing stuff on film as you’re figuring it out. Also, being a sexual object when you’re a kid is really uncomfortable.”
Flesh of another sort will be flashed in the actress’ next project, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (“we just got a new script from David O. Russell; we’re hoping to make it this coming year, which is really exciting”), while Portman will also be mixing things up with a little medieval comedy (Your Highness) and a producing credit on Spencer Susser’s indie hit Hesher.
With that irresistible combination of glam and geeky, Portman is out to conquer the globe. But she’ll always have a place in her heart for comics. “I think they have such classic epic themes,” she says. “V For Vendetta was an amazing experience. Like Thor, I think you could make a small independent film with the same themes and it would be really interesting. This is just on a larger scale. It’s a total thrill.”
Via Total Film