Very early in director Michael Mann’s 1995 crime drama, Heat,before the film’s first seizure-like armed robbery, before those chilling hockey masks, before Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s dark duet, their cat-and-mouse hunt—before the famous diner scene, the stakeouts, Los Angeles’s fateful sprawl and hilltop hideaways—a girl, barely a teenager, is madly, fixedly searching for a pair of barrettes. They aren’t on the kitchen counter. She’s checked. Or under the sofa cushions, either. She refuses to wear the blue ones—they don’t match. “Mom!” she screams. “Where are my barrettes? . . . Mom! Pay attention! . . . Daddy’s gonna be here. I’m not gonna be ready! I can’t be late.” She begins to shake, choked panic forming in her throat. Her voice brittle, pained. Her brows taut like the arms of a clock. She needs the barrettes . . . Now. But not the blue ones—they don’t match.
This scene, starring a 14-year-old Natalie Portman, is emblematic of the actress’s spend-it-all precision. The way she can engineer point of view by altering her breathing, as if signaling emotional change with her sternum or neckbands. Playing Lauren, the daughter of divorced parents, eager to please her deadbeat dad, desperate for everything to be perfect, Portman, with her preternatural skill for wasting nothing, achieves an entire narrative in under a minute.
It’s the sort of performance we’ve come to anticipate from Portman. How the characters she’s portrayed deliver metamorphic feeling—in sometimes violent, open swings—through the controlled force of her small frame (Black Swan). Or how she administers mood with the slightest dip of her chin and a single tear (Closer). Or how she embodies spirited valor(Annihilation), or projects a regal wisdom (The Phantom Menace, The Other Boleyn Girl). Portman’s steely, light-brown-eyed stare is instantly absorbing and matched only by the explicit bevel of her cheekbones (V for Vendetta, Jackie) and the private quiver of her lips (again, Jackie). She’s confided to us the rare quirk of her hind teeth whenever she smiles (Garden State), and invalidated whatever impression of self-importance we might have gotten from all the rest (stoner comedy Your Highness; her viral S.N.L. digital shorts). Most recently, she’s delivered an intense, maximalist, and ultimately faltering confidence, launching herself into diatribe after diatribe, in her performance as a pop diva on the verge, in director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux. The supporting role officially begins Portman’s fourth campaign for an Oscar—she won best actress in 2011 for Black Swan.
It’s rare to witness an actress experience longevity before she’s even 40—to have matured in front of us, to have appeared more mature than all of us, this whole time. To have tackled grueling, heavyweight roles that, at first glance, seem defining and potentially hazardous in their pressures and expectations, but that Portman nails. Then, as if disappearing into some Portman-portal, she continues on with her everyday—a life we’ve come to understand as simply “private.”
That is of course until last year.
There’s the Natalie who grew up on-screen, and the Natalie who grew up alongside the screen, unaware of the sick cruelties, abuse, blacklisting, and discrimination that her older female co-stars were experiencing. Today Portman is not only deliberating on her career but actively trying to change the industry she grew up in, working dedicatedly with both the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements.
And yet Portman says her early career was “safe” relative to so many of her co-stars. “I was able somehow not to have an experience like that, so it’s definitely a weird, privileged place to hold,” she says. “Learning what so many women have been through and were going through right next to me. Ashley Judd [Portman’s co-star in both Where the Heart Is and Heat], Mira Sorvino, Uma Thurman; these were women that I admired so much and felt lucky to work with. They were super-kind to me and super-supportive, amazing role models. It was completely shocking to know that they were going through that.”
While Portman had “heard the rumors about Harvey throughout the years, and took them as truth,” consequently keeping her distance, she didn’t know specifically “who it had happened to.” She learned to whom and to what degree “when everyone else did. . . . We’re in a culture where it is regular for men to behave badly and for women to be hurt,” she says, adding that men can be victims, too. “But it is a complete shift because all of us were like, ‘Oh, God, he’s a bad dude,’ and now it’s ‘No, this is abusive behavior—not just a bad dude.’ ”
Portman’s work with Time’s Up has brought her to the molten core of a world she’d come to experience as otherwise isolating. “I’ve been working for 25 years—I’ve never had friendships in my industry until now,” she tells me. “You’re usually the [only] girl in the movie. It’s made us come together. We’re actively gathering. Just the power of us getting to know other women in our own industry and sharing information that can help us be safer, more productive, more successful.” She seems genuinely galvanized from these rotating dinners or meetings that she calls “affinity groups,” with no more than 10 or so of her female peers, where stories and anecdotes are traded to all-too-knowing nods.
Portman’s work with Time’s Up has brought her to the molten core of a world she’d come to view as isolating.
Brie Larson echoes that sentiment about a new “sisterhood.” “Natalie reached out and I thought, Why don’t I know the other women in my industry? Within days we were sitting in circles talking,” Larson says. “We learned that our personal experiences were not so personal. We had all gone through similar things, and through that shared experience we could identify tangible things we could influence for positive change. I am forever grateful for Natalie—she has the most miraculous problem-solving brain. Paired with her gigantic, knowing heart, she is a force I am so grateful to collaborate with.”
In October, Portman took the stage at Variety’s Power of Women event, and advocated for gender parity across industries. She listed actionable steps, including “Gossip Well,” encouraging the room to “stop the rhetoric that a woman is crazy or difficult. If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him, ‘What bad thing did you do to her?’ ”
Though Portman is hesitant to presume the title of mentor with her younger co-stars, she is keen to learn from the next generation, and regards herself, though not entirely, as part of the Old Guard. “There’s a lot I feel I get from the way this upcoming generation is viewing the world, like identity definition and self-presentation to the world—all of that stuff is so different. But we’d like to give them the stuff that we have.”
Reese Witherspoon, Portman’s producer on the upcoming Pale Blue Dot,says, “Natalie is full of incredible ideas. She’ll text me and a couple of the other girls, ‘I have a crazy idea!’ And they’re always great. And then I’ll say, ‘Hold up, how are we going to pay for this?’ And somebody else is ‘How are we going to execute this?’ We all have our different proficiencies. It is sort of a SWAT team. She is our instigator. Our catalyst.”
She was born Neta-Lee Hershlag, in Jerusalem, in 1981. Her parents relocated to the United States in 1984 and Portman became a dual citizen. “We moved a lot when I was a kid,” she tells me, shuffling in her chair to tuck one leg under the other. When a topic picks up and animates her, she props her elbows on the table and rests her hands over her mouth, talking fluently and forcefully, unwittingly getting her chalky-pink lipstick, left over from the day’s shoot at a Silver Lake mansion, all over her fingers. Portman dips her crudités in muhammara with pink fingers. She rips cornmeal focaccia with pink fingers. She almost accidentally throws her knife with pink fingers, gesticulating while talking about the commodification of news—“Does anyone care about anything? It’s just constant, you know? Acts of violence are put in the same breath as a pop star’s breakup! Who cares about anything anymore? Our president literally had an affair with a porn star and no one cares.”
Portman has not shied away from expressing her political opinions, which have made headlines, especially when it comes to her country of birth. She describes her relationship to Israel as “very complicated, like family—you love it more than anything else in the world and you also are more critical of it than anything else in the world.” Last spring, there was an uproar when she declined to accept the 2018 Genesis Prize in person. “I’d like to clarify I have no issue traveling to the country. They may have issues with it now, but I don’t,” she says. “I was choosing not to attend an event where I was supposed to be onstage with Prime Minister Netanyahu, sitting next to him, which felt like an endorsement. So there is a distinction.”
Reflecting on her earlier career, Portman says, “I was very lucky that what I was cast in wasn’t anything deliberate—serious adult fare and not child-appropriate things. But I feel like I totally ended up in female tropes, like Lolita. And clearly I was part of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl coining. I find it very upsetting to be part of that.”
Portman met her husband, French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, on the set of Black Swan. She was soon pregnant and they married, moving to Paris in 2014 for a two-year stint, where Millepied was the director of dance at the Paris Opera. In 2016, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Vox Lux, which Brady Corbet describes as half impressionistic and half expressionistic, tells the story of Celeste (played in the first half by 15-year-old Raffey Cassidy), the survivor of a harrowing school shooting whose fame is the result of a song she wrote in the hospital with her sister (Stacy Martin) while recovering from bullet wounds to her spine. Portman enters halfway through the film as adult Celeste. Her performance is outsize, in double-time. Heavily Staten Island-accented, spinning wildly like a broken-compass needle. Portman creates chaos with her battery of tics: smacking her gum, sipping wine through a straw, communicating sorrow from behind her big shades, stomping, not heel but hip first. Portman barrels from scene to scene, speaking in platitudes and paranoid invectives, bullying and picking fights with whoever will listen: her daughter, her manager (played by Jude Law), her sister, concert handlers, a journalist during a hotel roundtable. Portman also quietly spars with a journalist, played by Billy Crudup, throughout Jackie. In both films, the women are wise to the interminable ways they will be misunderstood, which Portman gets. “I just did an interview for a women’s issue [of a magazine]. The female interviewer was like, ‘So, have you ever had a Me Too story?’ I’ve had things like every person. And she’s like, ‘Do you want to name names? Do you want to tell us right now?’ On camera,” says Portman. “I was horrified.”
Law, who has worked with Portman on three other projects—My Blueberry Nights, Closer, and Cold Mountain—says Portman “elevated the whole piece because of who she is. We’ve met each other at different chapters in our lives, and when you get the opportunity to have pit stops and meet someone along that path, it’s really interesting. Over the years, you build a sense of trust and understanding.”