Natalie Portman is Finally an Adult
NEW YORK - It's a year of firsts for Natalie Portman.
After 20 years as a vegetarian, she has become a vegan. She has moved cross-country, leaving her longtime home base of Manhattan for Los Angeles. And on screen, she's embracing her first full-fledged adult role, as a mother of two coming to terms with the presumed death of her Marine husband - and an increasing attraction to his troubled sibling - in the drama Brothers, in theaters Friday.
Portman, 28, is all grown up. Well, almost, she hedges with a husky chuckle.
"I'm trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film - especially being such a small person. I'm a really late bloomer. In my own life, it's only been the last couple of years where I'm like, I'm an adult. I'm not totally an adult but . . ." she trails off, smiling.
Portman seems to effortlessly balance the whimsy of youth with a focused, mature manner. And that's why director Jim Sheridan cast her as a young mom in his remake of the 2004 Danish drama.
"I could see (Natalie) transitioning from a child star into an adult. There's a mature quality to Natalie, even though she might have played the young girl way back when. It's a difficult job, but once she has two kids and you see her married, you're forced to accept her," Sheridan says. "There's something very mature about her outlook, isn't there? She was never Lindsay Lohan or anything. She was always wise beyond her years. She's tough as nails."
So is Portman's Grace, a seemingly delicate but inwardly steely military wife in Brothers who learns that her husband is dead, only to find out that he's not, and deals with the emotionally scarred man who returns home from battle. Sheridan cast Portman after being struck by the fortitude behind her dainty exterior. And he liked the idea of seeing Portman step into adult territory as a mother protecting her children.
Before shooting, Portman met with Army wives to understand how they managed their lives. Unlike the "masters of the house" she met, Portman says, she herself is "a mush. I'm not very tough at all. It takes a lot to be home with your kids and be strong for your husband."
Portman, who was born in Israel - where military service is compulsory for men and women - can relate to what Grace goes through as the spouse of a soldier. "Look, if I'd stayed in Israel, I would have probably ended up in the military myself. I'm very obedient, very disciplined. I probably could have done it in that way. But otherwise, I'm kind of scared of all of that world."
Motherhood, on the other hand, is second nature to Portman. She clicked with Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, who play her daughters in the film. Having been a child while shooting The Professional in 1994, she knows how daunting a movie set can be for kids. So she had her movie daughters over for baking parties and hung out with them at work.
"I get very maternal very easily because my mom is so warm and cozy. Both of my parents are, but my mom is a stay-at-home mom and very nurturing," she says.
Four more films on the way
Someday, maybe soon, Portman would like to have her own kids.
"I'd like to really slow down when I have a family. I'm trying to get everything in because 'OK, it's time to settle down soon.' I could see myself just not working for a while as opposed to having another job," says Portman, who won't reveal with whom she might settle down.
For now, Portman is working non-stop. She has completed the James Franco fantasy comedy Your Highness and the family drama Hesher, and she is filming Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller Black Swan, in which she stars as one of two rival ballet dancers opposite Mila Kunis. Portman, who earned a supporting-actress Oscar nomination for playing a stripper in 2004's Closer, is unapologetically ambitious and has her own production company, Handsome charlie Films. And Portman is nothing if not analytical, especially about her own career. In Hesher, Portman plays a supermarket employee who saves a young boy from a bully and becomes involved with his family. She also produced the film.
Her co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt says a more simplistic actor "could have made fun of that character and gone for the simplistic comedy. She approached this person who might typically be open to ridicule and showed her as a human being. She's super thoughtful about her work."
It's the very reason Don Roos cast Portman as a young stepmother grieving the loss of her own child in 2010's Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. "She's got a likable presence, and the character we had written has a lot of sharp edges. Really, this role was so difficult. She's in every single scene, and she plays a very aggressive character," he says. "But you'd never know it from talking to her. She's a very old-school actress who knows what she's doing and knows her job."
Intellectual with a sense of humor
Portman, once you break the ice with her, is warmly sweet in person, greeting people with hugs and remembering banal details from past encounters. She's casual in jeans, a T-shirt and a North Face parka. Portman doesn't wear leather, so her accessories include Converse sneakers or wellies and cloth bags. The Harvard graduate, who earned a psychology degree in 2003, has kept her wilder side firmly to herself - save one memorable rap performance with Andy Samberg on Saturday Night Live in 2006. But Portman isn't as serious and proper as one might think.
"Her humor comes out of her head. She's very smart and funny and can make you laugh, but she's not going to be the girl all the guys are drunk with," Sheridan says. "She's not the guffaw type. Her humor is more cerebral."
Perhaps the best words to describe her are "methodical" and "focused." And smart. She converses fluidly about views on abortion vs. adoption, the Eric Bogosian play Talk Radio, how consumer demand can affect produce selection at Walmart, and support for combat veterans in Israel. But there's also her lighter side, which Roos got to know. In particular, "her willingness to have a good time. She's a smart girl but loves to laugh at herself. Her sense of humor is urban and witty and earthy. She's a real appreciator of human foibles. She's very intellectual in her personal life."
Right now, that life is based in Los Angeles, where Portman relocated this year and bought a house in May. She made the move to have more privacy and live where she works. And though Portman is still renting a place in downtown Manhattan, for now, her heart belongs to California.
"It's great. The sun. Nature. And more privacy. Here (in New York), there's no private outdoor space. Here, you walk into a coffee shop and someone tweets that you're there. There, at least you can be in your backyard or your friends' backyard."
And maybe soon, she'll find time to play there a little.