When we first meet, Natalie Portman is feeling under the weather. She has been in bed most of the day, though she went to her nine o'clock lecture and to a meeting of the committee she's on, to discuss which bands will come here next. Here being Harvard, where Portman, 20, is majoring in psychology. Right now, though, she is pushing the committee to choose OutKast, while a student poll favors Dave Matthews.
At college, Portman finds that for the most part she is allowed to fit in quietly; that people are "sort of just unimpressed" that she is the actress chosen by Star Wars czar George Lucas to play queen-turned-senator Padmé Amidala, future wife of Anakin Skywalker, in a trilogy of prequels to the most successful movie series of all time. Portman was sort of unimpressed, too, when Lucas considered her for the role. "I was like, 'Star what?'" says this child of parents who emigrated to America from Jerusalem when she was a child. (Portman isn't her real name; she borrowed it from her grandmother to protect her father, a fertility specialist, whose name is distinctive.) Her first Star Wars experience, 1999's Phantom Menace, left her acting with special effects and feeling lost. She warms more to the just-opened Attack of the Clones, in which the love story between Padmé and Anakin, played by Hayden Christensen, let her become, as she has put it, Revealing-Outfit Girl. "There's a lot of bare midriff and shoulders this time."
On our way to attend an evening reading by novelists Salman Rushdie and Jamaica Kincaid and poet John Ashbery, Portman chats about student life on campus. "My peers here are pretty frickin' accomplished," she says. "It's just a different kind of accomplishment I've had that they don't necessarily see as above what they've done. But you also have a lot of ambitious people who do want to rub shoulders — you've got to be wary of that."
During the readings, Portman listens keenly and, when laughter is earned, responds with the loudest laugh in the room. Her hair is plaited evenly on both sides of her face, a quiet tribute. "My style icon now is Willie Nelson," she says. "You're lucky I didn't rock the bandanna, too." Afterward, we head for her favorite tearoom off campus.
Portman says she's used to getting A's; she can graduate this semester, though she's thinking about coming back next spring to do more work. "But," she says, "I think the really smart people don't get A's. They realize it doesn't matter whether they hand in their paper on time. Whereas all my papers are on time. I don't challenge the guidelines much."
Natalie Portman was born on her mother Shelley's birthday — June 9th. More oddly — a fact that her father, Avner, stumbled onto recently — the most probable date of her conception was her father's birthday. "This," their daughter informed them, "is the grossest piece of information I've ever learned." (Though, as she teased them, she figures that she knows what her father got for his birthday.)
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