There has been the occasional disturbance. A couple of years back, Portman was in St. Barts in the Caribbean. She had jumped off a sailboat with a girl-friend and swum to a deserted island, where they frolicked in the shallows, topless. Photos subsequently appeared in the seamier press. "The creepy thing was there was someone there, someone following us," she says. "I was just so angry — it just makes you feel dirty inside.... OK, everyone's seen boobs, but I just don't like being objectified. I don't go wagging my boobs around in people's faces. I was on a deserted beach." She shrugs. "Today's paper is used to pick up tomorrow's poop — right?"
But first, people read them. The consequences can be ugly. Her father told her that, in the photographs' aftermath, some of his colleagues, eyes raised appreciatively, would say to him, "Saw your daughter!..."
Though Portman grew up untouched by the lure of Star Wars, she has her equivalent: her movie obsession growing up.
"I mean, Patrick Swayze was sex for me," she says. "He is still my Number One. It's all about the jaw."
There were other fixations, such as New Kids on the Block. She liked Joey McIntyre best. "The one I had decided to worship," she says. Last year she got a call saying that McIntyre wanted to go out. "I was too chicken. I didn't want him to think I was going to, like, date him. That's sort of sketchy when celebrities just call and ask you out."
Portman would like to make plain that this clear-stated, sensible policy may be immediately jettisoned under certain circumstances.
"Hey, I mean, honestly, if it was Brad Pitt — which obviously is, like, a moot point, since he's, like, happily married to an amazing woman — if he called up, I'd be like, 'OK.' I'd ignore my boycott."
So if they're hot enough, the principle goes out the window?
"Of course! Don't all morals go out the window if they're hot enough?
Most of Portman's early roles, such as Timothy Hutton's jailbait fixation in her second starring role, Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls, found her playing kids who were preternaturally adult, not unlike herself. "Kids are the Shakespearean fools in Hollywood movies," she says. "They hold the keys to wisdom in their innocence, or are so creepily adult they make us reflect on how creepy adults are."
Were you aware of that at the time?
She scrunches up her face. "I thought I was pretty smart," she concedes. "Until I was about thirteen. And then the teasing that goes on in adolescence sort of shuts that up, and that's when you learn humility."
She had a bad time for a while. "I probably deserved it," she says, "but it wasn't pleasant even if I did deserve it. Kids can be pretty unkind. Things like, I remember I had a boyfriend, and I kissed him on the first date, and they would call me 'whore.'"
When Portman was thirteen, because she couldn't stand it anymore, she transferred to public school: "All of a sudden there are 500 kids, and even the kids that get picked on, they have their friends." (She figures that she "was probably part of the generic JAP-y group.")
After those first two movies, her career went quieter. (Asked which of her movies she's most proud of, she picks these first two, and only one since — the mother-daughter drama with Susan Sarandon, Anywhere But Here — though she says she's proudest of all of her stage performance in The Seagull last summer in New York.) Portman has only ever worked in the summer holidays (except when she played Anne Frank on Broadway, when she would go to school as usual during the day). She tended to find herself playing small parts in fairly prestigious movies: Michael Mann's Heat, Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! "I'm not going to say my greatest cinematic moment was as Taffy in Mars Attacks!" she says. "But I got to hang out with Tim Burton, and Jack Nicholson tried to teach me how to whistle." (He failed.)
Portman's commitment to the three Star Wars prequels allows her to maintain her ambivalence about acting while making sure that she has a healthy career after college if she wants it. "It was my way of trying not to fall into the trap," she says. "I've always found actor-y people to be really creepy." She laughs and stares me down. "You know exactly what I'm saying. The people who are, like, 'Yes! It's my life!' They seem really fake."
Do you think you grew up too fast?
"No. The problem with most child actors is that they think they're grown up. But they're not at all. And when they get to be older, they're not as grown up as their peers, because they just thought they were."
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