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.)
Memory is a prime interest of Portman the student. The experiment she has planned for her thesis next year concerns the theory that “your identity is how you construct your memories into your life story.” She credits her own late memory onset, from age four or five, to the fact she was brought up with two languages. She lived in Israel until she was four, when the family moved to Maryland, the first of several stops to accommodate her father’s medical career. What she remembers best about Maryland is the pink carpet and her dolls. She had a lot of dolls. “I remember them being very sexual,” she says. “I don’t really remember ever not having my dolls have sex with each other.”
So what would you have them do?
“It’s very odd,” she says, “because I don’t remember ever talking to my parents about sex … but I always knew about it. And all my dolls would get it on together. Even the Barbies would get it on with other Barbies, and the guys would get it on with each other.”
So, I clarify, there was a whole poly-sexual orgy in your toy room?
“Yes,” she says. “And my tub toys also had sex.” She says that she didn’t know how sex happened, so the dolls would just kind of get rubbed together. But she rebuffs my suggestion that she picked this up from her father’s job.
“I barely saw my dad when I was little,” she says, “because he was doing his residency.” (I ask what exactly he does as a fertility specialist. “He inseminates and does surgery, and he’s a reproductive endocrinologist,” his daughter says matter-of-factly.) “The smell of a hospital is like the smell of my dad to me.”
I involuntarily make a face.
“You’re like, ‘Natalie’s such a creepy person,'” she declares, both accusing and laughing.
Portman is an only child. “The only sibling I ever wanted,” she says, “was an older brother, so he could introduce me to cute boys. I would never have been an actress if I weren’t an only child, because my parents would never have let me be the star of the family at the expense of another child.” It made her feel like her parents were her friends: “All through my childhood, I went to their parties. I’ve known how to make believe that I’m an adult.”
When Portman was eight, she gave up meat out of “respect for life.” I point out to her that PETA has nominated her in its Internet poll of sexiest vegetarians (she has since won).
“No way,” she says. “I don’t know what being sexy and being… well, who am I up against?”
Jude Law … David Duchovny … Angela Bassett …
“Those all are pretty sexy people,” she says with a grin. “I don’t know how my chances are after those names.”
Do you date non-vegetarians?
“Yeah,” she answers. “It’s kind of unusual to find guys who are vegetarian. That makes Jude Law even sexier to me.”
He’s very married, though, I say.
“I know,” she says. “I should shut up. That’s not nice. But, I mean, I guess someone can still be sexy even if they’re married. I mean, I would never go after him at all….”
The story of how Portman was discovered and became an actress involves her being approached in a Long Island pizza restaurant by someone looking to cast a Revlon campaign. Portman didn’t want to model, but she used the opportunity to get an acting agent. Her film debut, in The Professional, didn’t come immediately; her first part was as an understudy in the off-Broadway musical Ruthless. The play had featured another young hopeful: Britney Spears.
Natalie and Britney were able to reminisce about this recently. Portman was invited to a Spears party, an invitation she forwarded to her guy friends as a joke. “They told me they would murder me if I didn’t go and take all of them, so I went with six boys,” she says; her Ivy League posse drove down, after classes, to New York and Britney. “It was basically the thrill of their lives.”
About six months after her play, she auditioned for The Professional, about a lonely hitman (Jean Reno) and a twelve-year-old girl. When the film was released, her parents came in for some stern, and inaccurate, criticism for “letting me do a Lolita film,” Portman says. As a result, her parents became very protective. “They never wanted me to have to walk down the street wondering if people can visualize me naked.”
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.”
We head for Portman’s small apartment, near campus. “Excuse my carpet,” she says, explaining that she bought it in Morocco last summer — her first trip on her own. Unlike all the other rugs she saw, with their dazzling woven symmetry, this one has random blotches of color that stirred her. Since there is no space to hang the rug on the wall, as she’d prefer, the rug is turned upside down on her floor, so that the backstage tufts of its creation head upward into the room; that’s how she likes it best.
For her first two years of college, Portman lived on campus, sharing a bedroom. “That’s pretty rough,” she says. “I really missed that time when I could just stay up late and read and play the kind of music that I want.”
Her current apartment is very modest. There are no signs that this is the home of a successful actress, except perhaps for the Björk backstage pass inelegantly stuck to her computer. There are pictures tacked on the walls, including a photograph of George W. Bush with a turkey. “I just thought that was a funny picture — when he was pardoning the turkey it was, like, going down on him,” she says, giggling. “He seems to be enjoying it or something.”
I ask her what recurring dreams she has had. She names one, but has no interest at all in ascribing any meaning to it. Freud and his followers, to her mind, are bunk. “The thinking now,” she says, “is that dreams are basically, like, the farts of the mind.”
It’s late; she should sleep. “You can meet me in a week,” she says, “and see I’m wearing the same outfit, haven’t recovered, smell a little funky….”
Through an open door, I can see the head of her bed, a couple of stuffed creatures slumped there. Portman was sure as a child that her stuffed dolls talked to one another. One is a frog — the one who is supposed to turn into a prince. It used to have a crown, she says. The crown is gone, but the frog remains.
Soon Portman must find her first home as a grown-up. She wants to get a place in New York, but she seems most excited about finding her own place in Jerusalem. “I really love the States,” she says, “but my heart’s in Jerusalem. That’s where I feel at home.”
Portman’s mother grew up in Cincinnati; her grandparents were from Russia and Austria. She met Portman’s father at Ohio State University — she was selling tickets for a movie at the Jewish student center, and though he bought a ticket, he never even made it inside. He went back to Israel, and they just corresponded. Two years later, she came out on her cousin’s bar mitzvah tour, and they decided to get married.
Avner’s parents moved to Israel in the late Thirties. His Polish grandfather had headed the Jewish youth movement in Poland. His grandmother was Romanian. “She spied for the British, traveling through Europe,” Portman says. “She was blond, so she could totally pass as a non-Jew. Men, they would always try and pick her up because she was a gorgeous young woman… I’ll show you.”
Portman pulls out a wallet, and from inside that an old photograph of two women: “This is a picture of her taken in Romania with her best friend. A couple of years younger than me…”
Her grandfather came to Israel, expecting to send for his family later. There was no later; history swept it away. His parents were taken to Auschwitz. This is the heritage within which Portman grew up.
Recent events in Israel have troubled Portman deeply. “Anytime anything happens to anyone there, it’s like a limb’s been ripped off,” she says. She adds, perhaps concerned that her entire political position should be assumed from this: “I’m very protective of Israel, obviously, but I’m more protective of humanity than of any of my own personal desires.”
Of her religion, Portman says, “I’m much more like the product of a doctor than I am a Jew.” She is uncomfortable about the concept of the afterlife. “I don’t believe in that. I believe this is it, and I believe it’s the best way to live.”
In New York the following week, Portman is wearing different clothes, the Willie Nelson braids are gone, there is no apparent funkiness of smell about her, and she is feeling better. I ask some questions:
When do you feel most calm?
“When I’m in love,” she says, and kind of giggles.
Have you ever wondered, growing up, whether you were gay?
“Sure. I’ve never dated a woman or anything like that. But, I mean, I think it’s much more the person that you fall in love with — and why would you close yourself off to fifty percent of the people? … [Returning to the subject later] I think my personality is more compatible with men than women. Women in environments like my school and my work are sort of trained to be competitive. I mean, I have some girlfriends who I love. I just… in school it’s much easier to be friends with guys.”
She talks a little more about Star Wars.
“The main people who are impressed are little kids,” she says, “basically, the only people I care about impressing.”
“Because it’s sweet, and it’s uncalculated admiration.”
But you can get that from kids by handing out candy.
“Exactly,” she says, “and the equivalence of the two is great. You get the same reaction by being Queen Amidala or by giving them a Snickers bar.”
Portman chats like this; confident perspectives and theories flying out as they can do when you’re twenty years old, just for the joy of it. Though at one point — perhaps it’s just the excuse she needs to carry on after an appropriate pause — she interrupts herself.
“Basically, everything I’m saying is completely wrong,” she announces. “But at least it’ll make someone else think they’re right.”
I don’t know whether it’s better to argue with her or say nothing.
“Make like a psychologist,” she suggests, “and shut-up.”