Natalie Portman: from Star Wars to star of the show

The Israeli-born actress is back in the limelight with a new film that she wrote and directed in Hebrew. It marks the start of a period of creative outpouring

The Israeli writer Amos Oz, in his prize-winning memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, tells how a young girl, Fania, burns with such moral fervour that she cries out against the allure of a pretty painting of a shepherdess that hangs in her home. She sees it as a lie, Oz writes, because she knows that real shepherdesses are dressed in rags and scarred by cold and hunger and because she feels “that to ignore suffering is almost as bad as inflicting it”. The fiery Fania was Oz’s mother and now her part is to be played on screen by Natalie Portman, one Hollywood star who may just match the intensity of such a fearless spirit.

At the Cannes film festival, both Portman’s spirit and her creative talent will be celebrated when her screen adaptation of the Oz memoir receives its world premiereon 18 May. The event will also mark a bold turn in Portman’s career; the actress, who won an Oscar in 2011 for her leading role in Black Swan, has not only written and directed the new film, but has also insisted on making it in Hebrew. Her producer Ram Bergman explained: “She said, ‘It’s got to be a love letter in Hebrew.’” When he pointed out how much harder it would make things, she told him she did not care. So far, the film has no distribution deal in the US.

Portman, 33, bought the rights to the Oz memoir eight years ago. Since then, she has spent much of her free time developing her $4m version. The story, which centres on Oz’s troubled relationship with his mother and with his coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, clearly has a firm grip on her imagination, yet it may not be a slavish translation to the cinema screen. The author, Portman says, has given her permission to create a fresh interpretation: “He said: ‘The book exists. Don’t make a film of the book, go make your own piece.’”

As a teenager in 1999, Portman found fame in the role of the courageous Queen Padme in the Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, and she seems to have been happy to fight battles ever since. In 2009 she adopted a vegan lifestyle and she now refuses to wear feathers, leather and fur. Last week she told the American entertainment press that she opposed Binyamin Netanyahu’s regime in Israel. “I’m very much against Netanyahu. Against. I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was re-elected. I find his racist comments horrific,” she said. However, in the US there was probably more fuss about her revelation that she is not now sure where her Oscar is. “I think it’s in the safe or something. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it in a while,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. She went on to suggest that, like the golden statues in the story of Abraham, Oscars are worshipped as “false idols”.

Israeli-born Portman grew up on Long Island in sheltered comfort, knowing nothing, she has said, about poverty. In 1994 she acted in Luc Besson’s thriller Léon: The Professional, a hard-nut story about a hitman who becomes tutor to a vengeful 12-year-old orphan. Praised for its style by some critics, and popular with audiences, it was criticised elsewhere for its exploitative use of a vulnerable child character. Roles in Heat, Beautiful Girls and Woody Allen’s musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You followed swiftly.

After Star Wars, Portman took a break from acting in 1999 to study psychology at Harvard. She appears to have returned to these academic instincts when she faced the job of producing a screenplay: “My process from school is to sort of handwrite my structure … and revise it and everything, and then once I have that, then to start actually writing it at the computer.”

Kenneth Branagh, Portman’s director in the 2011 spectacular Thor, also remembers a “formidable and occasionally forbidding kind of concentration”, although he tries not to suggest she is humourless, adding: “She certainly has a ticklish sense of humour.”

Other films include the 2004 film of Patrick Marber’s Closer and the 2008 Tudor drama, The Other Boleyn Girl.

Portman’s careful path through the vainglory of Hollywood invites comparisons with an earlier child star, Jodie Foster: after appearing as children in popular hits as well as in violent adult films (while Portman made Léon, Foster had Taxi Driver), both went back to education, before identifying themselves with serious causes and becoming directors.

Natalie Portman in Léon.
Natalie Portman in Léon. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

This route is not unusual these days. Top-flight film actors all have a political platform at their disposal and, where once only a few stars each generation made the transition to Republican politics – from Shirley Temple through Ronald Reagan to Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger – now a fleet of A-listers is out there espousing liberal or humanitarian views, from Emma Watson and George Clooney to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The public arguments may not always be watertight, but the stances are often deeply felt and potentially risky. When Scarlett Johansson agreed to promote Sodastream, an Israeli company with a controversial factory on the West Bank, she was criticised for also holding a position as an Oxfam ambassador. Similarly, as a face of the fashion and beauty house Dior, Portman faced difficulties when designer John Galliano was caught making antisemitic rants in 2011. Forgiveness, Portman argues, is the best approach when someone admits they made a terrible mistake. Besides, Dior was funding education projects for young girls in Kenya that were important to her.

In November, Portman turned her back on Los Angeles to set up home in Paris with her three-year-old son Aleph and his father, her husband Benjamin Millepied, the 37-year-old French ballet dancer and choreographer. The couple met on the set of Black Swan. Asked whether she was nervous, as a Jew, about living in Paris after the recent attacks, Portman replied that after an early childhood in Israel she considered herself hardened to the idea of danger.

Fans of the outspoken and graceful Portman can watch her speaking English in two other forthcoming releases. She appears alongside Christian Bale in Terrence Malick’s mysterious Knight of Cups, which premiered at Berlin earlier this year to fairly bemused audiences. Portman is also to star in Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun. This film, out late in the summer, also proved a tricky introduction to producing because its first director, the Scot Lynne Ramsay, walked off the set at an early stage. “I can only imagine something very difficult was going on for her, and it was devastating,” Portman has said.

Acting, rather than directing, seems to be top priority at the moment, although Portman’s company, Handsomecharlie Films, has a crusading documentary, Eating Animals, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, coming out this year.

Recent interest in Hollywood has focused on a dark new project that appears to have caught Portman in its web. Alex Garland, the British writer-turned-director who made Ex Machina, is thought to have cast her in Annihilation, the first of a futuristic trilogy based on the books of novelist Jeff VanderMeer. The story is believed to revolve around a doomed scientific expedition into an abandoned location known as Area X.

There is no sign yet of a light-hearted Judd Apatow caper on her schedule, but there is, unexpectedly, another musical: next year Portman will star alongside Michael Fassbender in Weightless. This is another Malick film, and so is unlikely to be either mainstream or full of feelgood numbers. Portman herself has recently indicated that her determinedly sober attitude to life as an adult star was inspired by something horrible and nameless that happened to a close friend in Israel in 2003, while she was in her senior year at Harvard. It convinced her, she said, that she had an obligation to do some good if she could.


Salma Hayek

The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

When her animated film of this 1923 bestseller premiered at Cannes last year, Hayek told the press it reminded her of her Lebanese grandfather: “It was like my grandfather was talking to me about life and teaching me through this book.” She spent four years developing the project.

Scarlett Johansson

Summer Crossing, Truman Capote

An adaptation of one of Capote’s first novels is the actress’s directorial debut. Shooting in New York City later this year, Johansson has said: “Bringing this story to the screen as my full-length directorial debut is a life dream and deep privilege.”

Reese Witherspoon

Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll

After successful screen versions of Gone Girl and Wild, Witherspoon’s company has settled on Knoll’s latest novel, about a New Yorker with a dark secret.

Lupita Nyong’o

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Oscar-winning Kenyan actress will work with producer Brad Pitt for an adaptation of this award-winning 2013 novel. Nyong’o will also star.

Anne Hathaway

The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan

The actress is producing an adaptation of this 2012 novel about a young widow on trial for murder in 1914. Hathaway is also to star.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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