Natalie Portman: The prodigy comes of age | Andrew Collins

The one-time child actress, star of the long-awaited Black Swan, reached Hollywood via a Harvard degree and promoting animal rights

The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 9 January 2011

We said film star Natalie Portman was "born an only child in Jerusalem in 1981 and christened Natalie Hershlag". Only Christians are christened. Natalie Portman was born to Jewish parents and was named at a Simchat Bat ceremony.

In 2006, Natalie Portman gave the lie to her image as the clean-living, multilingual, vegetarian movie star who'd put her career on hold to study for a degree, claiming: "When I was in Harvard, I smoked weed every day… I cheated every test and snorted all the yay." (Which, by the way, is slang for cocaine.)

Thankfully, or not, she was having us on. The lines come from a self-mocking, foul-mouthed gangsta rap she performed for the NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live. Even in its censored form (the video subsequently found its way on to YouTube uncensored), it hit its satiric mark, making a brisk bonfire of the assorted vanities presumed to define this most poised and proper Hollywood actress.

Perhaps an X-rated self-parody is the only sensible course of action for someone voted sexiest vegetarian of 2002 by pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) who cooed that Portman had been "a strict vegetarian since she was eight, after seeing a demonstration of laser surgery on a chicken at a medical conference with her father". Hey, haven't we all?

While in the process of putting child stardom behind her at the end of the 90s, she famously missed the New York premiere of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, in which she played the key role of Queen Amidala, in order to revise for her high-school finals.

Since then, Portman's career has been punctuated by surprises. The next arrives on the back of Black Swan, a gothic psychological thriller set in the world of ballet directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose credits include The Wrestler. In it, she plays Nina, a driven ballerina with a split personality locked in a struggle to find her inner black swan in order to play the dual lead in a New York production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

In the film, which totters alarmingly – but in a highly original fashion – between elegant melodrama and manipulative schlock, Portman has managed to hit the headlines again, with a graphic lesbian sex scene. It has certainly whipped up advance hype in the gossip outlets. (She was candid to Entertainment Weekly, saying: "How do you get guys to a ballet movie? How do you get girls to a thriller? The answer is a lesbian scene.")

Roger Ebert lauded Portman's performance in the Chicago Sun-Times as "nothing short of heroic". Though Portman gave up ballet lessons as a child, she trained hard for a year with the New York City Ballet's Mary Hahn Bowers to get in shape for Nina, eventually training for eight hours a day and losing 20 pounds in the process. (Weight, some might observe, she didn't really have to spare, even as a "sexy vegetarian".)

She twisted a rib while filming Black Swan, which she took six weeks to recover from, and incurred a serious concussion, but she does the majority of her own dancing. All this hard work might just earn Portman her second Oscar nomination, a belated follow-up to the 2005 nod for her part in Mike Nichols's smart-talking relationships pile-up of a film Closer, in which she turned heads with some expert pole dancing. (Asked if this role marked the turning point between child star and adult actress, she dismissed it as "an arbitrary distinction".)

The buzz around Portman and Black Swan is palpable. She, co-star Mila Kunis and Aronofsky are nominated for Golden Globes, as is the film. It could be the making of her, after almost 20 years in cinema. Off screen, too, there are major shifts – she has just announced she is pregnant and engaged to marry choreographer Benjamin Millepied whom she met on Black Swan.

Quite how she avoided multiple award nomination for her instant breakthrough debut in Luc Besson's hitman drama Léon remains a mystery.Playing a 12-year-old girl adopted and trained by Jean Reno's professional assassin, she exhibits none of the child actor's precociousness but carries herself as a miniature adult, not quite sexualised, but more than a Paper Moon-style poppet.

Perhaps it was the Lolita question that put voting academies off. Portman looked back on the role in an interview with Elle, admitting she got "a lot of weird letters", and describing the experience as "really upsetting", although at the time, according to Besson, she was more worried about her character, Mathilda, smoking onscreen. "She was already responsible," he said, while her parents were more concerned about their 12-year-old daughter shooting guns.

Portman was born an only child in Jerusalem in 1981 and named Natalie Hershlag (she took her grandmother's maiden name for Léon, but not out of vanity or careerism, rather, to protect the family's privacy). Her Israeli father is a fertility doctor, her American mother an artist, and they dedicated themselves to travelling with their daughter when she turned professional, encouraging her to take in cultural history while filming in Paris or attending premieres in Japan.

Mike Nichols told Marie Claire that this protective but broadminded early upbringing has left Portman, now 29, with a "very solid, generous centre". One of the effects of having started so young, a critic noted, is that she has tended to play either an "adult-like child" or because of her "petite physique, a childlike adult".

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone with Austrian, Russian, Polish and Romanian ancestors, who learned to speak Hebrew before she spoke English, Portman remains fascinated by languages, having studied French, German, Japanese and Arabic.

In fact, study might be her middle name. Something of an academic overachiever, certainly in the acting community, she once said that she'd "rather be smart than a movie star" and put her money where her mouth was by completing a degree in psychology at Harvard and having two co-authored research papers published in scientific journals.

Portman's next big role combines brains with brawn: she plays sidekick Jane Foster in Thor, Kenneth Branagh's unlikely first foray into Marvel comic book heroics. This sees her pressed back into service on the nerd convention circuit, something she first experienced with the Star Wars trilogy, and then with V For Vendetta, adapted from an Alan Moore graphic novel (and after which her fearlessly severe look inspired a Seattle band to name themselves Natalie Portman's Shaved Head).

She was seen at last July's Comic-Con convention in San Diego, where five minutes of Thor footage was shown and she was asked such questions as: "What has this role demanded of you physically?" (a bit of running, apparently) and: "Will you do the sequel?" (she will, if asked). Portman was much more animated talking about her character's investigation of Einstein's theories about multidimensionality.

Portman always seems to rise to the top of any list of cerebral Hollywood actresses, which might also include Jennifer Connelly, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Shue, Mira Sorvino, Kate Beckinsale, Julia Stiles and current sophomore Emma Watson, and she will enter her 30s this year as something of a pin-up for the not-too-busy overlap between higher education and acting against blue-screen.

College dropout Jake Gyllenhaal soporifically "interviewed" Portman for Interview magazine recently – "What are your cures for jet lag?" "I don't have any" – but he inadvertently summed up his beguiling buddy when he declared: "You do incredible things for the world and then you listen to just completely obscene hip-hop music."

The hip-hop we know about; the incredible things include boycotting "torture factories" through her on-off veganism, working as an "ambassador of hope" with Finca, a non-profit "microfinance" organisation that provides banking for poor families in developing countries and manning the phones for Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.

On preparing what New Yorker critic David Denby described as her "sinewy dancer's body" for Black Swan, she said: "You don't drink, you don't go out with your friends, you don't have much food and you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, so you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer." On the self-flagellation of vegetarianism, she says: "I just really, really love animals."

Natalie Portman: she wears it lightly, just like her own brand of vegan footwear. But, to quote Star Wars, the force is strong with this one.


Andrew Collins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Natalie Portman: bringing Jackie Onassis back to life | Nigel M Smith
The star nearly crushed by the critics early in her career has them eating out of her hand in her intimate portrayal of America’s most remarkable First Lady

Nigel M Smith

08, Jan, 2017 @12:04 AM

Article image
Being a woke vegan doesn’t excuse Moby his Natalie Portman jibes | Barbara Ellen
The singer’s claims to have dated the movie star sparked a Twitter storm once she denied it. Who to believe?

Barbara Ellen

26, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
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

Vanessa Thorpe

09, May, 2015 @11:04 PM

Article image
Natalie Portman's very good week | Jeremy Kay
Jeremy Kay: Portman is set for Oscar success with Black Swan – and her latest romcom is topping the US box office

Jeremy Kay

25, Jan, 2011 @11:32 AM

Article image
Infomania: Natalie Portman

Number crunching the famous: Natalie Portman

Johnny Dee

22, Apr, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
Studio rebuts claims by Natalie Portman's ballet double
Fox Searchlight denies claims Portman performed only a small proportion of dance moves in Black Swan

Ben Child

28, Mar, 2011 @9:50 AM

Article image
May December review – fraught drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore promises more than it delivers
Todd Haynes’ tale of merging identities is too knowing and too glossy to drive its message home

Xan Brooks

20, May, 2023 @10:35 PM

Article image
Natalie Portman's Black Swan double reiterates cover-up claims
Sarah Lane says actor's head was superimposed on to her body and calls reputed fakery 'degrading to the entire ballet world'

Ben Child

18, Apr, 2011 @1:43 PM

Article image
Natalie Portman: five best moments
The Oscar-winner’s troubled western Jane Got a Gun finally hits cinemas this week. But what have been her career highlights?

Benjamin Lee

22, Apr, 2016 @9:55 AM

Article image
Natalie Portman sparks Hollywood battle

Abu Dhabi Media Summit: Fox Studios co-chairman and agent argue over actor's fee. But who is to blame for lack of independent finance?

Dan Sabbagh

16, Mar, 2011 @2:13 PM