Natalie Portman has literally grown up before the world’s eyes, having made her debut on the big screen with The Professional at age 12. Since her preternaturally complex performance in that film as a girl who gets a little too emotionally close to a killer, Portman has continued to mine psychologically deep roles (including an Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Nichols’ film Closer) with occasional popcorn fare (like the Star Wars prequels).
Yet aside from her gritty turn in the dystopian fantasy V for Vendetta, Portman hasn’t really owned the screen with a starring performance in a major studio film—that is, until now. As the star of Black Swan, the latest mind-bending film from visionary director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler) [read our review here], Portman portrays a ballet dancer on the brink of losing her sanity as she tackles one of the most challenging roles in her field: the Black Swan in the epic ballet Swan Lake.
Speaking recently with reporters amid the elaborate lobby of the historic Pantages Theatre in Hollywood—a venue where musicals and dance performances have taken place for decades—Portman displayed her usual yet unique combination of brains, candidness and charm while addressing the intense effort that went into her most challenging role yet.
Tell us about your character, Nina, and how she compares with you in real life?
Portman: She’s a perfectionist, really dedicated, obsessed and hardworking. But as her director always tells her, it’s not free or sensual enough. She certainly doesn’t have her own voice with her dancing, but that’s something that progressively changes as she finds herself more.
What was your experience with ballet prior to taking on this role?
Portman: I learned about the ballet world for filming, so I learned more of the authenticity of it as we went. There were parallels to the Swan Lake story—a central character created by someone else who has to make a dramatic decision to break free of someone else defining who she is.
Six months before shooting started, I started serious training with Mary Helen Bowers, who was with the New York City Ballet for a long time. We did five hours a day with ballet and cross-training to make sure I wouldn’t get injured going into this too quickly because ballet’s so harsh on the body. I did swimming and weights, had a trainer working on my arms and getting open because there’s such a specific look to the arms of a ballerina, then started working on the choreography and with ballet mistresses on coaching specific moves.
When it was all over, I ate pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner to make up for denying myself my favorite food for months to stay trim as a dancer.
What was the hardest part about making the many dancing scenes believable?
Portman: I think we wanted to get a level of the dance world that was convincing so that you didn’t even think about it and could get lost in the psychological drama she’s going through, not nitpicking, "That’s real, that’s not." That was hard because sometimes you had to do something at the same time—be really confident to do a turn right but also be reacting to a moment at the same time. The combination of acting and dancing at once was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
How does the relationship between Nina and Mila Kunis’ character, Lily, work in the film?
Portman: Lily is wilder than Nina, less serious about her work and has this fun side, which the dance director has been urging Nina to find in her dancing—to let loose, let go and not be safe—so she decides to try being a little wild in going out one night with Lily. Of course she’s suspicious from being in competition with her that Lily’s trying to lead her astray.
The characters do become very close friends, however, at one point—even engaging in sex together. You’ve never been known to be very sexual on screen before. How did this change for you, and how did you make sure you weren’t exploited?
Portman: Well, I’ve always been unwilling to have sex onscreen in a big way before, because you don’t want your work reduced to a streaming clip or stolen images all over the Internet degrading what you’ve done into a sort of pornographic effect. And also I felt that much of the time, I was too young to try any of that in a legitimate way because I was a young woman myself and needed to learn what my own personal likes and dislikes were in order to be believable.
But now that I’m older, and working with a brilliant director with a great track record like Darren, I realized at some point you have to trust the process and who you’re working with, and that a scene like this is key to the plot—and it is.
How does the perfectionism Nina demands of herself reflect your life and career?
Portman: In any entertainment work-related situation, there’s a certain amount of perfection that’s expected. It’s elevated in terms of acting, more than just being pretty and people striving for physical perfection.
I’m very demanding in what I do, but I don’t know if I’m necessarily a perfectionist. We’re trying to play imperfection in people, whereas dancing is much more about perfection in the angle of your leg, for instance.
It was really extreme because we shot in 40 days, with 16-hour days, and I was training before and after work. I was sleeping four or five hours a night. Every scene was a big one in the movie, so there were no throwaway scenes; it was really [about] being focused and disciplined all the time. Darren and Mary Helen were really great at that, kept me warmed up all the time before doing scenes. The worst thing would have been getting an injury in the middle of a dance scene, so they were great about keeping me warm.
So after all this work, you’re being picked by many critics to take home the Oscar.
Portman: The best thing you can hope for in a movie when you put your soul into it is that people come away excited, stimulated and moved. So it’s extraordinarily flattering and a great great honor to even have [an] Oscar discussed.