BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – “It’s like, I guess you caught me! I’m a nerd!” Natalie Portman says, laughing.
She’s talking about frenzied internet responses to a recent interview that she did with author Jonathan Safran Foer.
The New York Times Style Magazine asked Foer to interview Portman about her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness .” They weren’t in the same city, and thus did the interview over email, which the magazine then coyly presented as actual emails between the two friends.
The internet was confused. Onlookers smirked at the literary and occasionally pretentious words and thoughts exchanged between the two as though they’d stumbled on something private and deeply embarrassing.
“It was clearly for an interview,” Portman said. “I can understand that it would seem funny if those were our normal ‘hey Jonathan, what’s going on’ emails, which is not the case at all … It’s not what we write on a Tuesday afternoon. Obviously.”
Portman, seated on a couch in the sun soaked living room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s Royal Suite, tries not to pay attention to all of that. She knew it had become a thing when friends told her about it, but she’s not concerned.
For one, it did what it was supposed to do: get some attention for “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” And the only semi-real discovery she can think of is that, well, she’s a “nerd.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with Portman, who gracefully transitioned from precocious child star into Oscar-winning adulthood, while still prioritizing intellectual pursuits and maintaining a healthy remove from the celebrity of it all.
Now 35 and a mother, Portman lights up discussing the evolution of the Hebrew language as much as she does her recent films. This is one of those moments, too, when she suddenly has a handful of projects being released, even though many were shot years ago, like “Knight of Cups” and “Jane Got a Gun.” She’s also got the forthcoming Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie,” which will have a festival debut this fall, and there are even more on the docket for 2017, including Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” and Xavier Dolan’s next project.
But the one closest to her heart is “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in theaters now. It’s a passion project if there ever was one. Portman’s been working this adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir for the better part of a decade, about the author’s childhood in the 1940s and 50s, the birth of the Jewish state and the loss of his depressive mother, who Portman plays.
“(Amos) was very encouraging to me,” she said. “He said ‘please make your own film. The book exists. You don’t need to just film the book.’”
For years, she would come back to the script every so often, a little older and with more perspective on life to add.
Then her husband, the French dancer Benjamin Millepied, got a job in Paris. Knowing that a move was imminent, it became a now or never moment for Portman. So they packed up their lives, moved to Israel for five months and just did it.
“I had heard so many stories my whole childhood of my grandparents coming from Eastern Europe to Israel and then Palestine and the creation of the state. It’s such a crazy moment in history,” Portman said. “It colored my
imagination so much growing up, hearing those stories and thinking about what that must have been like to come from cold dark Europe to the bright, dusty, hot desert of the Middle East.”
She made the edgy decision to do the film entirely in Hebrew to create a sense of authenticity with the period.
On set, Portman tried to create a family energy. She was 11 when she got her first role in “The Professional.” Amir Tessler, who plays the young Oz, was eight.
“I’ve been working on sets my whole life,” she said. “I was a kid on set, and we had a kid starring in the film so I really wanted it to be a positive environment.”
She felt lucky, too, that she made the film in Israel, where she thinks because both men and women serve in the army, that they’re used to having both genders in positions of authority and respect that.
With over 25 years working in front of the camera, Portman behind the camera drew on learnings from directors she’s worked with – Darren Aronofsky’s eagerness to hear ideas from anyone and Terrence Malick’s unconventional “paint from life” methods among them. But in the end, she knew she had to make this her own.
Portman has just moved back to Los Angeles with her husband and son, Aleph, and is looking forward to this new chapter where she’ll continue acting and hopefully directing.
She’s become more invested in having a connection with the filmmakers she’s choosing to work with than she was earlier in her career.
“You’re taking time away from your family instead of like just going away to work and otherwise you’d be home reading a book,” she said. “The stakes are a lot higher.” (AP)