Natalie Portman: 'Directing is all about desire'

Portman's latest film, Planetarium, which receives its UK premiere at this year's London Film Festival, is the first time she's made a feature directed by a woman.


Natalie Portman has worked with some cinematic greats: Terrence Malick, Luc Besson, Darren Aronofsky, Anthony Minghella, Mike Nichols - all movie titans and, crucially, all male. Remarkably, her latest film, Planetarium, which receives its UK premiere at this year's London Film Festival, is the first time she's made a feature directed by a woman - though she did direct herself in a film adaptation of Amos Oz's life story, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which recently opened in the US.

"It's shocking," she says, when we meet in a palatial Venice hotel. "Particularly in the American film industry, women are making far too few movies. I think there are many, many reasons why that is. It's really interesting in France, when you see the young generation of directors - almost entirely female. There is a much greater social network in France for women. There is great, free child-care that we do not have in the US, which is a really big issue for women who are mothers."

Portman, who holds dual Israeli-American citizenship, has lived in Paris for two years with her French husband, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, whom she met when she gave her Oscar-winning performance in Aronofsky's Black Swan. Together they have a son, Aleph, five.

The difference between France and America goes deeper than child-care arrangements, she says, citing talks she's been listening to by Jill Soloway, the Jewish-American creator of the show Transparent.

"She talks about how directing is all about desire - 'I want this, I want that'," says Portman. "Americans are so uncomfortable with female desire. Women aren't supposed to desire food. They aren't supposed to desire sex. They're not supposed to desire anything. And the French are definitely more comfortable with that. Women should be taking pleasure in what they eat and taking pleasure in sex and desiring and wanting. And you do have to say, as a director, 'I want this, I want that', all day long."

Women should take pleasure in desire and wanting

As we talk, Portman comes across as far older than her 35 years. Watching her on screen, however, she seems almost ageless.

In Planetarium, written and directed by Rebecca Zlotowski (Grand Central), she convincingly plays older sister to Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of actors Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis), who is 18 years her junior. "She's very mature for her age. I realised how immature I was! I was like, 'we're the same!' Then I thought, 'I'm 20 years older, I should be playing her mother!'"

Set in Paris, before the Second World War, this elegant drama sees Portman and Depp play Laura and Kate Barlow, American mediums touring Europe holding public seances. While Depp's Kate is the one with the "gift", Portman's Laura manages their business. Things change when they hook up with middle-aged French-Jewish producer Andre (Emmanuel Salinger), who wants to shoot the Barlows' séances on film.

With Portman acting convincingly in French, it's certainly opening up a new avenue for her.

"It was very exciting to get to start thinking about a whole new area of directors who I admire," she admits. "I feel like the European directors don't always think of American actors for their films. So it's nice to have all of these interesting options and opportunities open up by living there. And of course I wanted to work in Paris because my family are there."

Alongside Planetarium, Portman recently shot Jackie in Paris - playing Jackie Kennedy, in a film set across the four-day aftermath of the 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. "It definitely felt like the most dangerous [role of my career]," she says, "because everyone knows what she looked like and sounded like and walked like and had an idea of her. I'd never played a character like that before."

A remarkable performance - one that's been tipped for Oscar glory - it seems that Portman is moving into a more mature phase of her career after lighter vehicles like Thor and Your Highness.

"I don't know," she defers. "It's hard to have that airplane view of your career, where you're looking down! I just feel like I'm doing what is interesting at the moment and inspires me. And maybe later on, it's easier to go back and see that there's a pattern or something."

Outside of acting, Portman is evolving into a film-maker in her own right. After A Tale Of Love And Darkness, she's got the bug. "Oh man! I'd love to direct again," she enthuses. What about in French? "I am not good enough to do that!"

For her first effort, taken from Amos Oz's chronicle of his childhood in Jerusalem, Portman not only directed, but also played his mother, Fania.

What made her choose Oz's book for her debut? "It became an obsession for me," she admits. "I read it and I imagined it as a movie. It was the first time I'd read something and imagined it so vividly. Over the years, I kept being obsessed with it and the reasons changed. I started out with how he talks about the language - he talks about the Hebrew language in such a magical way that it really made me see poetry that I had never seen before."

It was the start of a seven-year relationship with the book, which evolved when she gave birth. "I became a mother and started understanding the story in a different way, on a family level. And then his politics are very influential on me, although it's not inherently a political film. Unfortunately, you have that in the background of any book or film about Israel. You can't say: 'I'm just writing a story'. It always has that beneath it, as I think anyone from any conflict region knows."

It shows just how connected Portman still is to her Israeli roots. Born in Israel to an American mother and an Israeli father, a fertility specialist and gynaecologist, Portman spent her early years in Jerusalem before the family relocated to Washington DC and later Long Island, where Portman began acting, gaining attention for 1994's Leon and, famously, Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels.

After attending Harvard, where she studied for a degree in psychology, she returned to Israel to do a graduate-school semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Middle Eastern studies and the Arabic language. Around the same time, she shot 2005's Free Zone for Amos Gitai, a road movie she describes as a "microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I really enjoyed the lack of star treatment on the Israeli set, as you don't have a trailer to escape to - and you get to know people much more deeply because you're on set all the time," she remembers.

"Also, Israel is a very informal country with very socialist roots, so it's not like the guy who does the slate [clapperboard] won't come up to you and tell you what he's feeling or what he's going through. You really get to know people much better."

Her home may be in Paris, her accent is American, but Natalie Portman is still very much an Israeli.

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