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Natalie Portman

Last updated: 2004-12-03

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Since she made her debut at the age of 12 in the 1994 thriller Leon, Natalie Portman has become one of the hottest young stars around, combining roles in blockbusters (the Star Wars series, Cold Mountain) with such cult favourites as Beautiful Girls and Mars Attacks!

This month she's back on the big screen in Garden State, a quirky comedy directed by and starring Zach Braff (best known for the small screen sitcom Scrubs) as a man trying to get over the death of his mother. Portman stars as Sam, who helps him come to terms with his
tragic loss.

Here, Portman talks about her role in the film, her time at university and what it's really like to be in Star Wars.

After your adventures in the Star Wars films Garden State must seem like a breath of fresh air, doesn’t it?

“It’s a film that doesn’t really fit into any genre. Movies now are so often made to mimic other successful movies – the romantic comedy, the thriller, the action movie – which are so formulaic that you can guess the ending after the first five minutes. So it was nice to see something like this that was much messier, like life, that doesn’t fit into any category, that doesn’t go with anything we’ve seen before. It just has these unique experiences and unique characters.”

What are the key differences between smaller films like this and big blockbusters like the Star Wars movies?

“I think the greatest thing about having no money to make the film is that you don’t have time to waste. You keep going, there’s no going back to your trailer for two hours while they do a lighting set up. When you go back and have a little nap between scenes, or talk to your agent or whatever you do between scenes, that breaks your momentum. But you really feel here that we were working together as a team on this movie.”

Is there nothing you miss about the lavish treats you get to enjoy on a major studio film though?

“There are some, like having a big comfortable trailer and perks like that. But it was wonderful here too because you actually got to meet people much more and with a smaller crew you got to talk to them between takes. You’d sit there and learn about them, what kind of music they might like, why they want to work in film and what their passions are. That was a really great experience.”

How was the evident bond between the cast achieved?

“Zach and [co-star] Peter Sarsgaard came down to my university one weekend, and we all went out and partied together. That’s a great way to start out because it breaks down all barriers and we kept that sort of mood on set. There was very much a party atmosphere, like we were joking and hanging out. I think you feel that in the film, that there was this sense of friends being with each other.”

What was it made you take time off from your career to study at university?

“I actually worked while I was at university, but I only worked in the summer time so it wasn’t like I took a four year break or anything. I never worked during the school year, so kept the same pattern that I had done at school. It was never really a question for me, it was something I’d always wanted to do. To be an actor you have to be a person who’s engaged in the world, whether that’s through school or through travel or through meeting people and listening to them and learning about peoples’ lives I think that’s the most important thing. You’re trying to imagine other peoples’ lives and where imagination takes you. Having knowledge and first hand experience can really feed that imagination. So it was never really a question for me, university was an amazing experience.”

Zach’s character in the film has an awkward homecoming, when his friends think he has become a famous actor. Did anything similar ever happen to you?

“No, because I never really left home. I live on my own now, but in the same neighbourhood that I grew up in so I have the same friends that I’ve had since I was little. And I’ve been acting since I was 12 so they’ve pretty much always known me as an actress, so it wasn’t any big change.”

What was the experience of working with Zach like, with him directing a film for the first time?

“I didn’t feel too nervous about it, probably because he wasn’t nervous. He put me and everyone else at ease. He was very confident, very much a leader and really knew what he wanted to do. But he was very relaxed with it. A lot of directors, even experienced ones, get so stressed out because it’s such a difficult job. There’s so much to think about, to be in control of, and being in charge is hard because it has to be done with a great amount of humanity. People sometimes have a hard time keeping their vision intact while being humane to the people they work with. Zach was really wonderful about that, he really made this very collaborative feeling that everyone had a part to play. So it was really nice to work on.”

Do you have a favourite moment in the film?

“We had a series of very ‘talented’ dogs come in to perform. It was always amusing to see what Zach could scrounge up next. I was like ‘the dog does what?’. So that was always fun. It was really a very good time because Zach was constantly joking around and making it fun for all of us. That was a really great energy to be around.”

Your transition from child actress to adult star seems to  have worked seamlessly, has it been as easy as it looks from the outside?

“It’s interesting, because my generation of female actors is largely made up of people who started acting as children. If you look at Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, Christina Ricci, Claire Danes, we all started out when we were 11 or 12. I don’t know what it is about our generation, but I obviously have some good peers and we keep pushing each other I guess.”

There are some moving scenes for you in Garden State, is it easier to do something emotional here, say, than do something more fantastical against a blue screen in an imagined world as in Star Wars?

“It probably is because you can relate to it more directly. You have to find more circuitous paths to emotions when it’s not similar to something you’ve personally experienced. But that can happen in reality based movies too, it doesn’t just have to be in science fiction. I’ve obviously been lucky enough not to experience violence in my family or anything but the stuff that Sam goes through in this movie is probably more directly relatable to my personal experience.”

But doing the fantasy stuff must feel like being a kid again, doesn’t it?

“Oh absolutely, doing Star Wars is the most like being a child that I’ve ever experienced in acting. It’s like taking the old refrigerator box and pretending it’s your space ship because you’re literally working with nothing, pretending that it’s the most outrageous thing. One of the interesting things is that we all have our idea of what it will look like but then we see it and it’s completely different.”

Is there an appeal also in living other lives vicariously, in being someone else on screen?

“I don’t think of it that way. This job is like practising empathy, it’s imagining other peoples’ lives and imagining what other people feel and how the world makes other people feel. That’s an amazing way to approach the world. It’s a nice sort of job, imagining what it’s like to be someone else.”