Natalie Portman: Behind the director’s chair

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22

Graphic by Anjali Rao-Herel ’22


General audiences may feel they know Natalie Portman from her years as a Hollywood star, but she is hardly done evolving. Portman is a prolific, critically acclaimed and award-winning actress, already an enduring A-list household name at 37 and showing no signs of slowing down. Instead she’s speeding up and expanding her repertoire to include a turn in the director’s chair.

From her first role in “The Professional” (1994) as orphaned assassin-in-training Mathilda, Portman has been gracing screens since she was 11 years old. According to her IMdB page, Portman has accumulated a total of 60 acting credits, working with some of the world’s most famous directors, including the likes of Terence Malik (“Song for Song” and “Night of Cups”), Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”), Mike Nichols (“Closer”) and George Lucas (“Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III”).

In 2018 alone, she’s taken on four major acting roles. She played Lena in “Annihilation,” a post-apocalyptic horror-thriller, and was four months pregnant when she completed “The Life and Death of John F. Donovan.” Her third film this year, “Vox Lux,” is in post-production, and she is currently filming “Pale Blue Dot,” in which she plays mentally unstable astronaut Lucy Cola. Portman even found time this year to return to her satiric 2006 Saturday Night Live “Natalie Rap,” shooting an equally vulgar, but modernized and self referential sequel, “Natalie Rap 2.0.”

Portman has received ten producer credits, including “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” a drama about a grieving childless mother in a struggling marriage, “No Strings Attached,” a friends-with-benefits romantic comedy, “Jane Got a Gun,” a western about one woman’s efforts to save her husband with the help of her ex-fiancée and “Vox Lux,” a musical drama about an unlikely pop star — all of which she also stars in. Most recently, Portman produced and narrated “Eating Animals,” a documentary exploring the abuses of industrial farming.

She also adapted and starred in her 2015 directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It was named “Most Valuable Movie of the Year” by the Cinema for Peace Foundation in 2016 and nominated for a “Golden Camera” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. The film was written and shot entirely in Hebrew, based on an autobiographical novel about a mother’s suicide by Israeli pacifist Amos Oz.

Portman, born Neta-Lee Hershlag in Jerusalem to an American mother and Israeli father, maintains Israeli-American dual citizenship and is a direct descendant of Holocaust survivors. The setting of “Love and Darkness” features heavily in her life. In 2011, she told NPR, “I go back [to Israel] at least once a year.” Her heritage and identity, as well as love for the source material and admiration for its writer, made “A Tale of Love and Darkness” a particularly meaningful undertaking. She told IndieWire in August 2016, “[Israel] figured so deeply in my imagination from the time I was a kid, from all the stories that I heard about my maternal grandparents moving from Eastern Europe to Palestine in the late ’30s.”

This deeply personal interest was critical in her decision to make it her first feature. She told Variety’s Playback with Kris Tapley, “[My directing and producing trajectory] is similar to my acting trajectory, in that I want to follow what obsesses me at the moment. I hope that will be very different things at different times in my life […] Directing is much more personal for me. [It] needs to sustain me for a longer period.”

Portman’s vulnerability as a child star has been a prominent topic of conversation since her rousing speech in January 2018 at the Los Angeles Women’s March, in wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. “I was so excited at 13 when [“The Professional”] was released […] I excitedly opened my first fan mail to read a rape fantasy that a man had written me. A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the day I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts.”

She went on to describe the disturbing impact this had on her as a girl in the public eye. “I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe,” said Portman. “At 13 years old, the message from our culture was clear to me. I felt the need to cover my body and inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world; that I’m someone worthy of safety and respect.”

Cass Fernandez-Dieguez ’19 doesn’t follow Portman’s career but acknowledges her outspokenness. “Going from her role in Leon when she was a kid and being preyed on by old men in and out of the industry, since she was basically a child, I am really here for the fact that she’s like ‘f--k you’ to all of that,” said Fernandez-Dieguez.

Portman has been an outspoken feminist and member of the Time’s Up movement. At the 2018 Makers Conference, Portman sat on a panel with Rashida Jones, Melina Matsoukas, Maha Dakhil, Nina Shaw, Jill Soloway and Tina Tchen to discuss industry harassment and women’s rights with moderator Ava DuVernay. There, she described having limited exposure to fellow actresses, often finding herself alone on all-male sets. Portman spoke on “the power of just all being in a room together and sharing our experiences and realizing how much we’d been endangered by being isolated.”

With these open testimonies, Portman seems to be moving into a new chapter, steadily branding herself as an advocate for women. In addition to her participation in women’s movements, she works with women-centric non-profits abroad, such as FINCA International, which helps underprivileged women in poor countries become business owners.

Viewers can expect to continue to see Portman on screen, considering her ability to reframe and mobilize around industrial struggles and setbacks and her drive to keep making movies.