For Natalie Portman in the year 2018, conventional movie stardom is a home she can always return to. As of late, however, she’s preferred to restrict herself to the occasional visit. The gaps between straight-down-the-middle studio projects have gotten wider, even though her presence at multiplexes never quite fades. It’s been five years since her last appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as an actress with the name recognition to get stranger, smaller movies the green light, she’s grown judicious and adventurous in her role selection.
Her CV contains all the typical beats of your standard-issue A-lister résumé, just in their most unlikely or sophisticated form. These days, her version of a popcorn picture would be something like Annihilation, a heart-of-darkness march into the metaphysical unknown more conceptual than most modern sci-fi by half. Her take on Oscar bait would be Jackie, an elliptical meditation on grief and historicity which avoided cliché so defiantly that it polarized actual awards voters. Where other actors dabble in directing with glossy vanity projects, she returned to Israel to adapt a difficult novel for a film she didn’t even bother pushing all that hard in American theaters. Her peers might try to stretch their range with the occasional art film; she’s charted the limits of sense and experience in two collaborations with Terrence Malick.
Then there’s Vox Lux, a polarizing work of such ambition that it couldn’t possibly fit in the preceding paragraph. The first half follows a teenage girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) through the crucible of tragedy along with her first steps as a newly minted pop star. Around the midway point, Brady Corbet’s film smash cuts forward 16 years and Portman steers the character into a downward spiral. The adult Celeste has a drinking problem, a drug problem, a being-a-negligent-mother problem, a terrorism problem, and a slew of other mental stressors that start to bear down on her as she readies her new concert tour. Here, Portman’s proficiency with women on the edge led to one of the most indelible performances of a challenging, unpredictable career.
During an interview with Vulture one frigid afternoon at Manhattan’s Whitby Hotel — a stone’s throw from the towering Sixth Avenue office buildings in which a guileless Celeste signs away her soul to the record executives — Portman talked all things Vox Lux, from her Noo Yawk accent to the massively scaled concert concluding the film to Celeste’s real-world inspiration. (Or lack thereof.)
First things first: the accent. Could you walk us through the process of forming Celeste’s voice?
I worked with my same dialect coach that I had on Jackie and Planetarium. She got dialects from a very specific subset of Staten Island, and then we just went full force with it. Because from the time she’s a kid, she’s exaggerating it in a way that makes it like an armor. There are people who, when they become famous, want to emphasize that they’re still from the street. It’s a shield of authenticity, and then the toughness also gives her more of a don’t-mess-with-me vibe. But of course, it’s transparently a performance. She’s on all the time.
I spoke with the director last week, and he had mentioned seeing some misinterpretations of the film. Have you found that dramatic choices like this can sometimes be misconstrued?
Hmm, I don’t know, if only because I don’t read the things people write about me.
That sounds healthy.
Oh, yeah. You latch onto the negative and ignore the positive, so I don’t find it to be helpful if it just makes me self-conscious. Plus, at this point, you’re not pointing out anything we can fix. I can’t go back in the film and change my accent. It doesn’t feel constructive, so I don’t have much of an idea of the reception apart from the interviews I’ve been doing, and face to face, people tend to be pretty friendly.
What’s been more interesting to me is how people make parallels to other roles I’ve done. People can draw thematic links that I’m too close to notice myself. I find all of this productive, more so than getting feedback on my portrayal. Pointing out running threads in my career makes me aware of what kinds of roles I’m drawn to, which I’m not really conscious of. I see my own tendencies more clearly.
The film being structured as it is, jumping from Celeste as a kid to her self-destructive adulthood, suggests that fame has had a poisonous effect on her over time. You’re someone who began acting at a very young age; was this something that you were mindful of, or made a conscious effort to avoid?
There are so many pop-culture stories of the child star flameout, the whole starlet gone wrong is a classic narrative in both music and Hollywood. I was definitely aware of that much, and my parents were hyperaware, so there was plenty of counterprogramming to my work.
Come to think of it, we don’t see much of Celeste’s parents at all in the film.
That was an active decision on [director] Brady [Corbet]’s part. We did interviews together earlier and he was talking about this exact thing, that he didn’t want to provide any easy answers, or fingers to point. That would be such a Western Intro to Psychology way to read the movie, like, “It was the parents! Of course!” To paraphrase what he said, some parents aren’t good or bad, they’re just neutral forces in their kids’ lives. They’re just there. Celeste isn’t a tragic victim of circumstance, either. She has an agency, a hand in her own demise. It empowers her, in a destructive sense.
My favorite scene might be when Celeste has the tantrum in the dressing room before the show. It feels unbound from realism, in a more accented style of performance. Is there an expressionistic quality to your acting?
Brady talks about the first half of the movie being in a minimalist mode, and the second half in a maximalist mode. It’s all extremes, and that goes for the acting as well. A lot of the stylistic choices — the fact that nobody ages in the film except Celeste, for one — there’s a purposeful fabulist side to it. So when my character calls for it, I take them a step back from reality. I think movies have lost a lot from trying to be naturalistic. Now, there are many films in a more naturalistic style that I love and move me a great deal, but there should be room for art on both sides of that divide. Most of the history of film is in the non-realistic world, tied up in fantasy and metaphor and fable. We got a lot of latitude from Celeste’s mantra, “They wanted a show, I gave ‘em a show.”
There’s a feedback mechanism, and this is what Brady means when he talks about the “pageantry of evil,” where people get rewarded with attention for bad behavior. The more outrageous, the more obnoxious, the more vulgar a figure can be, the more energy we spend on thinking and talking about them. It keeps cycling back into itself, and Celeste has already been through that cycle a lot of times in the second half.
I’ve seen a lot of interest in pinning the model for Celeste on a real-world pop star, and I wanted to offer you a chance to go on record.
No, there’s no one inspiration. Brady talks about her as an avatar for America. There’s not even a single pop star working right now that you could put your finger on. There are elements reminiscent of recurring tropes in pop stardom, the spiraling star who pulls it together, so you get shades from plenty of familiar stories. But these are archetypal. She’s not supposed to be a stand-in for anybody from the modern climate of pop music.
After having done Black Swan, was the lengthy final performance no big deal?
It was a very big deal! Going into any of these situations requires a great deal of ignorance about the scope of what will actually be expected of you. If you know what it’s going to entail, you’d never agree to it. But you go in blind, like, “Sure, I can figure this out in a month!” and then you just trust the experts around you and the [waves hand] magic of cinema. But this was a whole different variety of performing for me, learning the songs and recording and lip-sync training and moving with the other dancers. Keeping up the stamina for these rehearsals and the shoots gave me a new respect for what touring singers and dancers do.
My voice makes me want to jump out of my skin when I’m transcribing the recordings of interviews. How’d it feel to hear yourself for the first time in the final mixed recording, with all the Auto-Tune?
Oh, this was very fun! Because I had spent the studio sessions constantly apologizing, “I’m so sorry you have to listen to this,” and the song’s producer was like, “Ha! Don’t you worry your little head.” But then, when I heard it, I was thrilled. I asked Brady, when he first offered me the role, if he needed to hear me sing. And he just said, “That doesn’t matter.” In that moment, what he was going for started to make more sense to me.
Do you consider the ending to be redemptive for Celeste?
I do not. I think back to what Raffey says as Celeste in the beginning, “I don’t want them to think too much, I just want them to have fun.” That’s the voice of light: after all of this reflection about the world we live in, you can shut that off and escape into the music.
But isn’t there something solipsistic about shutting off, when we’ve just seen how dire things can be out in the world?
Yes, but there’s a beauty to it also. Maybe there is, you know, “the power of art” to help you find light when you’re in darkness. We see some reaction shots of the crowd, and they’re losing themselves in their love for Celeste, as if the world inside that stadium isn’t so dire. The scene’s not meant to be sarcastic, and neither is Raffey’s statement.
By anyone’s measure, Vox Lux is a dense film. Did you and Brady do much talking about big-picture stuff, subtext and whatnot?
What we spent the most time discussing was how this film occupies the space between the wars of this century. His first film, Childhood of a Leader, bridged the period between World War I and World War II. He wanted to know what conflicts could define the 21st century in the same way those defined the 20th. The war on our soil is mass shootings, and the foreign war is terror. How do we bridge the cultural gap between them using this character, is the main question that the film poses. That fascinated me. You don’t often get to think about film with this framing.