Shapeshifter Natalie Portman transitions from mother to crusader to centre stage actor and now a next chapter: a modern character study in resolve, intelligence and womanhood. Here, read the full cover story and see every picture from Vogue Australia’s April 2019 issue.
Natalie Portman is backstage in a dressing room amid the labyrinth of corridors under Melbourne’s opulent Regent Theatre. She is dressed in a bodice, and with her hair pulled back under the matching mesh head covering, her delicate features are accentuated. She looks in the mirror and dabs at her lips; hers is a classic beauty befitting a Hollywood movie star. Then she suddenly turns to the camera with a fierce stare, and in a flicker of her eyes Portman momentarily transforms into Nina, her disturbed ballet dancer in Black Swan, who in a moment of psychosis trashes a dressing room in a climactic scene. In fact, a dressing room is also the scene of a pivotal moment in Portman’s latest film Vox Lux, when her troubled and addictive pop star character Celeste has a mini meltdown prior to going on stage for a big comeback concert. I mention this observation later – same scenario, two different characters, eight years apart – and wonder if the dressing room has any particular meaning to Portman. Her face lights up: “Well spotted,” she smiles. “Those scenes were actually coincidentally filmed in the same venue, in the same dressing room!”
Earlier Portman had been running down a gilt-lined hallway in a diamanté bolero, acting out another scene. It reminded a crew member of her personification of Jackie Onassis in Jackie, which earned the actress critical praise for her uncanny take on the much-admired former US First Lady and style icon. “I could pretend to be her all day, she’s divine,” Portman purrs, before disappearing down the corridor again to ready for another shot.
The romanticism of the stage and theatre – her husband runs a dance company – seems a perfect setting for this movie star and her Vogue Australia cover shoot. Portman loves playing dress-ups and embodying new characters. She has carved a successful career out of it since she first appeared on screen at the age of 12 in Léon: The Professional in 1994. Her choices have led to her portraying interesting, complex women, many of whom became game-changers for the actress: Nina won her an Oscar, Jackie earned plaudits, Garden State (2004) indie cred, Closer her first Oscar nomination, even Queen Amidala was transformative, earning her a legion of Star Wars fans and bringing her to Australia for the first time. Portman spent several months living in Sydney in 2000 while Star Wars: Episode II and III were filmed simultaneously at Fox Studios. The period left an indelible memory on Portman, who has an eternal soft spot for our country.
Last year she returned with her family – husband Benjamin Millepied, a renowned French ballet dancer and choreographer, and their children Aleph, seven, and two-year-old Amalia – to attend the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Gala in Melbourne. There Portman marvelled at the Escher x Nendo: Between Two Worlds exhibition, as well as Indigenous art at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre, while the family also ate their way through Melbourne’s award-winning restaurants and took in cultural experiences while enjoying a holiday.
“My family does not want to leave: they just love it here,” she says with a smile as we chat in the cafe of a new boutique Melbourne hotel. “This country is a dream. The people are so warm, so friendly, the food is unbelievable, the nature is astonishing. The culture’s incredible … I’m very admiring of this nation.”
Her son is now obsessed with the platypus, which he saw at the zoo, and the family have also became fans of Australian Rules Football, thanks to an introduction from Portman’s best friend from school, who is married to an Australian and lives in Melbourne. “She organised for us to go to a practice, which was so amazing. They were super-lovely and incredible athletes,” she says.
“And it’s so cool that there are women’s teams. So cool. They were saying that it’s made the men’s and the women’s leagues more popular. They’ve gotten more female fans and more male fans, which is so great. I wish we had that [in the US].”
Portman is passionate about gender equality. A day after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Portman, then heavily pregnant with her daughter, made an impassioned speech at the first Women’s March in Los Angeles:
“From the bottom of both hearts beating inside my miraculous female body, I want to thank our new president – you just started the revolution,” she said to resounding applause. Last year, soon after the Time’s Up movement to eradicate sexual harassment was officially launched, Portman returned to the dais at the 2018 Women’s March and revealed how she was sexualised as a 12-year-old after the debut of her first film, Léon: The Professional. Several weeks later she took her stance to the Oscars, highlighting the lack of inclusiveness in the best director category that she was presenting, brilliantly deadpanning: “And here are the all-male nominees.”
When we speak, Portman reflects on Time’s Up, and is circumspect about what she’s learnt, positing that closing the gender pay gap is the next phase of the revolution.
“It’s been really an incredible learning process, and a lot of new friendships and support systems have formed, and a network that we had never had. It was really surprising and amazing to me,” she says. “I think I was also surprised by how much I had accepted that was not okay, because of course it was a surprise to realise how many women had been affected by this, by many different perpetrators, and to many different extents, and how with all of it there is a spectrum of things that are not okay that we put up with on a regular basis. I think one thing that was so interesting … [was] I would hear people say: ‘Well, that’s not really harassment, that’s like a bad date, or we’ve all had that.’ Because we’ve all had that doesn’t mean it’s okay, it means it’s ubiquitous … that was really a revelation to me: that it’s not just a bad date or a bad boyfriend, that it is abusive and sexist, and we’ve been living in it, and not only that, but also the [iniquity of] hiring practices and pay.
“I mean, it’s all related, because it’s all about how we are valued, and I think we’ve internalised it, and become part of it. We’ve become complicit in the system because we internalised that.
“It was a real eye-opening of: ‘Wow, I’m part of this system. I’ve accepted this system. I’ve been complicit in this system’, not in the way of knowing someone’s getting abused and not talking about it, but complicit in the way of not actively revolting against it. It’s been quite a year.”
I ask if she is teaching both her daughter and son to become empowered, and she nods. “Yes, it’s absolutely different when you know you are raising a next generation, both male and female,” she says. “And also, of course being introduced to the ideas of gender fluidity where you’re like: ‘Oh, how do I not imprint this shit that I have imprinted on me? How do I not imprint that on my kids?’ I think we’re all grappling with it in different ways.”
It was after being inspired by the launch of Time’s Up that Portman finally joined Instagram, where she has since garnered over 3.6 million followers. She uses the social media platform to champion her many causes – activism, veganism, her various film projects and, of course, the arts, and regularly posts support for her husband’s company, the LA Dance Project. The couple met when Millepied worked as the ballet choreographer on Black Swan (2010). Millepied also acted as Portman’s personal coach of sorts for Vox Lux, helping his wife prepare her pop-star dance choreography at home.
“It was so fun,” she says of working with her husband again. “First of all, I don’t know how I would have done it without him, because he pretty much did it as a favour to me, because I had so little time before we started that I don’t think it would have been possible if we hadn’t been in the same home, to just able to fit in rehearsals whenever we had a moment. That was really, really fun, and then also, of course, he’s amazing, and also knows my leg strengths and weaknesses, so he knows how to work around what I can and can’t do.
“Then the dancers were incredible; they had all come off of Beyoncé’s tour. I mean, it took me a month of spending hours every day working on this stuff and they learned it like two days. It was really amazing. They were just the greatest women.”
Another bonus of Vox Lux was acting out her childhood dreams of being a pop star. The ambitious drama centres around a school massacre survivor who becomes a troubled international pop star derailed by fame. Australian singer Sia wrote the songs.
“It was a good time, being up there on stage and singing and dancing; I was definitely brought back to having that kid feeling of singing with my hairbrush in the mirror,” she says.
Portman then moved from the stage to space, starring as an astronaut in the yet to be released Lucy in the Sky – “she’s an astronaut who comes back to Earth … it’s a story about a woman who loses it”. Portman grins – this seems to be a recurring theme for her character choices.
“I feel like I’m getting to live out my childhood dreams through my roles: ballerina, singer, astronaut,” she quips: “It’s going to be my criteria now for choosing movies that I’m going to be playing – next I’ll be like a mermaid and a firewoman!”
Off-screen, Portman is multi-faceted, in no particular order: actor, mother, wife, activist, writer, director, producer, vegan. She is known for being an intellectual – she studied psychology at Harvard and in 2016 conducted a rather cerebral email correspondence with author Jonathan Safran Foer for a cover story in The New York Times’s T Magazine, which was mocked on the internet for its pretentiousness.
She later told The Cut of the exchange: “I am pretentious! So it’s good to be reminded. Sometimes, I get too serious or whatever. I don’t really mind. It was mainly funny.”
It was while producing a documentary based on Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals that Portman, who has been a practicing vegetarian since the age of nine, decided to turn completely vegan, eschewing eating or wearing any animal products.
“I was pregnant with my first child when I read Eating Animals and I then understood how sick [and polluting] our factory farming is in the United States.”
As she explains this I rather embarrassingly start to remove the leather jacket I am wearing, and she laughs sincerely: “Oh no, don’t worry, I’m very not judgmental. I hate when anyone pressures me on any of my choices.”
In person, Portman is polite, inquisitive and engaging – and despite being the most famous person in the room, will happily turn the conversation back on the person in front of her. And although she is seemingly serious and sometimes intense, there is still a very light-hearted, girlie side to the actress, who excitedly waxes lyrical about the benefits of working with the house of Dior – she has been the face of Miss Dior perfume since 2010.
“It’s been really incredible getting to work with Dior. I’ve had amazing experiences and I’m kind of obsessed with flowers and scent, so to get to visit the rose fields in Grasse and meet with their nose, François Demachy [Dior perfumer creator], and see how it gets created is just a total fantasy dream,” she says.
“And then, of course, I get to wear the clothes. It’s been amazing having Maria Grazia Chiuri there – I feel like a woman knows what another woman wants to wear! And every time I’m in those dresses I feel exactly how I want to feel.”
Grazia Chiuri ignited discussion about feminism and gender politics in fashion when her debut collection for Dior included T-shirts proclaiming ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ – the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book-essay. Portman, of course, applauded it.
“I almost cried when I saw her putting flats down the couture runway. I was like: ‘Yes!’” she says as she pumps her fist in a sign of empowerment. “She’s amazing and it’s been really fun – it’s also made me wear red lipstick a lot more in my real life. I don’t normally wear make-up but whenever I’m feeling bold, like I want to go in and get things done, I put on red lipstick and I’m ready.”
This article will appear in Vogue Australia’s April 2019 issue, on sale Monday, April 1.