Natalie Portman isn’t here to make an interviewer’s job easier. She doesn’t chirp out sound bites or regale you with tales about last night’s dinner. She won’t share adorable or quirky anecdotes about her son, Aleph, or her husband, dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, to help sell a project. Her social media presence? Nonexistent.
And after promoting her docudrama Jackie for weeks and weeks, Portman, now pregnant with her second child, says she’s been asked nearly everything possible about making the movie. “You have to be very creative or not do your job and ask things me things that are totally inappropriate,” she says, half-joking.
She’s a frontrunner for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Jacqueline Kennedy in the film, going through an emotional and mental metamorphosis in the wake of her husband’s assassination in 1963. We see Jackie, mother of two, hamstrung by debilitating grief. We see her guzzling booze, smoking nonstop, and languidly shimmying to a recording of the Broadway musical Camelot. And yes, we see just how precisely she manufactured and cemented that enduring Kennedy legacy of Camelot.
Portman, 35, prepped the way she always does: by doing her homework. She watched clips of the first lady, immersed herself in interviews, and relied on what she calls a “very well-researched script. You heard a lot about her being bitter, angry, from people in those days, a lot about her questioning her faith and identity because she wasn’t sure what her name was anymore or where she would be living or what her source of income would be. All the panic of any woman going through that. And the very public side of this focus on legacy. It wasn’t a linear progression of grief.”
Going in, Portman, who whittled herself down to play a tormented ballerina in 2010’s Black Swan, which netted her an Best Actress Oscar, was nervous. For good reason, given that Kennedy is one of the most iconic women in history. But in this case, the clothes helped make the woman.
“It helped me feel like maybe I could convince people,” she says. “I’ve never thought of myself as particularly looking like her. I’ve never been told that. You want people to believe you.”
Her style remains both timeless and of its time: A-line dresses, pillbox hats and ladylike Chanel suits. French costume designer Madeline Fontaine was tasked with wardrobing Portman; the biggest challenge, of course, was re-creating the pink suit and matching hat the first lady wore during that fateful motorcade. Fontaine designed the ensemble to be the ensemble’s precise shade of rose. And then she made five of them. Then there’s the maroon two-piece boucle suit Kennedy wore during her televised tour of the White House in 1962, impeccably re-created shot-by-shot in the film. Portman’s makeup artist Miwoo Kim, meanwhile, perfected the actress’s brows, thickening them and squaring them off.
There wasn’t any specific moment when Portman says she donned a pillbox hat, or that famous blush suit, and realized she’d nailed it.
“I never feel that way. The creative energy was pretty overwhelming on set,” says Portman, particularly when she filmed Kennedy’s White House tour. “It was an exact re-creation. It was the only part that was pre-grief, so it was nice to have something we could enjoy. It was an expression of her passion and desire and excitement.”
Portman doesn’t see much of herself in Kennedy. And if she does relate to specific qualities of the first lady, she’s not saying.
“I don’t love comparing myself to characters,” she says. “I want to be able to play people who are not like me at all. I don’t have to find that connection. But of course, yes, she was much more public and well known than I ever have been. On a smaller scale, I can understand the balance between the public self and how you present yourself to other people and who you are privately.”
She gives full credit to the film’s wardrobe and hair and makeup departments for making the character so “real” and never a caricature. As for her patrician accent, and her very specific way of enunciating, that’s all Portman.
“I worked with a great dialect coach in Paris. We just watched all the interviews we could find over and over and over again. We broke them down so you could hear where she took breaths or elongated words,” says Portman.
And now she’s back on the awards circuit, mixing it up with Annette Bening, Emma Stone, Nicole Kidman, and Viola Davis, among the many names in the running among critics and voters’ groups. Portman is a woman’s woman and says being around fellow actresses is the best part of all those red carpets.
“It’s amazing to spend time with the people you admire. Particularly the group of women who are being recognized. I really admire and like them. To get to spend time with them and get to know them is a blessing,” she says.