It’s hard to think of an actor, male or female, who has navigated 21st-century Hollywood with as much skill as Natalie Portman. She is, let’s not forget, the only Harvard graduate ever to win a best acting Oscar. From her debut as a 12-year-old orphan in Léon to her haunted ballerina in the body horror Black Swan, from the Star Wars prequels to Closer and on to Jackie, her range is unmatched. Even the films that have failed to light up the box office have usually faltered because they’re a bit too intelligent.
And in 2022, Portman has appeared in a role that, more than any other, demonstrates her superior discernment and willingness to confront gender stereotypes in her laughably regressive industry. No, I don’t mean Thor: Love and Thunder. I mean Bluey, the cult Australian cartoon about a family of blue dogs, beloved for its larky humour and depiction of the modern working family in which both parents play supportive roles.
‘It’s such a great show,’ says Portman, who makes a cameo in the third season. ‘In so many kids’ shows and books, there are traditional mum and dad things that the parents do. In Bluey, it feels more like they both work, they both cook. It has quite an even relationship between the parents, too, which I think is really nice.’
The cameo came about as her role in the aforementioned superhero movie required her to relocate to Australia last year with her husband, the excellently named French dancer Benjamin Millepied, and their children Aleph, 11, and Amalia, 5. One of Portman’s co-stars there, Daley Pearson — a friend of the director, Taika Waititi — was also a key creative force on Bluey. ‘I had asked him for tickets to a live show in Sydney and so he knew that I was a fan. We were shooting together and he asked if I would be interested ever and I was like: “Of course!”’
Portman is not primarily, you’ll be shocked to learn, speaking to me to discuss blue dogs. For the meantime, we are talking over Zoom, chaperoned by Dior Beauty, for which Portman, 41, has been a face since 2010. The call comes as the new Rouge Dior Forever Lipstick premières but unfortunately, I am denied a glimpse of this expensive visage: ‘It’s meant to be just audio,’ she says kindly when I express confusion at her black screen. The relationship has been remarkably long by the usual standards of celebrity endorsements and it’s not hard to see why Dior has been so keen to retain her services. ‘I always carry the Dior [shade] 999, red lipstick in my purse because it gives me a sense of boldness and strength when I need that little extra boost,’ she informs me with what truly comes across as unfeigned enthusiasm. ‘I think it’s really miraculous how a different look can give you a different persona. It’s kind of the way everyone can bring what I’m lucky enough to do as a job into their own life and bring out different sides of themselves.’ Lucky us, eh?
Portman also discusses the recent revamping of the Miss Dior perfume, originally created in 1947 by Christian Dior. Covid has not only made her newly appreciative of her own olfactory apparatus (‘very, very sensitive’, apparently); it has reframed her entire conception of beauty.
‘I think I was kind of worried that beauty was superficial as a kid,’ she says. ‘As I’m older, I feel like I see it as a mode of expression and play and joy — and also, like, indulging yourself and treating yourself. Whereas I felt before a little bit like: “I should be writing a book right now, why am I sitting in this chair?!”’
But perhaps Portman simply has less to prove these days. She may not have fulfilled the academic promise that her Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz once saw in her (‘a terrific student’). However, she has actually written a book — Natalie Portman’s Fables, for children, released in 2020 — and meanwhile runs the impressively highbrow Natalie’s Book Club on Instagram. Recent authors under discussion have included Rachel Cusk and Natalia Ginzburg. Meanwhile that other big summer role of hers, Jane Foster in the campy Marvel romp, Thor: Love and Thunder — has allowed her to explore her physicality in a different way.
Portman made peripheral appearances in the first two Thor movies before evidently deciding there were more rewarding ways to spend her time. However, she was persuaded to return for the fourth instalment by Waititi, who put her character front and centre and gave her a terminal illness storyline. For much of the film, Jane inherits the Thor mantle, so she spends quite a lot of time prancing around with a large hammer.
‘I loved Taika’s work so much and I’m such a big admirer of his and of course also love [co-stars] Chris [Hemsworth] and Tessa [Thompson], so it wasn’t very hard to convince me to be there,” she says. There was also the enjoyable challenge of acquiring a Hemsworthian physique. ‘I feel like every previous experience of training or exercise for me as a woman has always been about being smaller, so this is pretty amazing. This is something most of us don’t question. When most men go to the gym, the aim is to become bigger. When women go to the gym, the aim is to diminish. It’s something that we ignore as an aspect of the ideal woman’s body being thin. So it’s pretty incredible to celebrate a character who is large, where the goal is to be as big as possible.’
The reception to the film has been decidedly mixed. ‘You know, I really don’t pay much attention to any of it, honestly,’ Portman says. ‘My experience has been that the work that you make never correlates to the response at the time. If you get a good response right away, that doesn’t mean people think it’s great forever.’ Does she feel things have appreciably changed since the industry’s #MeToo reckonings? A founder of the Time’s Up movement, Portman spoke about the ‘environment of sexual terrorism’ that had shaped the way she made choices in her career. ‘I think there’s been some progress and also a far way to go still,’ she says, diplomatically. ‘There’s been a lot more consciousness of hiring women in leadership positions throughout the industry. There’s been a lot more awareness of people’s behaviour . But there’s still a lot more that needs to happen.”
Such as? ‘Oh, I don’t know that I have solutions but we still see large disparities in hiring. We still see large disparities in compensation. We see a lot of toxic discourse in ma ny places. And there are actual legal challenges to our full autonomy in the United States.’ Roe vs Wade was, she says: ‘crushing’. ‘My child will have fewer rights than I did growing up. That is certainly not what I ever dreamed of. It’s absolutely a crushing moment but I am hopeful that it will unite a new generation of people demanding full freedom and full autonomy for all people.’
In these uncertain times, what scares Natalie Portman? ‘Well, of course I always want the world to be a safe and joyful place for my kids. So you know, the environment; climate change is quite a scary thing.’ However, our time is nearly at an end and she must wrap up fast. ‘But what I’ve been really happy with in this relationship with Dior is that they’ve really moved toward sustainable and clean products, which has been really, really happy for me!’ You cannot fault the woman’s professionalism. I compliment her on a masterful segue and we return to our separate worlds.
DIOR Rouge Dior Forever lipstick, £35, available at dior.com