Sunday, April 15, 2007

Natalie Portman Read Begin's White Nights

Natalie Portman: How studying psychology helped her in her latest role

"I don't think there's a message about terrorism in the film. It creates a complicated story and I think it's all about what the audience brings to it," insists the Jerusalem-born actress who plays Evey, a young woman rescued from gang-rapists by V, whose disfigured face is concealed beneath a curiously creepy Guy Fawkes mask. Set against the futuristic landscape of a totalitarian Britain, the pair become unlikely allies in a battle against tyranny.

"I literally begged for this part. I flew out to San Francisco and read for the role. And thank God I got it," she says earnestly. "I just think its so rare to find a movie that's really entertaining and really fun on a big scale and on an impressive visual scale, that's also really so interesting and is going to give you something to think about afterwards. I've not seen a movie like this - that's this big and this interesting - in at least the past 20 years. Not since the Sixties and Seventies has there been some evidence of a big studio movie being compelling and visually exciting, entertaining, smart and interesting and something you could fight about afterwards. Big, big Hollywood movies have been disappointing until this. James McTeigue and the Wachowskis have made something incredible," she says, referring to V for Vendetta's notoriously elusive screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, who were also responsible for the $3bn-grossing Matrix franchise.

The daughter of the Israeli fertility specialist Avner Hershlag and the American artist Shelley Hershlag, Portman enjoyed a relatively normal upbringing, growing up in suburban Syosset, New York, and adopting her grandmother's maiden name to protect her family's identity.

But now, as one of a handful of Hollywood's openly political Jewish actors, she has no problem debating terrorism, having studied 'the anthropology of violence' in graduate school.

"Being Israeli has become a much bigger part of my identity in recent years because it's become an issue of survival," says the actress. "I am personally sort of a pacifist and I am against violence. My gut feeling is that hurting other people is wrong, whether or not it is state-sanctioned. It's all violence and I don't make distinctions. All violence is wrong in my mind. I don't like it but I also know that it's sort of the way the world is. My reason sort of goes against my idealism and my optimism about the potential of people to live without violence and obviously people saying, 'oh it's natural for people to be violent'. So obviously I understand why it exists, but personally that is my stand and it's very hard for me to agree with any sort of violence."

She recalled the sufferings of her grandparents during the Holocaust when she filmed V for Vendetta's concentration-camp-style torture scenes. "Fortunately my grandparents escaped, but their whole family perished in the Holocaust," she explains. "There were stories in the house of what had happened to them and it wasn't that much talked about. I had to go on a website to read my grandfather's descriptions of what happened to the family, but it is absolutely something I have lived with and have grown up with.

"I loved that this film is an abstract thing because, after the Holocaust, people said it would never happen again but now we have Rwanda and Bosnia. Maybe V for Vendetta can remind us to stand up against such despotism."

Portman was discovered in a New York pizza-parlour, aged 11, and made her film debut in 1994's Leon, opposite Jean Reno.

Today she has no regrets about her four years at Harvard followed by a further year's Hebrew and film studies in Jerusalem. "My parents have always stressed education over success, over money, over everything," she says, "and I think college was great in terms of how it has made me want my career to be as interesting as school. And with fascinating material like this, its all about finding the questions that don't have answers.

"I don't want to ever be working just for money because then you are no different than a prostitute," says Portman, who not only shaved off her hair for V for Vendetta but also voraciously researched her role despite the fact it is a work of fiction. "I read Antonia Fraser's book. It's a great background to the whole Guy Fawkes story - which is not even really the Guy Fawkes story, like there were several other people involved and Guy Fawkes was the first one caught, becoming the poster boy! I also looked at lots of other things like Menachem Begin's book, White Knights, [sic! It's White Nights] plus Macbeth!