Natalie Portman Is The Woke Actor We Need Right Now
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Portman discusses Annihilation, Hollywood's Time's Up revolution, learning from Reese Witherspoon, and her regret over signing the Roman Polanski petition.
Over the course of Natalie Portman’s career, which has spanned nearly a quarter century, she has been in more than 40 movies; won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in 2010's Black Swan; adapted Amos Oz's autobiographical novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, and directed herself in it; served as the face of Dior (and still does); been a vegan activist; had two young children with her husband, Benjamin Millepied; and sent up her demure public image in two aggressively obscene, bleep-filled raps on Saturday Night Live, first in 2006 and again earlier this month ("Say something about the motherfuckin' prequels, bitch!"). She grew up on Long Island and graduated from Harvard (even as she starred in movies), and lived in Paris from 2014 to 2016, but is now back in Los Angeles.
Portman's latest work, Annihilation, comes out on Feb. 23. Written and directed by Ex Machina's Alex Garland (and based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy), it's a moody, intellectual sci-fi film that is led by a diverse cast of women. Portman plays Lena, a biologist trying to save her husband (Oscar Isaac) who — along with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and two scientists (Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) — sets off into a possibly extraterrestrial "shimmer" in swampy Florida. It’s called "Area X" and is closed off to the public, and no one has ever returned from it alive other than Lena's now comatose husband. The movie is both cerebral and an edge-of-your-seat, nerve-racking thriller. It also features an ending that will certainly spur WTF speculation.
As a celebrity, Portman, 36, has always kept a low profile. But she has recently emerged as a prominent figure in the Time's Up insurgency, which assembled this fall as the reckoning on sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood gathered momentum. When she announced the Best Director category with Ron Howard at the Golden Globes in January, Portman's factual, simple, yet utterly damning statement, "And here are the all-male nominees," was one of the evening's moments of heroism. In a group interview with Oprah Winfrey and other Time's Up women on CBS Sunday Morning, Portman spoke pointedly about inequality in the workplace: "We're human beings, whether we are related to a man or not. We deserve the same respect." And at the Women's March in Los Angeles last month, Portman recounted in a speech that, at a young age, she "built a reputation for basically being prudish, conservative, nerdy, serious, in an attempt to feel that my body was safe" in reaction to coming of age as an actor in an "environment of sexual terrorism."
During a recent interview, Portman talked to BuzzFeed News about Annihilation, working with a nearly all-female cast, her earlier films, and her impassioned feminist activism.
Annihilation filmed in 2016, and it's certainly a departure from your recent work, like Jackie. What drew you to it?
Natalie Portman: I've been a fan of Alex's writing and, more recently, his directing. When I read the script it was unlike anything I had ever read before. I've never come across some of these questions that he poses, and found it really fascinating the way he connected the interior psychological world of these women with their environment. Which I always think is the best kind of thriller: when the "terrifying thing" is an externalization of your internal state. And of course to have five women at the center of it is just unheard of.
Yes, you're the lead in this ensemble cast that's nearly all women. Did that feel different to you?
NP: Completely different. Usually you're the only actress: You're the girl. And that means you're identified as that. And when there's more than one, they have to define you by your personality! The side effect of being the only woman in the workplace is that you don't get to share experiences with other women. And it's just incredible to see each other work and be able to support and encourage each other and have that camaraderie. It was very, very beautiful. Because we've taken it for granted, being the only woman at work — you forget that it isolates and endangers you. You lose all of those opportunities for hearing things that are going on, for warning each other about certain situations, for telling each other how to deal with an uncomfortable experience. It was really wonderful.
I have a friend who's active in Time's Up, and she told me that there are all these actors there who are meeting each other who are so used to being the only one. Has that been your experience too?
NP: Yeah! What feels so revolutionary for us is daily life for men. Men are used to sitting around a table with all men, men are used to being at work with all men; for us, it feels radical. I've had wonderful male mentorships, wonderful male colleagues — that exists. But we've completely lost female mentorship, and missed out because you just don't get exposed to it as much. It's just rarer because of the lower percentage of women in every position of power.
What sorts of conversations did you have with Alex Garland about your character?
NP: He didn't want to be too prescriptive. I think that what was important to him for me was this was a journey through my own demons — I'm trying to not give spoilers. But she's confronting her own behavior and her own actions and what she's done to other people that might be out of line with her personality. Like: Why do we do things that are not in line with the way we say we are, or the way we want to be? How does that change us? How does that mutate us? How does that change other people? This idea that cancer can also be behavioral.
I saw the video of the interview you did during which you found out your character had been whitewashed — that in the second book in Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy, she's identified as being of Asian descent. Now that you know, do you have anything more to say about it? And what did it feel like to find that out during an interview?
NP: Yeah, it felt terrible. This is the thing: There's a very big problem of representation in Hollywood, and I have very strong feelings about it. There's much fewer women onscreen than men, and this movie has so many and I feel so proud of it. And particularly women of color are not seen onscreen — and this movie also has wonderful representations of women of color as well! I feel very strongly about the issue, and there just needs to be more representation, and I would hate to be part of that problem. We based it on the first book, which does not mention race at all.
And it's really unfortunate, and was a surprise to me for sure. And I think we live in a post-Hamilton world where we don't even need to think about what's authentic to the character, like faithful to the character. It should just be that everyone can empathize with everyone. And also going against a horrible history of over-seeing white actors and under-seeing otherized people and minorities.
I take it there was some behind-the-scenes drama between producers on this movie?
NP: I don't know about anything!
I guess David Ellison wanted the ending reshot, and Scott Rudin said no. This was in the Hollywood Reporter.
NP: I don't read it. I don't know anything!
You're answering my question, actually, which was: Were you aware of these fights?
NP: I obviously was not! We did reshoots on the film, so I was obviously aware of that: Some of the interrogation scenes were added.
You've produced movies, and you've also directed. Now that you've done those things, does it feel different when you're an actor for hire in a movie?
NP: Yeah, you appreciate not knowing. Like when you're talking to me about this drama, I'm like, ah, I'm so happy not to know. You can be oblivious, and good producers don't let actors know about any problems. Producers are the problem solvers. With directing, you're responsible for so many things that it's like breadth of knowledge, whereas with acting you can really go for depth. You can have that tunnel vision and just focus on yourself.
I rewatched a bunch of your movies, and started with The Professional. You were 11 or 12 when you filmed it — how do you look back on that experience?
NP: I turned 12 while I was shooting. I look back on it really fondly. I feel like I was so lucky to be the first thing I got, and I feel like I learned so much getting to watch Luc [Besson] as the first director I got to watch work, and Jean Reno was the first actor I got to watch work. And Gary Oldman. I feel lucky that I had very hovering, protective parents too, because I had a positive, wholesome experience. As wholesome as can be, considering that movie has sexual overtones/undertones, and is also very violent. It really seemed like the most fun time for me.
I read a New York Times interview with you and your mom from 1996. And your mom said she hadn't realized when reading the script how sexualized it was going to be.
NP: Yeah, I think for my parents, it was hard to see it. And there was almost a backlash against them when it came out as if they were irresponsible to let me do it. And it kind of scared all of us into — which I've talked about a little bit — buttoning it up afterward. Which was unfair. I mean, I think you do have a lot of sexuality as a kid, and I definitely had that as part of my essence, I think. And it shouldn't have to be buttoned up. It should be allowed to be expressed and not endanger you.
In the interview, you said this really funny thing about turning down Adrian Lyne's Lolita remake: "Let me tell you, that movie's going to be sleaze. He did 9½ Weeks."
NP: Really? That's hilarious. Oh my god, my big mouth. Everything I was being offered was, like, sexy little girls.
Speaking of which, it is weird in 2018 to watch Beautiful Girls. You're so good in it! But your character is 13 and Timothy Hutton's character, who is in his twenties, falls in love with you! And tells you you're prettier than his girlfriend!
NP: Yeah. And in retrospect it's weird because so many of the stories around the Weinstein case involve people from Beautiful Girls. I didn't know that all the adult women I was working with who I was admiring so much and felt so cool to get to be in a movie with them were being harassed at the same time. I was, like, the cute little kid on set everyone was treating totally respectfully and kindly.
And I know you've spoken about your personal experiences, and you've said, "I have a hundred stories" —
NP: Yeah, but I have not been assaulted. I don't ever want to equate that, and I would never put it on the same plane as women who have been. Those women are the ones who've been brave coming forward and talking about their experiences.
It seems like we're in a period of recontextualizing things. And revealing things, of course — Rose McGowan, and the other accusers. But also thinking about things in a different context.
NP: Yes! Absolutely. Like we were saying about rewatching those films, and being like, what we thought was charming then is now very troubling.
Does it seem like there was a disgusting veil over everything that's finally being lifted? Sexual assault and harassment, but also equal pay — these are things that were accepted.
NP: There's definitely a devaluing of female voices, and of females in general. That's what connects the pay, the representation, the harassment, the assault — it's a continuum of behavior that's silencing and very violent and devaluing.
Just saying "the all-male nominees" for Best Director at the Golden Globes did so much. How did that come about?
NP: I discussed with some of the women I've been working with that they had offered to me to present the director category, but I felt uncomfortable because it seemed to be excluding some deserving nominees. And how could I bring attention to it without disrespecting the nominees? Because it's not their fault, and they all made great work. You don't want to not recognize them. It's just, why aren't we recognizing the people who aren't part of this exclusive club? So one of the women recommended I say that, and it felt like stating something that was true.
That's part of what we're here to do. We have to make it weird for people to walk in a room where everyone's not in the room. If you look around a room and everyone looks like you, get out of that room. Or change that room. Whether you go to a restaurant, whether you go to your kid's school, whether you go to work — if you look around, and everyone's not in the room, change that room.
NP: I very much regret it. I take responsibility for not thinking about it enough. Someone I respected gave it to me, and said, "I signed this. Will you too?" And I was like, sure. It was a mistake. The thing I feel like I gained from it is empathy towards people who have made mistakes. We lived in a different world, and that doesn't excuse anything. But you can have your eyes opened and completely change the way you want to live. My eyes were not open.
In that Oprah Winfrey interview with you and other Time's Up people, you said very clearly "I believe you, Dylan" to Dylan Farrow.
NP: I think there's a direct connection between believing women about their own experience and allowing women to be experts of their own experience and every woman's voice being heard. Whether it's someone talking about their work and not being listened to, or someone talking about their own experience of assault and being told that they don't know what they're talking about, I think there's a direct connection between that. Of course, do I know anyone's experience? No. But would I question a man who said "someone stabbed me"? Never! You know? I think it's bizarre. We know that women are systematically not listened to. That victims of sexual assault are systematically not listened to.
I think time may be up for Woody Allen. As someone who has been in one of his movies, and is in the acting community and involved in all this activism, does it feel that way to you?
NP: I don't think that's what the conversation should be about. I think it should be about: Why didn't Elaine May make a movie every year? Why didn't Nora Ephron make a movie every year? Where's the female version of Bill Cosby? Why don't we see any Asian women in films? There's so much art that's being lost by not giving opportunities to women and people of color. Let's not talk about what man's career is over. Let's talk about the vast art trove we've lost by not giving women, people of color, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community opportunities — let's talk about that loss for all of us in art. Let's talk about that huge hole in our culture. I don't want talk about “Isn't it sad that this person who's made 500 movies can't make movies anymore?” That's not for me to decide. And it's also not what I'm upset about.
I'm not upset about it either! Reese Witherspoon has talked a lot about the shitty scripts she was getting, even after she won an Oscar, that led her to start actively producing —
NP: She is a force, making work for everyone, including myself. She is generating so much material, and putting her money where her mouth is.
Has that been your experience too? Just poor quality —
NP: It's crazy. It's crazy! And I get a lot more than a lot of other women, and the stuff I get, I'm like, what? With big leading roles, so often motivations are bad things happening to the children. I don't want to play that! Literally, if you take that out, 90% of what's sent to me, I can't do. Or sexual violence. The number of times you're raped onscreen — there are other things that can motivate women and shape their emotional worlds. It's definitely limited.
So what do you do about that?
NP: I'm learning from Reese! I'm inspired by her. Right now, I'm just trying to get parts that she's created. I'm trying to direct more. But it's a lot! I haven't figured it out as well as she has.
Are you working on something to direct now?
NP: I'm trying to figure out what my next directing project will be, because that's something I would like to do very soon. I think when you direct, it's just so much time you spend working on it that it has to be something that gives you questions and makes you interested. That's why the Oz book was amazing, because I felt like I could always go back to it and find new things, and he just has such an amazing mind. Over the years that I worked on it, it meant different things to me at different times. Similar to Annihilation — it gives you so much to chew on.
You said in your Saturday Night Live monologue earlier this month that you feel like we're living in V for Vendetta. And I think of that movie constantly, because that's how I feel too!
NP: Would it be too much to have a rerelease? A rerelease in a couple of theaters? It's a really tricky time. There is the kind of silver lining to it, that it doesn't let us think that we're past sexism, and past racism, and past homophobia, and past all of these things that maybe during the Obama years we were like, We made it! We did it! Now, it's like: No, we're still in it. And we're facing it. I think it's better to face the truth than to live in oblivion.
This interview has been edited and condensed.