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Black Swan - Natalie Portman interview

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NATALIE Portman talks about some of the many challenges of playing a professional dancer going through an identity crisis in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

She also talks about working with Winona Ryder, surprising herself in what she was able to deprive herself of, and performing through injury.

Q. It was really interesting to read that Andres Heinz’s original idea for Black Swan was to have it set in the theatre. Why did the ballet backdrop provide a better backdrop for this tale of identity crisis and ambition?
Natalie Portman: Well, I actually never read the theatre version of the script. Darren [Aronofsky] spoke to me about the idea 10 years ago when I was still in college and he already mentioned it to me as a story set in the ballet world. That was exciting to me as it was a world that always really appealed to me as a form of expression without words.

But I think the ballet world is really fitting for this because it’s a particularly female art form, but one that’s still dominated by men, and I thought that was really interesting to sort of represent the larger world of women where one woman gets too old, or out of shape, and there’s a younger woman who will slip right into her place. There’s a sort of male structuring… and for a woman to find out how she can be an artist in that structure or having to leave that structure was really interesting for the role.

Q. Your character strives for perfection. Is that something you can relate to?
Natalie Portman: I’m very demanding of myself, I would say, but I’m not self-punishing. I never feel like I’ve done enough… I always feel like I could do more. But I don’t like being hungry or in pain or tired [laughs]. For this character, I went into that self-punishing mode and didn’t sleep and didn’t eat and worked out all day through injuries for three months, but sort of because I was living in that character. But on my own, I’m a pleasure seeker [smiles].

Q. How did you prepare for this physically?
Natalie Portman: I started training a year before the film. I worked with a ballet teacher named Mary Helen Bowers, who was a New York City ballet dancer for 10 years. We were doing five hours a day of training – three hours of ballet, swim a mile and tone for two hours. And then about two months before we started shooting we started working with a choreographer named Benjamin Millepied, and also with various ballet coaches such as Georgina Parkinson and Olga Kostritzky, who really sort of worked on very detailed work from fingertips to elbows to turnout. All of them really shaped it. Many of them were there throughout the film to give me notes… after every take I had five people giving me notes. It was Darren plus all of these other ballet experts.

Q. Do you have an even greater respect for ballet now?
Natalie Portman: Absolutely because you really understand the discipline, the rigour, the willingness to work through physical pain and also spending five hours a day with a ballet dancer throughout the year gave me a lot of stories. You really go through everything and that was really helpful.

Q. Can you talk a little about how Darren Aronofsky approached the film and how far he pushed you as a director? Did it compare with how Vincent Cassel’s character pushes you in the film?
Natalie Portman: Darren is a really, really exacting director. He’s phenomenal and it was really wonderful to get to watch him work because we were really the only ones who were there every day. So, I got to see him work with the different actors who came in and out and see how he tailored his approach with every actor, which was really incredible to see. I think we had an early recognition that we were equally military about our approach to work, that we’d be really focused and disciplined.

Darren Aronofsky

So, it was a really quick connection between us – almost telepathic. He gave me one of the greatest gifts that any director has ever given me, which is after we’d try everything that we wanted to do… he’d give me 10 different ways to attack a scene, he would then say: “Now try this one for yourself…” A lot of directors say: “This is a freebie.” Or: “This is a free take.” But to put it in those words gave me such a different understanding both for myself and for the character. I learned that artistry has to do with pleasing yourself, not with pleasing someone else. Nina’s key to becoming an artist is finding pleasure herself, not trying to just please her mother or Thomas Leroy. So, I was sort of stepping out of that whole world of being a child and becoming a woman.

Q. There’s been some controversy in the States from people within the ballet world who have criticised the depiction of a ballet company. What is your reaction to that? Is it a fair portrayal?
Natalie Portman: Well, first of all we’ve had a lot of really wonderful responses from dancers and ballet dancers. But clearly this depicts one particular dancer’s story in one particular fictional company. So, it’s not meant to be taken as truth for every company, or every dancer. It’s not even to tell one real person’s story. However, I think a lot of the details are mined from true stories. I read a lot of autobiographies and that’s where I got a lot of my ideas from. There’s some stuff that people might not want to admit is true but a lot of it is deeply, darkly true.

Q. Nina would kill to get this role. In an ideal world, is there a role you’d really, really want to grab?
Natalie Portman: I don’t know that I’d really kill for a role! I don’t think anything’s quite that important. But of course there are things that you really want. This film is an example of a role that I was very, very honoured to have the opportunity to do and excited by the chance to challenge myself in this way.

Q. Is the awards buzz important to you? How do you get your head around that?
Natalie Portman: It’s obviously very, very flattering… especially to be named in the company of the actors and the films that are being recognised this year. It’s exciting to be in a film that people like in a year of good films. But at the same time, the really rewarding thing apart from the work itself is audience reaction, which has been so overwhelming. I mean, it’s exciting to hear people debating their different takes on what they thought, what it means, what’s real and what’s not. To see people engaging so passionately is one of your greatest dreams when making a movie.

Black Swan

Q. You mentioned this has been 10 years in the making and given its themes of coming of age and the passage of time, are you now grateful it did take so long to come together? Do you think you would have approached it differently back then?
Natalie Portman: That’s exactly right. I think having the experience of my 20s when I did this film was really an absolute asset because of going from this child-like state of sort of wanting to please people… you know, I started as a child actress and you just sort of want to make everyone happy. It’s almost like that pageant thing, where you see the little kids do their dance and then look right at their mom to ask: “How did I do? How did I do?”

That’s sort of what you feel like as a child actor… you’re always looking for that approval. So, to get to a point where you’re really trying to make yourself happy, and trying to fulfil yourself through your performance is a whole new experience. I really think that being in my late 20s gave me a perspective that really helped with the film. But it also means that the earlier parts of the film, where she’s young, insecure, naive and trying to please everyone, are all the more difficult because it felt like a regression of sorts.

Q. Does the acting world have any parallels with the ballet world in terms of competition for roles and the need to look good?
Natalie Portman: I think there are similar pressures, particularly with that sort of replacement – that there is an age limit. I think in film and theatre it’s a little bit more flexible for actresses because you can change the kind of roles you might go for… from a leading lady to a character actress or something. Whereas, fort dancers, your career is just sort of over at a certain point. There’s also more material reward for what we do than there is for dancers. There’s is truly an art of passion. No one is becoming rich and famous off of being a ballet dancer anymore. But there’s also something incredibly beautiful about that as well.

Q. How did you cope with the emotional demands of the role?
Natalie Portman: It was very tricky. But I think the trickiest part was balancing the physical with the emotional because sometimes just to do a certain move you need so much concentration… sometimes my mouth would be hanging open or you’d have your concentration face and half the time they were just trying to get me not to have my tongue sticking out [smiles]… and then to add onto that I had to act in the scene. Often, the demands were quite contrary to one another. You have to be really confident to do your turns, and yet be really insecure in the scene. So, having to do those at the same time was probably the most challenging. It was constant attention. There was no break in the day. As soon as we would finish a shot I would be warming up physically getting ready for the next thing. It was good to keep that level of alert throughout.

Q. Did you surprise yourself through doing a psychological role such as this? Did you learn anything about yourself?
Natalie Portman: I suppose I learned how much I could do. I didn’t particularly think of myself as someone who seeks pleasure and doesn’t like pain. So, to actually put myself through pain for that long and not just make myself feel good was, I guess, a scary thing to discover but also good to know that I could focus in that way for a role. So, I guess it’s heartening to know that you can deprive yourself in that way. I don’t think I ever expected how hard this was going to be, either. I feel lucky that I didn’t expect it, because it meant I went in with all this enthusiasm and excitement about getting to do ballet and it really propelled me through those difficult moments. I’m not sure that would have been possible had I expected the hardship.

Q. Did you ever take your character home with you?
Natalie Portman: I like to shut off the character as soon as I’ve finished, whether it’s after a take or going home for the day after work. But it was really difficult on this one, probably because I had so much training outside of work to do. I had to go to the gym after work, and then had to wake up at 5am before work and work out beforehand. It was constant throughout the day, so there wasn’t really any time to relax and be myself.

Natalie Portman in The Black Swan

Q. Which of the two swans do you think resembles you the most?
Natalie Portman: Well, I think everyone has a little bit of both. I don’t think anyone is all white or all black. I think we’ve all got purity and impurity battling inside of us [smiles].

Q. How much did the costumes help you get into the role?
Natalie Portman: They were really incredible. They helped me feel swan-like. From the beginning, they had this feather-like suggestion of swan-ness. You look in the mirror and you see a different person.

Q. Can you talk us through some of the injuries you received? Wasn’t there a rib one?
Natalie Portman: Well, there were constant things and strained muscles, but the worst thing was the dislocated rib, which happened during a lift. One rib went under another. It felt like a stitch. It happened at around the halfway point [of filming], so for the second half of the film I couldn’t really take a deep breath. But they just changed the lifts from then on – they did it under my armpits instead of around my ribcage. And it was also good to understand what real dancers go through because they’re constantly dancing through very difficult injuries. It often happens when they get promoted, because they work really, really hard to get promoted and then when they do they have bad injuries because they’ve been dancing so hard. But then they don’t want to give up their spot because they don’t want to be replaced, so they’ll dance with a sprained ankle or a torn muscle, or some really extreme thing that would usually have people benched. But they’ll dance beautifully on stage and then limp off into a bucket of ice. It’s pretty shocking.

Q. I also believe that you trained so hard while you were in Belfast last year that it left you little or no time to sample the night life?
Natalie Portman: [Laughs] Yeah, I started training before I did Your Highness in Belfast, so that was the peak of my pre-movie training. So, I was with the most fun people in the most fun country not having any fun! It was sad. I was like this boring schoolgirl with all the cool guys hanging out. So, there was no drinking and not a lot of eating. I got to see some of the countryside though, which was really, really beautiful. And I saw it sober!

Q. Being an actress, can you relate or empathise with your character’s struggle to differentiate between fact and fiction?
Natalie Portman: Well, I really try and distinguish pretty clearly between what’s real and what’s not. But there are always little strands of your character that you don’t even realise are in you that linger afterwards. I think because you have to internalise so much what a character is going through and the way they think and see the world, as well as themselves, it goes into your brain and into your body and you don’t really understand it until some months later. This one was much harder to shake than most because the world is so all-consuming.

Q. What was Winona Ryder like to work with? Was she someone you always looked up to?
Natalie Portman: Absolutely. I think I’ve probably watched her more than any other actress. But if you think about how many great movies she’s made… I don’t think there’s any actress ever that you can compare. I mean, between Mermaids, Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites and Dracula and Age of Innocence, Little Women… it’s crazy. Most actresses have one of those movies. She’s really an icon, so it was really exciting to get to work with her, and she was amazing. She was kind and professional and patient. A few of the days she had to wait around a long time, but she was completely humble and wonderful. And yet she was able to turn on those extreme emotions so quickly. It was really an honour to get to watch her.

Read our review of Black Swan

Read our interview with Darren Aronofsky