Feature by: Jack Foley
AT 23, Natalie Portman has already enjoyed a film career that
many of Hollywood's most esteemed actresses would be proud of.
Ten years ago, she burst onto the scene in Luc Besson's superior
thriller, Leon, appearing as an orphan who befriends a hitman,
before then starring alongside Al Pacino in Michael Mann's crime
Since then, she has landed a prominent part in the new Star Wars
prequels, and has appeared in films such as Woody Allen's Everyone
Says I Love You and Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain.
Her latest film, Garden State, marks a refreshing break from
the blockbusters and epics, in that it marks the directorial debut
of Scrubs star, Zach Braff, and is a big hit among the independent
Portman stars as Sam, a self-confessed liar, who befriends Braff's
actor, Andrew Largeman, when he returns home to attend his mother's
Their ensuing relationship blossoms into love and helps Largeman
to re-discover his zest for life and come to terms with an accident
in his past.
It is a quirky comedy, deliciously well-played, that became one
of the biggest hits of the recent London Film Festival.
And it immediately appealed to Portman's sensibilities.
"I think this movie doesn’t really go into any genre,"
she explained at a recent London press conference, held at the
Covent Garden Hotel.
"Movies now are so often made to mimic other successful
movies in the past that we’ve created these genres, like
the romantic comedy, the thriller, the action movie, that are
so formulaic that you can guess the ending after the first five
"So it was so nice to see something like this that was much
messier, like life, that doesn’t fit into any category,
that doesn’t go with anything we’ve ever seen before.
It just has these unique experiences and unique characters."
She also enjoyed the prospect of working with first-time director,
Braff, who approached the project with much more confidence than
she would initially have imagined.
"He was very confident and very much a leader and really
knew specifically what he wanted to do," she explained. "And
he was very relaxed about it.
"A lot of directors, even experienced ones, get so stressed
out because it’s such a difficult job.
"There’s so much to think about, to be in control
of, and being a leader is hard because it has to be done with
a great amount of humanity.
"People sometimes have a hard time keeping their egotistical
vision intact while being humane to the people they work with.
"Zach was really wonderful about that, he really made this
very collaborative feeling that everyone had a part to play, but
he was the leader. So it was really nice to work on."
What's more, Braff went out of his way to ensure that his stars,
including Peter Sarsgaard, were comfortable with each other long
before filming began, so that key emotional scenes would work
"Zach came to visit me at my university with Peter [Sarsgaard]
for a weekend, and we all went out and partied together, which
is a great way to start out because it breaks down all barriers
when you get a little liquor together.
"And we kept that sort of atmosphere on set - not drinking,
of course, as we were all very responsible and professional and
focussed on our work.
"But there was very much a party
atmosphere, that we were joking and hanging out. I think you feel
that in the film, that there was this sense of friends being with
Garden State has certainly helped Portman to earn some of the
best reviews of her career (which is no mean feat), yet her next
role in another ensemble, Closer, is also producing strong word
of mouth, emerging as a possibly Oscar contender.
Portman stars alongside Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen
in Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's play about relationships,
and has already attracted a certain amount of notoriety because
of the fact she plays a stripper/pole dancer.
When asked to reveal more (not literally!), she blushed a little
and explained: "I try and do different things all the time.
I don’t think of the character as a stripper, or a pole
dancer, as she has several different jobs throughout the story.
That one just happens to be the most salient one for audiences
"But it’s not a conscious decision to show a new side
– namely my backside. It’s more just trying different
"The cast was incredible and the director was the best in
the world. And the writing was really strong. It was an amazing
Equally amazing have been her experiences as part of the Star
Wars franchise, which concludes, in May 2005, with the final part
of the prequels, The Revenge of the Sith.
Needless to say, she was equally gushing about that whole experience,
particularly as 'playing with her light-sabre' enabled her - like
the rest of the cast - to feel like a kid all over again.
"Star Wars is the most like being a child that I’ve
ever experienced in acting," she laughs.
"It’s like taking a refrigerator box and pretending
it’s your space ship because you’re literally working
with nothing, pretending that it’s the most outrageous thing.
" One of the interesting things is that we all have our
idea of what it will look like but then we see it and it’s
completely different. It’s very imaginative and creative."
Portman refused to reveal too much more about The Revenge of
the Sith, save for picking out co-star, Ewan McGregor as one of
the best she has worked with.
"I love Ewan, he’s wonderful. It’s been really
nice to work with him three times now. It makes going back more
fun because it’s like a reunion.
"I appreciate Ewan even more because I love his wife, she
is one of my favourite people that I’ve met through films.
And it says a lot about Ewan that he could find such an incredible
woman to marry."
Yet for all of the star anecdotes and hopelessly successful movies,
Portman remains an engagingly grounded person and is keen to have
a life away from the big screen.
She is an avid reader and even went back to university recently
to complete her academia and to gain some invaluable experiences
of real life.
For, as she states conclusively: "To be an actor, first
and foremost, you have to be a person who’s engaged in the
"Whether that’s through school, or through travel,
or through meeting people and listening to them and learning about
peoples’ lives, I think that’s the most important
"You’re trying to imagine other peoples’ lives
and imagination only takes you to a certain point.
Having knowledge and first-hand experience can really feed that
imagination. So returning to university was an amazing experience
Garden State opens on December 10.