A/V Room









Garden State - It was so nice to see something like this that was much messier, like life

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 epic, Heat.

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 film crowd.

Portman stars as Sam, a self-confessed liar, who befriends Braff's actor, Andrew Largeman, when he returns home to attend his mother's funeral.

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 minutes.

"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 better.

"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 each other."

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 I suppose.

"But it’s not a conscious decision to show a new side – namely my backside. It’s more just trying different things.

"The cast was incredible and the director was the best in the world. And the writing was really strong. It was an amazing experience."

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 world.

"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 thing.

"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 for me."

Garden State opens on December 10.

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