At 29, Natalie Portman has already been in the business a long time. A child star at 13 in Luc Besson's Léon, she became a sci-fi pin-up as Queen Amidala in the 'Star Wars' prequels, but at 18 went to Harvard to study psychology, announcing she'd 'rather be smart than a movie star'. She's certainly achieved her first aim – she speaks multiple languages, she lobbies for a microfinance organisation – but she is also undeniably a movie star, even if some of her recent flicks (Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, The Other Boleyn Girl) have been a bit limp. Yet her latest, Black Swan, glides gracefully into the UK atop a tidal wave of excitement, with a Golden Globe nomination for Portman and most likely an Oscar nod later this month.
The film, by The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky, is an intense psychological thriller set in a New York ballet company, with Portman playing the uptight Nina, a dancer who lives with her controlling mother in a cosseted world where pink fluffiness meets steely determination. Desperate to land the lead in Swan Lake, which demands she inhabit the dual roles of the white and black swans, the virginal Nina struggles to get in touch with her passionate inner 'black swan', teetering on the brink of sanity in the process.
Black Swan has ruffled a few feathers in the dance community, with its bitchy, bulimic dancers and predatory artistic director – stereotypes the industry is at pains to dispel. In its defence it's hardly meant to be a documentary, although it does effectively capture the physical grit of life as a ballet dancer. While Portman had a dance double for some scenes, she makes a credible on-screen ballerina, and it took a year of gruelling training to get there, dancing for up to eight hours a day and dislocating a rib while she was at it (and then still dancing). She worked with some of the industry’s best coaches, as well as New York City Ballet choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who became her boyfriend. A week after our interview it was announced that the pair are not only engaged, but Portman is pregnant.
Since she's a true pro, though, there's no hint of this when we meet. She is consistently bright eyed and interested, even if she might have heard a few of the questions before. Up close her beauty is pristine. Black Swan – a melodramatic meditation on perfectionism –seems to have a star who’s almost too damn perfect herself.
The atmosphere of the film is incredibly claustrophobic, with the camera following you closely all the time. What was it like to film?
'I think that's one of the things that's very different about Black Swan as a dance film. Dance is so often filmed full stage and from the audience it looks so light and beautiful and delicate and you get up close and they're pouring with sweat, they're completely out of breath, they sometimes have to ice [injuries] immediately off-stage. There's so much pain, gory pain. It's great having that access to the sort of underside of the ballet world.'
One of the things that makes the film so tense is the sound design – your breathing is really vivid.
'We did a whole breathing soundtrack, a whole run of the film where I went into a sound studio and just breathed with it, because they couldn't mic me when I was dancing.'
The film shows a ballet world as ultra competitive, but surely Hollywood's not so different?
'There are definitely similar types of pressures, but the acting world is bigger. In the ballet world there are so few principal positions. Also, the expiration date on an actor is because of the society we're in, rather than the physical ability. For dancers you’re really done at 40 – there's a physical limitation on how long you can work.'
So it’s more urgent…
'And all the people in ballet are in it for the passion of it. You find people in the acting world who are doing it for the money, the spotlight. But for dance it's really about the beauty of the moment. There aren't any extreme superficial rewards.'
Certainly not financial ones. You were training for Black Swan while working on other films. How did that work?
'I went to Belfast to shoot the film Your Highness, but I had a supporting role so I had a lot of days off where I could just train. And the days I did work I would do two hours before work and three hours after.’
Your Highness is basically a stoner comedy, which is a contrast with the rigid discipline of ballet…
'They would all have so much fun after work, going to bars, hanging out. And I was like, no alcohol, barely any food, so it wasn't a very social experience. But the funny thing was work really became my outlet. Work was so fun and I just laughed every day, it was a real relief to get to go to work [laughs], which was a new experience.'
What was the toughest thing about doing ballet?
'The pressure to be thin while expending so much energy. I was like, okay, I'm hungry, I need fuel, and I'm not someone who deprives myself. People would tell me all the time – the ballet coaches and Darren – "You don't really look like a ballerina yet," which was code for: "You're not skinny enough."'
But dancers do eat, don't they?
'I think in public they want everyone to believe that. And I think a lot of them do, a lot of them are healthy. I'm not making a blanket statement at all. But there are a lot of eating disorders. I don't know if it's more prevalent in certain companies, but when I talked to the women [dancers] they said pretty much every dancer in the company has had some bout of eating disorder. There are certainly cases of people who are healthy through and through, but, look, I did ballet for a year and just by the ballet you don’t get skinny. You get fit, but there’s effort required to look emaciated.'
New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay recently sparked controversy by saying a dancer looked like she'd 'eaten one sugar plum too many'. Have you been following Sugar Plum gate?
'Yes! That guy's defence was that this is one of the standards of ballet and if you don’t want that you shouldn't enter into it. But there are certain standards of ballet that are antiquated and need to be reversed. If someone's line is off, if there's something they can't do or if they're out of shape it's different to if you're making a comment on their appearance – which is just sick thinking.'
So the training was tough. But did you also get some pleasure out of it?
'Oh yeah. I really loved it. I loved learning the specifics, to see how much they work on fingertips, eyes, wrists – these really tiny nuances. And I did love the discipline. I'm kind of military. I really enjoy that kind of discipline.'
You can see how that attention to detail engenders obsessive perfectionism –a trait that your character strongly displays.
'It's a very obsessive-compulsive art. There's so much ritual in it: doing the barre every day, prepping the shoes. There are so many compulsive behaviours which lead to virtuosity. I think you would see it in violinists or computer programmers, or anyone who's really wonderful at something – this obsessive repetition until you get something right. But then there are the negative manifestations, like eating disorders, which are totally connected to that.'
Are you a perfectionist when it comes to acting?
'I'm extremely self-critical and I'm never really happy with what I do, but I'm really not self-punishing. In my own life I’d rather sleep in than wake up and go to the gym, whereas during the movie I would wake up at 4am or 5am to work out before work. I was in constant pain but it was because that world is very different from who I am. I sleep, I get massages. I'm a pleasure seeker.'
'Swan Lake' is a very dualistic story (white swan/black swan) and the film plays female sexuality in the same dualistic way (virgin/whore). Isn't that a bit simplistic?
'But it's all aspects of herself, it's one person. Everything happens in her mind, really – that's what made it interesting. We all have those constructs in our mind anyway and to play with how having these prescribed roles affects one woman was exciting to dig in to.'
You always had quite a 'good girl' image, but this film has a lesbian love scene and your next one, No Strings Attached, is all about guilt-free sex. Are you more confident playing your sexuality on screen now?
'Yeah, and also I think having a separate public identity as opposed to my character identity also makes me feel free. That people realise you're acting, that you're not that person you're playing on screen and you can be wild and free.'
And you've become more confident as you've got older…
'I think you just get more comfortable in your own skin. You're not trying to be anything that you're not because you know you can't be. You've tried to be other things and you've failed so you're just stuck with yourself. But you accept it in a way that makes everything easier and happier.'
You've just started a production company, Handsomecharlie Films. What will you be making?
'We primarily want to make the kind of movies we want to see. It's exciting when there are new talents we can help get on their feet. Our first film, Hesher, is coming out this year with a first-time director. We produced No Strings Attached, and that's from a fantastic young female writer.'
I heard you wanted to make films that were the female equivalent of Superbad. Is that right?
'We really want to make everything. Annette Savitch is my producing partner and something that we really want to see – because we're both women who like to laugh – is movies with funny women. I love watching those [Judd] Apatow movies and I want to see girls get to do that stuff too. That's not the focus of our company but it's certainly appealing to us because it's something that we feel is lacking.'
So you definitely see your future in film?
When you went to college you suggested you might do something else. 'I think school gave me interest in other things, but also allowed me to accept and appreciate that I do love acting. l think it was something I had… I don't know if embarrassment is the right word, but maybe [I thought] that it wasn't a serious enough pursuit, coming from an academic family; that I wasn’t being a serious person by doing this. And when I saw that people would major in, you know, the history of boats [laughs], and people really focused on very obscure things that were their interest and their passion, you know, it's really about what makes you happy.'