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Natalie Portman: I'm a pleasure seeker, not self-punisher

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • Natalie Portman went method for her role as tortured ballerina in "Black Swan."
  • Film involved grueling classical ballet training
  • Portman: "You really understand the discipline ... the willingness to work through physical pain
  • "Black Swan" is generating award season buzz; Portman awarded Golden Globe

"Black Swan" is a fictional look into the beautiful and demanding world of classical ballet. For more on this fascinating art form, tune into CNN International's arts and culture show icon, whose subject this month is ballet. Watch at the following times: Thursday 27 January: 1230, 1830, Saturday 29 January: 0730, 1600, 2330, 0430, Sunday 30 January: 0830,1930 (All times GMT)

(CNN) -- Living a role for a movie is hard work -- living the physically punishing life of a ballet dancer is even harder. But it's worth it when you get awarded with a Golden Globe for your efforts.

Actress Natalie Portman -- who Sunday won a Golden Globe for her performance in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" -- went method for her role as tortured ballerina Nina Sayers.

Though at a press conference in London she said she was more of a "pleasure-seeker" than a "self-punisher," Portman described the grueling training she underwent for the film, and how mid-way through shooting the film she suffered a dislocated rib.

"We were doing five hours a day of training that was three hours of ballet and then we would swim a mile and tone for two hours," Portman said.

"You really understand the discipline, the rigor, the willingness to work through physical pain," she explained of the physical demands on ballet dancers.

Not only did she have to train as a ballerina, she also had to embody the friable emotional state of a young girl cracking under pressure.

"I think the really tricky part was balancing the physical with the emotion," she said.

You really understand the discipline, the rigor, the willingness to work through physical pain
--Natalie Portman

"You know, my mouth would be hanging open or you'd have your concentration face, which is all sort of furrowed. Half the time, they'd be trying to get me not to have my tongue sticking out. Then to add to that, OK, I have to be acting in the scene."

"Black Swan" is set in a fictional New York ballet company, where highly strung young women battle it out for star roles. Portman plays a corps dancer given the role of a lifetime: that of the Princess Odette in Tchaikovsky's classic ballet, Swan Lake.

But not only does her character have to portray the good princess Odette, who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer; she also plays the sorcerer's daughter Odile, the black swan of the film's title.

Dancing as the two swans proves psychologically unsettling for Sayers, a good girl required to turn bad for the role of Odile. She is goaded by the ballet company director (played by French actor Vincent Cassel) into exploring her dark side for the role.

Faced with competition from ballerina Lily (played by Mila Kunis), and deposed prima ballerina Beth (played by Winona Ryder), Portman's character is increasingly wracked with paranoia.

Portman explained that she was drawn to the world of ballet, which she sees as "a particularly female art form that is still dominated by men," because she wanted to represent the "larger world of women, you know, where one woman gets too old, or out of shape, and there's a younger woman that's going to be slipped into her place."

Exploring that world is fitting for an actress used to working in Hollywood since childhood.

Portman was born in 1981 in Jerusalem and moved to America soon after. She made her acting debut in 1994 as Mathilda Luc Besson's film "Leon," about the relationship between a young girl and a hit man.

Since then, she has played Queen Amidala in George Lucas' big-budget "Star Wars" prequels, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005 for her performance in the film "Closer."

Just to see people engaging so passionately about it is your greatest dream while making a movie.
--Natalie Portman

Portman, now 29, said she was pleased to have had the experience of her 20's before embarking on the demanding role of Nina. She likens her experience as a child actress to that of her character in "Black Swan."

"I started as a child actress and you just sort of want to make people happy and it's almost like that pageant thing where you see the little kids doing their dance or whatever and then look around away to their mom, like, 'How did I do?'" Portman said.

She continued: "And to get to a point where you are really trying to make yourself happy and trying to fulfil yourself through your performance is a whole new experience, and I really gained that in my 20s and it gave me a perspective that really helped with the film."

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times described Portman's performance as "smashing, bruising, wholly committed," while Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent newspaper called it "scintillating." With a Golden Globe win, many are wondering if Portman will get an Academy Award nomination too.

But while she says she finds the awards buzz "flattering," Portman also said that audience reaction is most important to her.

"Just to see people engaging so passionately about it is your greatest dream while making a movie," she said.

Mairi Mackay contributed to this report.