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Interview with Natalie Portman

Aired July 18, 2014 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): Taking her place on center stage, Natalie Portman is a natural in front of the hungry Chinese press.

As the face of Dior, she's in Shanghai for the opening of the design house's latest exhibition reflecting on its 68-year history.

Though being an ambassador of a luxury brand is just one of the many roles she plays.


NATALIE PORTMAN, ACTRESS: Why don't we all die tonight? I can feel it. No, I don't want to die tonight.

RAJPAL (voice-over): As an actress from the tender age of 11, she began attracting attention a couple of years later in Luc Besson's "Leon:

The Professional."

And again as Queen Padme Amidala in the sci-fi feature film series, "Star Wars."

PORTMAN: I move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum's leadership.

Thank you. Pleasure are the die behind the chemical sheds.

RAJPAL (voice-over): And won critical acclaim as a feisty Evie in the political drama, "V for Vendetta."

Today she is a firm veteran of the silver screen, scooping up an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a young American

stripper in "Closer" in 2005. And snapping up the Academy Award for Best Actress six years later for her role in Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan."

But the Harvard-educated star has become as much a leading woman offscreen as she is on it, shining the spotlight on environmental causes

and becoming an ambassador for the microfinance initiative FINCA.

This month on TALK ASIA, we meet Natalie Portman in China and find out how this high-flying star stays grounded.



RAJPAL: Natalie Portman, welcome to TALK ASIA.

PORTMAN: Thank you for having me.

RAJPAL: We're here in Shanghai in China.

Is it true that you've actually spent some extensive period of time of your life in China's traveling around --


RAJPAL: -- for five weeks?

PORTMAN: Yes. I went with some friends all around and had an incredible trip.

RAJPAL: What was your --


PORTMAN: -- years ago.

It was really -- well, I mean, I think, I mean you know how populated it is. But then when you actually experiencing it -- experience it first-

hand you're really shocked by, you know, how small we are in the U.S. or that it just in comparison everywhere else is teeny-tiny.

RAJPAL: There's this perspective that travel can give you just about people, about life. I always thought, though, that acting can do that as


What kind of perspective has your chosen career path given you?

PORTMAN: Well, I think of acting as sort of practiced empathy. Like your job is to think about how someone else feels all day long and what

their life is like and their challenges and hopes and dreams. And so I think when you take that into your real life, it -- you know, you're

practicing, like imagining what someone's life is like.

So it's wonderful to go on the street. And you feel that towards everyone. You're like I wonder what that is like. I wonder what they're

feeling or that you kind of understand -- well, it just trains you to take that into their world, I guess.

RAJPAL: What attracts you to a role?

PORTMAN: It's something different every time. But I think in general, it's the active imagining someone else's existence and the

awareness of parallel realities and parallel concerns that have nothing to do with yours or a little bit to do with yours. But in trying to

understand someone else, it makes you -- I mean, obviously actors play serial killers the time. When you do that, how can you say that's

something you relate to or something that you become, who would want to become that?

So I think -- but trying to understand or get into a mindset just gives you a greater empathy in the world, even though, of course, there's

the impossibility of ever knowing anyone truly.

RAJPAL: And it almost puts you in a level as a psychologist as well, isn't it? I mean, you studied psychology at school. So it's a

psychological research moment, isn't it?

PORTMAN: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

RAJPAL: I read that when you were filming "Black Swan," for which you won the Academy Award, your director, Darren Aronofsky had said to you

during takes, "This one. Do this one for yourself."

Do this one for you. What did that mean for you, to be given that kind of freedom when you're filming? It's someone else's vision, someone

else's idea of what they want.

PORTMAN: Well, I think as an actor, also I think sociologically as a female, too, that I've personally -- I don't know if it's true for other

people, too, but I personally feel often trying to please and trying to do and trying to be what other people want me to be and want me to say and act

and do. And so to do it for yourself and to be asked by the person I'm trying to please to do what pleases me, it just put me in my own body and

made me the subject of my creation instead of the object and the subject of my feelings and desires and everything which is a really powerful gift that

I feel that he gave me.

RAJPAL: Well, it's interesting you say that, because I've seen you talk about the director, Mike Nichols, who directed you in "Closer," and he

has often quoted David Mamet, saying, "Film is a collaborative business. Bend over."

PORTMAN: Exactly.


RAJPAL: I love that line.

PORTMAN: It's great.

RAJPAL: Because as much as an artist, you want to show what you can do ultimately. I'm assuming it's what the director wants.

PORTMAN: Yes and also increasingly what studios or financiers, if it's an independent film, what they want, too, is largely considered. So

it becomes this collaborative effort which -- yes, you know, take a lot of artist's vision away.

But ultimately I think that films are best when they are one person's -- one person's vision and one person's insight.

RAJPAL: So where, then, does ego fit in, one's own ego, one's own ideas?

PORTMAN: I don't think -- I don't think ego can fit in. I think that it's really about bringing your best and then trying different things and

you are -- you're working with other people and it's pretty magical when all of it comes together.


RAJPAL (voice-over): Straight A student. We hear you have this career as well.

What was that time like for you growing up in Long Island (ph)?

PORTMAN (voice-over): Yes. It was like SATs (INAUDIBLE).




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry about your father.

PORTMAN: Anyway, somebody didn't do it someday or another, I would probably done it myself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your mother. Is she there?

PORTMAN: She's not my mother. I mean, (INAUDIBLE) my real mother. My sister, she wanted to lose weight anyway. I bet she never looked so

good. Wasn't even my sister, really. Just a half sister. (INAUDIBLE) with that.


RAJPAL (voice-over): You've been doing this since you were 11, 12 years old? Making your film debut to the world in "Leon: The


What has kept you interested in this business for this long?

PORTMAN: Well, I think it's that thing of there's an infinite number of interesting lives that are your journalistic interest, I would imagine,

that that never stops your curiosity about people and love for people and interest and understanding why they do, how they do what they do.

I mean, that's sort of the seed of living, just this curiosity and interest in other human beings. And there's no end to good stories, so --


RAJPAL: What about your ability to see yourself objectively?

So when you see the finished product, is it -- is it a strange experience in that -- and how's that changed as you've grown in this


PORTMAN: It's very hard to watch yourself. I mean, I feel like I'm definitely hypercritical of myself. So I just am -- and I'm not someone, I

don't like beating myself up. So I tend to see it once and then never again, no matter what it is, whether -- and sometimes not at all if I'm too

afraid of how it turned out.

So yes, which also, I think, protects the ego because you don't want to be like, oh, I'm so great or I'm the worst and I never want to -- I can

never do it again. You know, you can't focus too much on the product and just I think as an actor it's much more about the process of doing it

that's fulfilling, that -- yes, the end results aren't the prize.

RAJPAL: You've had quite a varied career. I love this quote that David Gordon Greene (ph), your director in "Your Highness" describes.

He goes, describes you as this warrior princess, who's dirtier and more foul-mouthed and more violent than everybody else.

What I couldn't --

PORTMAN: Pfeiffer, in the movie.



PORTMAN: -- my character --

RAJPAL: -- the violent part -- was it about you?

PORTMAN: No, that's the character in "Your Highness."

RAJPAL: Is that what attracted you to the role, though?

PORTMAN: I am not. I am not that. I mean, I'm not like -- I'm not like a prude angel, but I'm not like in that group, the foul-mouthed one



RAJPAL: It's OK if you were.

PORTMAN: It's totally fine if I were, but, yes, he's discussing the character.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give me the compass now.

PORTMAN: And if I don't?


Then things will be very nasty.

PORTMAN: Oh, really?


That didn't really go as planned.


RAJPAL: You've been able to balance your career ,a demanding career, both physically and emotionally, mentally demanding career from the time

you were, as I said, a young adolescent, still managing to get straight A's in school, from what I understand, at a time when it's difficult for any

young budding teenager going through school.

And here you have this career as well.

What was that time like for you growing up in Long Island?

PORTMAN: You know, it was great. I liked -- I liked school and it gave me -- I think it was -- it gave me a nice balance to all the craziness

that -- and gave me something authentic to balance the fairy tale of what it's like to be an actor, which is really wonderful but oftentimes you're

like this doesn't feel real, because it's so dreamy and it's wonderful. It's kind of a dream life.

RAJPAL: Such as "Star Wars."


RAJPAL: Right? I mean, wasn't that -- was that during high school, a senior -- ?


PORTMAN: I did my first -- the first one after my junior year, between junior and senior year.

RAJPAL: So these are amazing milestones in your life, but two very different milestones --

PORTMAN: Yes, it was like SATs and "Star Wars."

RAJPAL: What did your parents tell you about how you would -- how you should balance the two?

PORTMAN: They didn't really have talks with me but I think their emphasis on being and school -- and I was in public school in New York,

going just like everyone else and then them just being normal, really good human beings was the best thing they could have done. They were just good

examples of people with good values.

RAJPAL: And then Harvard comes along. I read that it, for you, was a humbling experience but yet at the same time it gave you confidence to be

among those that were in a completely different world, intellectually as well.

What -- how has that confidence helped you in your -- in your life now?

PORTMAN: Well, I think when you have brilliant professors, they respect you and demand this intellectual rigor from you, not that you feel

smarter than anyone else, but just that you deserve the respect for your -- for everything you have to say.

RAJPAL: Is this -- do you think that -- I mean, I think it's similar for pretty much all industries, that we often all feel the need to demand

in some sort of way that our opinions are taken seriously and our voices are heard and that we're valued.

PORTMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And yes, no, it's an ongoing challenge to be honest and definitely having both other students and

professors take you seriously and demand that you be serious and that you voice your opinion and being asked to give your opinion all the time and

state your thesis and argue it really was great, confidence-building for what I have now in my daily life.


RAJPAL (voice-over): What does it mean for you to be part of this history now?



RAJPAL: It's amazing to see the dresses and the art that's inspired by these iconic pieces. And what does it mean for you to be part of this

history now, this continuously evolving history?

PORTMAN: Well, it's incredible and I love the fact -- I always love seeing when artists create their environment full of art and what inspires

them and to see that tradition continuing and what has to do our continuing to commission artists, be inspired by artists, have this dialogue between

the fashion and the art, I think, is really a great exciting tradition.

RAJPAL: It's almost this community type feel, isn't it, of artists where you have all forms, all mediums, just working together and the

inspiration that comes from it. And for you and what you do for a living as well, you take inspiration from everywhere.

PORTMAN: Absolutely. And to see all of these women from different places in the world given the same sort of assignment, so to speak, and

come up with such wildly different things, all the same sort of emotion behind it, of this liberated and interesting woman, I think, is really


And yes, for me, music, art, literature all are so influential.

RAJPAL: It gives me goose bumps when you walk around and you see the inspiration from Picasso and Dali as well. I mean, like I said, it's part

of this iconic fashion house.

What made you decide to want to be part of it?

PORTMAN: Well, I think it's just such a legendary house, Dior. Of course, it's an honor to follow in the footsteps of all of the great

actresses and women who have been part of the -- been associated with the brand.


RAJPAL (voice-over): We've met here because you're an ambassador for Dior, Miss Dior.

Christian Dior wrote in his memoirs, "Chance always comes to the aid of those who really want something."

What kind of a life have you always wanted for yourself? And do you think you have?

PORTMAN: I don't know, that's a hard question.


PORTMAN: I think mainly one that where I'm trying to be good but also enjoy, because I think ultimately those are the two things you're going to

be left with is how you treated other people and the connections you make to other people and also the pleasures of your life. So balancing the joy

and the responsibility and love towards other people.

RAJPAL: You are a producer. You have your production company. A director: tell me about "A Tale of Love and Darkness."

PORTMAN: Well, "A Tale of Love and Darkness" was an incredible experience to film. We just finished shooting in March and have been

editing since and it's based on the Amos Oz memoir of the same name. And it's sort of the relationship between a mother and her son with the

backdrop of the creation of the State of Israel.

And yes, so the history is more of a backdrop, I would say, than the center of the story. But it was really a dream to get to make and I'm

excited about continuing working on it.

RAJPAL: And in the backdrop of that was also at a very tumultuous time for the history. So much of what happens in conflict, emotion is

heightened but emotion of people's lives and experiences and what they truly want for their families, everyone is the same.

How did you manage that kind of emotion in -- as a director for such what some would say then is a sensitive topic?

PORTMAN: Well, it's also partly my family's own mythology and that also really interested me, the sort of mythology versus truth like we were

talking about with history in general, of course is very valuable and it was really interesting to deal with that because you start looking at it

and say, OK, I've heard these stories a million times. My grandparents came to then Palestine when -- in the '30s and what part of their stories

are -- have become tales we tell at home and what parts were real and what are the other details that I didn't get from my family that fill in that

experience and make me understand better.

So that was really interesting for me personally, too.


PORTMAN (voice-over): The mission of FINCA's in Mexico and I'm more than 20 countries around the globe is to provide financial services,

especially small loans, to the world's poorest of the poor so they can start or grow their own businesses and work their way out of poverty.

The mission is based on the philosophy that the working poor don't need our charity. All they need is a chance. FINCA's Village Banking

program offers that chance. A loan of just $50 is enough to buy corn in bulk for making tortillas, a used sewing machine to make clothes faster

than by hand, clay for the family pottery business.


RAJPAL: Tell me about your role as ambassador of Hope for FINCA.

PORTMAN: Well, FINCA has been an incredible organization to be involved in. It's given me the opportunity to meet really incredible women

all over. And it's really incredible to see how resourceful and capable these women are. They really self-govern; the whole concept of village

banking is that they create their social group for this. They get their loan as a group and that's sort of the collateral, is the social bonds

between the women, which is pretty incredible, that they don't want to let each other down. And if they do, they'll go over to their house and

they'll tell them off and that's sort of what guarantees these loans that they then pay back and then really change their lives.

RAJPAL: Natalie Portman, it's been a pleasure.

PORTMAN: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much.