“Such incredible ­energy”

Natalie Portman

Interview

  • INTERVIEW RÜDIGER STURM

As her directorial debut, Natalie Portman has made a film that takes place in Jerusalem – a city that holds her spellbound to this day. She talks about her strong ­Jewish roots

For A Tale of Love and Darkness, you switched from acting to directing. Is that your main pro­fession now?

Oh no, as much as I respect directors, now I know just how much hard work and focus go into what they do. Being calm and kind all the time is another extraordinary feat because directing is so stressful and intense. It’s nice to get back to acting for a little afterwards.

Your personal directing debut took you to Jerusalem, which is where you were born. What does the city signify to you?

Jerusalem is a place thick with emotion and passion that has created many dreams. It’s such an incredible energy to work in. Israel is a country I think about a lot and dream about a lot.

Is it anything like your dreams in reality?

No, it’s so different. It’s always interesting to go and see what the atmosphere is, it is very hard to understand when you’re away. Standing in front of the Western Wall for the first time was very powerful. Imagining that your relatives were in the same place thousands of years ago, and feeling spiritually connected to a higher power was very, very moving. Being Jewish has always been a part of me, no matter where I have lived. In fact, it was hammered into me at a young age that being Jewish was my identity.

That sounds very negative, as if you were under duress …

That’s not what I meant. It’s been complicated, but unlike my friends who have had to search for their identity, I never questioned mine. I am part of this culture and it is a big part of me.

Such incredible energy Interview Natalie Portman

The Professional made Portman a star at 13

© ddp images

Dissatisfaction seems to be part and parcel of Israeli culture. You once wrote that Hebrew has many words for “bother” but none for “to please.”

Every language has something specific to it. In Israel it feels like everyone is always nagging at each other. But there is something special, too: There is no word in Hebrew for “to be” in the present tense. You don’t say “I am happy,” you say “I happy.” You can say “I will be happy” or “I was happy,” but it’s interesting that whether or not you exist is not questioned at all. You feel this in Israel. People just are. They have an ability to be in the present.

Your film of the Amos Oz book takes place during the founding of the state of Israel. Did you have to study Jewish culture intensively?

When you are brought up like I was learning about Jewish history and the history of your own family, you develop a sensitivity to oppression and struggle. They always say that Jews in America earn like Republicans but vote like Democrats. We are very socially conscious as a group. And education is very highly valued. It was always: “School, school, school’s first. Your grades are the most important, do well in school.”

In filmmaking, perfection is imperfection

Did you ever think by studying so much that you were missing out?

You feel like you are missing out on some things but you also gain a lot of other things. I look at it pragmatically. I really lucked out and had a normal adolescence, went to parties, did stupid things. But it was all private. I even went through four years of college without a single paparazzi picture of me, even though I was making Star Wars prequels at the time. Things were different then. The media still respected your privacy and a lot of the gossip industry didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Such incredible energy Interview Natalie Portman

In her current film, Portman plays the mother of the boy who will become the Israeli writer Amos Oz

© Koch Films

You have a degree in psychology. Could you ever imagine working in that field?

It would be pretty weird – I would be an actor playing a psychologist. And anyway, my degree doesn’t qualify me to work as a psychologist. But it’s something that will always inform what I do as a person and as an actor. I still read a lot about it and I have been trained to look at people’s behavior in a certain way. There are definitely complexes that I attribute to certain characters.

What psychological complex might a doctor diagnose you with – too much ambition, perhaps?

Ambition, yes, but not too much. I was much more competitive in my early twenties, although I’m still very, very competitive with myself. I think you tend to see other people as threatening when your own identity isn’t very strong, but I just really, really like to do well.

So would you call yourself a ­perfectionist?

I think all artists strive toward some kind of ephemeral beauty that you cannot trap. When you’re making a film, you’re depicting life, and life is a mess. So in filmmaking, perfection is imperfection. The beauty lies in the messiness.

Is there anything you don’t like about filmmaking?

When you’re making independent films, it can be very hard working with a very small budget. The good thing is that everyone is there because of their passion for the project. But I’ve worked on projects where production assistants couldn’t even buy a coffee for them-selves because they were making so little money. That’s tough.