Natalie Portman isn’t surprised that critics are excoriating her new movie.
Yes, she was hurt when she saw the withering reviews for “Lucy in the Sky” following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. But she got it.
The movie isn’t, as she calls it, “easy.” It’s about a complicated woman who is neither hero nor villain — the kind of character who, Portman understands, can make audiences uneasy because “they don’t know how they’re supposed to feel about her.”
In the Fox Searchlight drama, out Oct. 4, Portman plays an astronaut who is so emotionally affected by her first mission into space that when she returns to Earth, she cannot assimilate back into daily life. So she looks elsewhere for an adrenaline high, entering into an extramarital affair with a NASA colleague. The cheating exhilarates her — until she learns she’s not the only one her coworker is sleeping with.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it was inspired by Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who in 2007 drove frantically from Houston to Orlando to confront the colleague she was romantically engaged with after she learned he’d taken a new lover. Nowak was arrested and later charged with attempted kidnapping but her story largely fascinated because of one peculiar detail: In an effort to minimize her pit stops on the long road trip, police said she’d worn diapers, an allegation she later denied.
But because “Lucy in the Sky” is not based on Nowak specifically — both Portman and director Noah Hawley are careful to not even mention her name in interviews — the maximum-absorption garments were not included in the screenplay. And the internet did not take this news well. A Slate headline called for a boycott of “Portman’s Diaperless Astronaut Diaper Movie.” Vulture jokingly threatened to take up the issue with the U.S. Supreme Court, lamenting: “Oh, Natalie Portman’s astronaut diaper, I am mourning your loss even though I never knew you.”
“Oh, the diaper sadness,” Portman says with a laugh, well aware of the headlines. She explains that because the diapers were “the most salient, tabloid-y detail” of Nowak’s story, their inclusion would have unfairly indicated that the movie was a depiction of the real-life astronaut.
“It was an interesting detail, because it was something that seemed so radical to all of us listening to it,” she says. “But actually it’s part of an astronaut’s life. They wear diapers the whole time because that’s what you do in space. It’s not like it would be an unusual choice. It seems a lot nuttier if that’s not something you do every day. But I guess I still have a diaper movie in my future to fulfill everyone’s expectations.”
A couple of weeks after the movie’s Toronto debut, Portman is back in L.A., eating tacos at one of her favorite vegan spots, Gracias Madre. After lunch, she’s planning to pick up her kids — she has an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter — and head downtown to the Climate Strike march.
At 38, she feels comfortable openly discussing her political beliefs. As a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel, she has been vocal about the Israeli government, at times criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last year, she produced a documentary with Jonathan Safran Foer about the implications of factory farming. And she was one of the first actresses to join Time’s Up in the fall of 2017, most recently partnering with the organization to advocate for equal pay for women soccer players.
Still, she acknowledges that the female-led organization is still figuring out how to best execute policy change in the workplace — particularly in Hollywood.
“It’s a really, really complicated pursuit,” she admits. “The cultural conversation has gone really far, but the actual tools to implement change? It’s completely different for every industry. It’s like a Rubik’s cube — you find a solution on one side and find a hole on the other side. It’s super complicated to try to actually address in concrete ways, which is why two years after the explosion of [#MeToo], we’re still struggling to come up with real protocol.”
Despite working as a teenager with Luc Besson, Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, Portman says she was never harassed on or off set — perhaps due to the fact that she had “really hovering parents.” She has publicly voiced her support for Dylan Farrow, and can’t stop gushing over “She Said,” the new book by the New York Times reporters who broke the Weinstein story. But last week on Instagram, she posted a picture celebrating the 25-year anniversary of “The Professional,” which was directed by Besson.
Last year, nine women accused the French director of sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior; through his lawyer, Besson has denied “reprehensible behavior of any kind.”
Portman says she has not commented on the Besson accusations because she feels like she’s in a “tricky position.”
“I didn’t have any bad experience with him, but I never want that to be used as a defense,” she explains. “I think we need to listen to all people who need to come forward. No one benefits from coming forward. It’s really hard to do. They might benefit emotionally from being able to speak their truth and not hide, but it takes a really big toll on people. I hate when people make claims that anyone would come out for any reason other than to protect others. So I listen to women, I think everything should be investigated very seriously. But I had a perfectly good experience. I can say my own experience with someone, but that doesn’t mean that someone else did not have a bad experience, and I don’t want it to be used that way.”
While she doesn’t think it’s fair for actresses to have to answer for male directors’ bad behavior, she does believe that “there are choices to be made” when it comes to who she and her peers align with.
“I mean, I’m not working with [Besson],” she says.
Part of the reason she recently decided to return to her role as Jane Foster in the “Thor” franchise, she says, was because she felt that Marvel had made a serious commitment to onscreen diversity. So next August, she’ll start shooting Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” opposite Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, in which Foster becomes a gender-swapped version of the brawny superhero.
“Being at Comic-Con this year and seeing how many incredible artists they have assembled in one place? I was like, I don’t think there’s any comparison — having all of these people who really look like a reflection of the world now,” she says of the project’s announcement at a star-studded panel in San Diego this past July. “This is important and cool and meaningful and fun too. They’re remembering that entertainment should be entertaining. [Taika] found the silly. Comics are funny, you know? I think there was a period where everyone was trying to be epic with them.”
However, Portman also has expressed her disappointment with how few female filmmakers get studio gigs. At the Golden Globes in 2018, she inserted some subtle commentary while introducing the best director category, referring to the five honorees as “the all-male nominees.” Yet of the roughly 40 feature films she has appeared in, only two were made by women. One was Rebecca Zlotowski’s 2016 film “Planetarium.” The other, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” released the same year, Portman directed herself.
“I’m committed to working with female directors and male directors — I don’t think it’s an either/or,” Portman insists. “It doesn’t feel like a problem to me as long as I’m still working with female directors.”
She said she felt particularly comfortable collaborating with Hawley, the “Fargo” showrunner making his feature debut, on “Lucy in the Sky” because his mother is the women’s rights activist Louise Armstrong, who spoke out on behalf of victims of incest and sexual abuse. Growing up in New York, his home was frequented by feminist thought leaders like Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller.
Portman also liked that the project was being produced by Reese Witherspoon, who was initially set to star in the film but had to back out due to scheduling issues on “Big Little Lies.”
To prepare for the role, Portman traveled to Houston and took a public tour at NASA. The filmmakers were “I think a little concerned that if we went to [NASA] in official ways” they might not cooperate because “it’s not, like, the shining moment of their history,” Portman says. Still, the astronauts on the tour understood Portman was working on a movie and proved helpful, sharing details of the extensive psychological testing they underwent prior to traveling to the space station.
Hawley also requested she watch 1983’s “The Right Stuff” to get into the mindset of being one of the few women in a male-dominated work environment.
“I wanted it to be like Lucy could be put into ‘The Right Stuff’ and hold her own,” the director explains over the phone. “Something I didn’t expect from Natalie, and hadn’t necessarily seen in work, was the swagger she has. That confidence. She has this ability to make you feel what she’s feeling. And she makes very deliberate choices. She’s not making a lot of [movies], and she takes time between projects. I think she understands that if you’re going to ask your children to sacrifice their time with you, it better be for the right thing.”
One of the biggest concerns on set was striking the right tone as Lucy begins to spiral. Hawley didn’t want the story to veer into “Fatal Attraction” territory, where a woman is driven to lunacy because she’s been spurned by a man.
“That was a real big concern,” says Jon Hamm, who plays Portman’s secret lover in the film. “We didn’t want her to be perceived as this unhinged, crazy person — because she’s not. She has a hard time dealing with an uncertain stage in her life. And you see it all the time. If a guy loses his temper, he’s seen as being strong. And if a woman loses her temper, she’s being emotional or crazy. It’s not fair, and it’s not right.”
Portman was drawn to the role, she says, exactly because of these complications — that a woman who was such a high achiever could also display huge character flaws. “Natalie portrays that with so much grace,” Hamm says. “But it doesn’t fit in a box. And complicated stories are difficult to get out to people now that we have a million ways to see things. That’s where we are in the world of storytelling right now, especially with feature films.”
The actress says she’s hopeful “Lucy in the Sky” will find an audience, despite the early reactions. Anyway, she’s been down this road before — just last year, in fact, when Paramount decided to offload the international distribution of her movie “Annihilation,” directed by Alex Garland, to Netflix.
“The studio was totally freaked out when they tested that movie,” Portman says. “We thought we were getting totally dumped, and then [the reaction] was so huge. People talk to me about that movie way more than anything I’ve recently done. I’ve been here in this world long enough to know that a lot of things are unexpected.”