Natalie Portman has Oscar — and a baby — on her mind

Natalie Portman arrives at the 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

You’d think this much would have been enough to make 2011 a banner year for Natalie Portman: So far this year, she’s won a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe, earned an Oscar nomination and watched as her art-house film “Black Swan” has taken in $90 million domestically (and counting).

But her good fortune doesn’t stop there. She’s also navigating award season with a growing baby bump and an engagement ring from fiancé Benjamin Millepied, whom she met on the set of the psychological thriller about a prima ballerina.

It’s enough to make the 29-year-old actress’ head spin.

“I feel like I’m on another planet or something right now. It’s not quite sinking in,” Portman says with a laugh.

Although she says she’s honored by all of the accolades she’s received for her role as an increasingly unhinged dancer, she’s intently focused on her personal life.

“I feel really lucky. It’s something that’s completely wonderful, and I have a very definite goal I’m working toward with that,” says Portman, who’s due in the summer.


Although her shooting schedule is open for the foreseeable future, which will enable her to spend time with her newborn, she’ll be promoting three new releases over the next six months: the big-budget action film “Thor,” the comedy “Your Highness,” costarring Oscar co-host James Franco, and “Hesher,” in which she stars alongside Joseph Gordon Levitt and which marks her debut as a producer.

However, being busy is something to which the Israeli-born actress has become accustomed since her debut in 1994’s “The Professional.” She’s become known for committing fully to whatever role she’s playing, famously shaving her head for her part in “V for Vendetta” and showing her steamy side in “Closer,” which garnered her first Oscar nomination in 2005.

“I made my first movie when I was 11. I’m an old hag,” she quips. “I guess it’s pretty common with actors, to be doing this for 18 years, but it’s extreme.”

However, extreme is precisely what director Darren Aronofsky was looking for eight years ago when he discussed the seeds of an idea for a ballet movie with Portman. Multiple scripting and financing hurdles stood in the way of getting the film off the ground, but Portman was living the role of tortured dancer by the time shooting began in 2009.

“Every time Natalie walked down the street, she had to walk like a dancer,” Aronofsky says. “She was not only emotionally deep into it, she was physically deep into it.”

“Everyone was really tough, most importantly Natalie,” adds producer Scott Franklin. “The physical rigors she put herself through were just amazing to watch.”

Not only did she lose 20 pounds and train for more than a year with a former New York City Ballet dancer, but the actress sustained injuries on set that made her realize the lengths to which a dancer must constantly push her body to achieve perfection.

She says she hit her head during a critical fight scene with her conniving onscreen rival, played by Mila Kunis, and had to leave the set to get an MRI — that was a particularly tough day.

“You know, [it was] one of those days when you’re like, ‘I really want to be done with this,’” she says.

Even on the easier days, simply keeping her muscles warm during shooting meant nearly constant exercise for 16-hour days through a month and a half of intense production.

“The weeks would go so that Monday we’d start at 6 a.m., and by Friday we’d be starting at 6 p.m. and going until 6 in the morning. It was like changing time zones every day,” she says.

The bare-bones, $13-million budget of the film left no room for luxuries — like a trailer — but Portman says it gave everyone a sense of commitment to the process.

“Everyone’s there because they want to be there, and they love it,” she says.

While she admits she understands Nina’s desire for flawless performance, Portman found a real connection to her character in the rigorous production schedule.

“I definitely thrive on discipline and extreme situations and a quest for perfection,” she explains. And to hear her director tell it, in a separate conversation with The Envelope, she quite nearly was perfect. “Open up the door, she walks in, does the work. No issues. No handholding. She’s just fully prepared,” Aronofsky says.

But it was more than a driving professionalism that drove Portman to the script, she says. “Something that was interesting to me was the need to become a woman, to become an adult, in order to be an artist.”

Her “Black Swan” character is grappling with an overbearing mother — played with quiet ferocity by Barbara Hershey, who seems unwilling to let her daughter leave behind the trappings of childhood, — and her desire to find her own way in the world.

“This is really about needing to stop being the child that pleases everyone and finding the pleasure for yourself,” she says.

Screenwriter Mark Heyman, who is director of development for Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, also had the benefit of knowing that Portman was the only actress the director considered for the role.

“I didn’t know when I was writing if she would want to do it, be able to do it, but she was the person who had been orbiting this project, and she’s so perfect for it,” Heyman explains.

But through those eight years of script drafts and production ups and downs, Portman says she never quite caught on how much a blend of two genres — horror and dance — the film was actually going to be. As it turned out, being in the dark ultimately benefited her performance.

“If I had known it had such horror elements and that it was going to have this pace and tone, I don’t know that I would have gone for the same performance. I feel like I might have ended up overdoing it.”

Portman’s fearless ability to throw herself into a role became crucial for the sex scene with Kunis, which set the Internet alight after the film’s opening-night premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. She says, however, that she wasn’t surprised by the reaction.

“I expected it. It’s also probably the reason we got distribution,” she says with a laugh. “Those kinds of things are [what] people talk about, but I always saw it as really integral to the story, in terms of having your ego inflated when you don’t have a strong sense of self.”

Portman’s sense of self is apparent even as conjecture that she’s the lead actress Oscar front-runner builds for her portrayal of an artist descending into madness.

“I’ve been around long enough that you know [awards] can’t be any part of your goals. It’s an honor when people think of you in that way, but when they don’t, you still have to know how to be happy.”