After two years of living in Paris, Natalie Portman has just moved back to Los Angeles with a newfound appreciation for unapologetic French women. It's a quality, Portman believes, that helps explain the relative preponderance of French women directors.
"We have such discomfort in this country with women's desire — for sex, for food, for anything," Portman said. "Women's sexuality is much more open [in France]. And also love of food. They think it's crazy not to eat bread or cheese. Desiring beauty, desiring men — or women — desiring pleasure. I think that's very related to why there's so many female directors there and not here. Desire is … sort of the center of creation."
After 22 years in front of the camera lens, often as the object of a man's desire, Portman has directed her feature debut, an ambitious, Hebrew-language adaptation of Israeli writer Amos Oz's autobiographical novel "A Tale of Love and Darkness," which arrives in theaters Friday. The Israel-born, New York-raised actress also wrote and stars in the movie as Oz's mother, an Eastern European Holocaust survivor who struggles to adapt to life in what will soon become the state of Israel. A coming-of-age story, both for Amos' character and for a country, the movie allowed Portman to dive into an era that had loomed large in her imagination.
"The period it takes place in is one I've thought about my whole life," Portman said in an interview this month. "Some people grow up imagining science fiction, other realms. For me, this was my imagination — what was it like for my grandparents and their entire generation to lose their families and then immediately go and try to create utopian communities? It's such a weird, crazy moment in history … and such a fraught emotional and political topic."
It's been five years since Portman, 35, won the Oscar for her portrayal of an emotionally troubled ballerina in "Black Swan," the film where she met her husband and the father of her son, 5-year-old Aleph, dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millipied. Their move to Paris — and subsequent return to L.A. — followed beats in Millipied's career as he became director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2014 and returned to L.A. Dance, the company he created in 2012, this summer.
Portman, who first read Oz's book when she was 25, said she found the story increasingly affecting as she became a wife and mother.
"As I got older, the part that became more resonant to me was the idea that the stories we tell ourselves over and over as children create the expectations for the life we're going to live," she said. "Then when those things start happening — you move to a new country, get married, have a kid and then the reality of that … it's not what you expect, not necessarily in a negative way, just different. It's totally different than what you had in your head all the time."
In addition to directing, Portman has also been busy on the other side of the camera. Within days of the release of "A Tale of Love and Darkness," she will appear at the Venice Film Festival in support of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's "Jackie," a biopic in which she plays Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the assassination of President Kennedy, and French director Rebecca Zlotowski's "Planetarium," as one of a pair of sisters who possibly communicates with ghosts. She has movies with directors Terrence Malick and "Ex Machina's" Alex Garland awaiting release, and another planned with Canadian Xavier Dolan. She's also starring in an upcoming HBO miniseries, eyeing her own writing project and hoping to kick off a prolific directing career.
"I was talking to a couple friends of mine — two women — who had also just directed their first films," Portman said. "And we were saying, 'We've got to get on the Woody Allen schedule.' It's kind of the way to go to make it ritualized. You can end up overthinking things. Everyone's bound to trip up sometimes and fly sometimes but you've just got to keep making things."
Having been in the public eye since she was 13, when she starred as a hitman's protege in "The Professional," Portman is intensely private and adept at gently steering an interview away from any personal revelations.
"It's totally full on," Portman acknowledged of life as a woman in her 30s, before bringing the interview back to her film character. "If we feel it now, what was it like being a woman in her 30s in the 1940s?"
Unlike many of her contemporaries, she has avoided creating social media accounts for herself, saying, "I have zero desire to put any of myself out there — I already feel more exposed than I want to be."
Despite her caution about revealing too much, Portman comes across as warm and present, relieved, she said, to be back in Los Angeles where "everyone smiles at you."
She had just returned from London, where she was filming "Annihilation" at Pinewood Studios, on stages adjacent to where the next two "Star Wars" movies were in production. Portman, who many moviegoers first encountered as Padmé Amidala in the "Star Wars" prequels, said she enjoyed visiting the sets of "Rogue One" and "Episode VIII."
"It's fun to see that ['Star Wars'] lives on, and now having a little boy, I see how deeply it lives in kids' culture," she said, noting that Aleph has not seen any of the films but is familiar with the characters because of Star Wars Lego games. "He's very Yoda-centric."
Since early on in her career, Portman has been politically engaged, on topics from Israel to animal rights. She is still a vegan, an admitted challenge while living in France — "although they have juice bars now," she said. "Stuff that they would have laughed at us for, they have now."
Long a supporter of Democratic candidates, she said she intends to get involved with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign now that her family has finished moving.
"I'm very definitely with her," Portman said of Clinton. "I feel like she's so incredibly accomplished, calm, collected, intelligent, experienced and exactly the kind of person who should be leading our country."
Portman's own seriousness and focus were crucial in making "A Tale of Love and Darkness," which required her to write, act and direct in Hebrew, with an Israeli crew and cast, including the child actor who played young Amos Oz, Amir Tessler. The actress, whose family moved from Israel to the U.S. when she was 3, describes her Hebrew as "pretty good, but not fluent," and she worked with a dialogue coach daily for the two months of pre-production.
"I knew that she was smart — I've seen her in interviews, I've seen her performances," said Portman's producer on the film, Ram Bergman. "But when I met her, I saw somebody who really knew what she wanted. She was very opinionated, which is what you want in a filmmaker. One of the first things I said was, 'I just want to make sure you know how ambitious this film is.' She was willing to do whatever it took."
Portman, who had optioned the book rights over tea with Oz and his wife, had two decades of experience on films sets to draw on for her approximately $4-million film, and she sought advice from several of her past directors, including Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky and Malick. One challenge, however, was learning to watch her own performance on the monitors on set and see it with a director's eye.
"I am not good at watching myself," Portman said. "I'm overly critical. It forced me to have some forgiveness for myself because I wasn't allowed to hide my eyes and cringe."
The movie, which premiered at Cannes in 2015, was acquired by Focus World with an eye toward a foreign-language Oscar campaign this fall.
Not long after finishing her own movie, Portman began work on "Jackie," listening to recordings of the first lady's 1964 conversations with historian and Kennedy family friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
"What's really amazing and what the movie is largely about is how she shaped [JFK's] legacy," Portman said. "He was in office such a short time and didn't really have time to accomplish much. But Americans still today, many call him their favorite president. And that was largely her storytelling. She invented Camelot."
"It's similar to what my film is about," Portman said. "The story you tell is everything. The story you tell is your identity."