Delving into Trauma: Natalie Portman Navigates Imitation and Real-Life Horror in Jackie

Natalie Portman, who in real life neither looks nor sounds at all like Jacqueline Kennedy, completely transforms herself in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s Jackie.

Her ethereal and empathetic portrayal of history’s favorite First Lady is so mesmerizing, even spooky, it has a conjurer’s truth.

Jackie had its U.S. premiere last week with a special screening at the New York Film Festival, where it received rave reviews. Portman already has one little gold statuette; in 2011 she received an Oscar for Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, who has a producing credit on Jackie. Larraín (No) told me on the red carpet for his other new film, Neruda, that Aronofsky “invited” him to direct Jackie when the American director had a schedule conflict. Besides their obvious admiration and respect for Portman, the two directors share a similar vision and even a horror-inflected aesthetic.

Noah Oppenheim, the writer-executive of the Today show, wrote the unconventional script, which focuses on Jackie in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination: the horror of the event and the days following, in which she tries to cope with the tragedy and move forward with her children. But mainly the film focuses on Jackie’s obsessive quest to protect her husband’s legacy.

Jackie Kennedy was one of the most photographed and documented women of the 20th century. The movie recreates the famous 1962 televised White House tour and uses dialogue from historian Arthur Schlesinger’s 1964 Jackie interviews. But the most fascinating scenes in the film imagine what life was like for Kennedy’s widow out of reach of the camera. And Portman manages to assume the iconic First Lady’s distinctive walk and breathy voice without becoming parody.

Portman has been making films since she was 14. One of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, she broke out in 1994 with The Professional, playing a young girl taken in by an assassin after her parents are murdered. Israeli-born and raised in the U.S., the actress has made more than 40 films, including Closer (2004), three Star Wars films and Cold Mountain (2003). She made her directorial debut with this summer’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, an adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir of his youth. Relatively quiet since Black Swan, in the next two years Portman has six or seven movies coming out, including Alex Garland’s hotly anticipated 2017 sci-fi movie, Annihilation.

The 35-year-old actress is protective of her privacy and personal questions were understood to be off bounds at the press event for Jackie last weekend at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. Now pregnant with her second child with husband and dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Portman is so private, journalists didn’t even ask when her baby is due (although it looks like she’s in her third trimester).

Portman, a Harvard grad, is articulate, engaging and charismatic, much like the woman she portrayed in her new film. Below are selected highlights from an interview with the actress.

Natalie Portman at the 2016 Venice Film Festival premiere of Jackie Photograph by Annalisa Flori, courtesy of Getty Images

Natalie Portman at the 2016 Venice Film Festival premiere of Jackie. Photograph by Annalisa Flori, courtesy of Getty Images

The camera is on you in almost every frame. It looks like a very intense shoot. What was your collaboration with Pablo like?

Natalie Portman (NP): It was one of the best, if not the best, experience of my creative life. Pablo has no choice but to be original. He has his own way of thinking that is unlike anyone else’s. I guess everyone does to a certain extent, but most people end up conforming in some way. He just sees things differently and has such a different outlook and takes it to new places, but also has so much respect and allows for so much collaboration. He listens to what you have to say, but then also has an incredible vision. That is really a rare combination. I think it takes an incredible amount of confidence, openness and talent to have that.

How much pressure did you feel to portray such a legendary and loved icon?

NP: It was definitely scary. I’ve never prided myself on any ability to mimic or imitate. It wasn’t anything I’d every tried before, but I always was like, ‘That’s not my thing.’ And then I obviously would’ve have to, taking this on. And I was like, “Oh no; I’m setting myself up for failure really big time here!” Because people really know what she sounded like and what she moved like and of course what she looked like. But I was so moved by both the script and then Pablo’s approach, which was to examine the humanity of someone we’ve only considered as sort of a symbol, that I was like, “Well, you know, we’re actors. We’re not surgeons. If I mess up no one’s going to die. Let’s do it.”

How did you prepare?

NP: I worked with a dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein, and we just listened over and over and over and over again to the White House tour in particular, and also to the transcripts of her interview with Schlesinger… to get the voice and the accent. Then once I was comfortable with that, you can just kind of forget it and then you’re just focused on the emotion behind it.

Did you see Jackie as a tragic figure?

NP: She certainly lived through more tragedy than anyone can imagine. I don’t think there’s anyone who has ever experienced what she experienced. But the fact that she was able to pull herself together, to be so thoughtful and so strong and so brave in the face of so much trauma. I think this makes her a heroic figure. She overcame tragedy. A tragic figure to me is usually someone who succumbs and she did not.

You play these different sides of Jackie. You see her before the assassination and immediately after when she breaks down, and then later when she’s in control during the interview with the journalist. Was there a point when you could say you really understood her?

NP: I don’t know that I can ever say that I understand any other human being. It’s actually, like, the phrase that bugs me the most: “I know exactly like you feel.” Like, “No, you don’t!” No one knows exactly how anyone feels. We can imagine and that’s the best we can do. That’s empathy, and I think that’s what I do in my work and I guess what all actors do in their work. And hopefully what everyone does in their daily life.

I also do not claim to have any truth about Jackie. This is my imagination, backed up by a lot of research about what happened during those days. But of course Noah [Oppenheim] crafted this so the historical facts of how the funeral was arranged and who was talking to whom and who made decisions, that’s all real. But of course everything we say to each other is not. Not everything—the White House tours are word for word what she said, and parts of the interview are word for word from interviews she did. Most of the things expressed were sort of written in notes, and it’s historically close. But I think that there’s a higher artistic truth that you hope for that has to do with fiction. It’s like what she says in the movie: that sometimes the characters you create are more real than the people who stand beside you. That can be as compelling, even if it’s a myth.

Did you have an image of Jackie in your head from before you even started research that changed radically once you got into it?

NP: I think I hadn’t really considered her. I think I thought of her very much as a façade, you know. The Warhol Jackie, the look, and people talk about how she dressed and how she wore her hair. But she was such a substantive person, I think. I hadn’t considered her deep intellect, strength, control and real agency in telling this story. She really took authorship of the story during a period of the most intense mourning, shock and grieving, and she had the presence of mind within all of that craziness and confusion to take hold of a legacy and shape it, so it’s quite astonishing that I hadn’t really considered any of it before.

Jackie had such a distinctive walk and there’s so much movement in the film. Also, the camera is often in your face. How was it to act when you are continually walking and there are such intense close ups?

NP: The walking was really interesting. The main walking that is on camera that we see is the White House Tour and then the funeral. That’s the sort of footage that you get of her really walking and it’s presented so you think she’s probably thinking about walking in a regal manner, but it’s quite stiff—almost to an unbelievable degree when you watch the White House tour. So we went for it, but also had to be careful. It’s almost like, when you watch the White House tour, it’s on the borderline of being like, “That can’t be how she really walked.” So that was a big deal. [Laughs] And then having the camera so close up was a wonderful idea with Pablo because he wanted to make it so intimate and so psychological and really get inside her head. Obviously being so close up helps. As an actor, that means you have a camera right here [points to her face] all the time, which, you know, can make you self-conscious, but luckily our DP, Stéphane Fontaine, was also the camera operator and he was so emotionally involved in the scenes that I felt like I could communicate with him. I just would always have him in the scene with me. A lot of the time when he had that camera on his shoulder and was following me, it was improvised, so I had to be aware of getting into positions that would be good for him and he had to be aware of reading my mind about where I was going… Pablo would say, “Light it so you can shoot in every direction. No stands around.” People had to just be out of the room and we would just exist in his space, so it was a very special way of shooting.

Director Pablo Larrain on the set of Jackie. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Director Pablo Larraín on the set of Jackie. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The horrific scene during the assassination when you begin to climb out of your seat onto the roof of the carwere you shaken? Did you imagine yourself there?

NP: That was another Pablo idea that I thought was so brilliant. He’s like, “So we’ve all see the assassination Zapruder tapes, of course, but it was a seven-minute drive afterwards to the hospital. What were those seven minutes like?” And it’s unbelievable. You think, “That’s the drama.” What is that, holding your husband’s exploded head on your lap for seven minutes trying to get to the hospital? And so we filmed it. It’s harrowing because it’s not recorded. We’ve no record of what happened. We don’t know what that was like. And who can imagine that? You’re just like, “That was awful! The worst possible thing that could happen.”

It was very, very hard to do, and it was like the coldest day that we shot it. We’re on this highway that they had kind of closed down, so we could go in this open car. The poor actor playing Clint, the security guy, he was famously perched on the back the entire time, so he was harnessed like in a splint basically for hours, speeding down the highway. So it was physically difficult and it was also emotionally kind of unimaginable. That was the moment that I didn’t like in the tape—when she craws onto the back. I always thought she was trying to get out. I thought she was trying to escape. I was like, “Oh, that makes sense. Someone shoots the person next to you.” And she wasn’t. She saw a piece of his brain. She was trying to get it because she thought they could put it back in. She saw a piece of his brain fly onto the trunk and she was trying to pick it up. You can’t even imagine that your animal instinct in that moment of terror would be like, “Oh I have to get that to put back in his head.” It’s unbelievable.

How do you follow up something like that? Do you do a comedy next?

NP: I’d love to do a comedy. [Laughs] Guess I’m not working for a while.

Did this movie inspire you to direct again?

NP: I would love to direct again. That definitely is my focus—to sort of create my next directorial project. MM

Jackie opens in theaters December 2, 2016, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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