A Conversation
Hollywood 2024 Issue

Natalie Portman on Striking the Balance Between Public and Private Lives

The May December star says Method acting is not her cup of tea (and her kids won’t let her do “weird, scary” voices anyway).
From left Natalie Portman Pedro Pascal Bradley Cooper and Colman Domingo on the set of Vanity Fairs 2024 Hollywood...
Photograph by Landon Nordeman; styled by George Cortina.

Natalie Portman, who appears on our Hollywood 2024 cover, walked her first red carpet at 13. She received her first Academy Award nomination at 23, and a win six years later. Her notable roles have included a hit man’s mentee, an unraveling ballerina, a faux medium, a pop star, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Now, as Elizabeth Berry in May December, Portman joins a storied collection of actors playing actors—from Gena Rowlands in Opening Night to Bette Davis in All About Eve—in a role she’s been preparing for, in many ways, since she debuted in Léon: The Professional three decades ago. Here, on a Zoom with Vanity Fair from her home in Paris, she discusses the changing world of Hollywood, and coming to terms with her kaleidoscope of public and private selves.

Vanity Fair: You seem drawn to roles that play with the line between public performance and private life. I’m thinking of Jackie, Planetarium, Vox Lux, and Black Swan. What draws you to those roles?

Natalie Portman: It’s definitely the topic that I return to. Or several of the topics. One is these different kinds of performances—private, public, the different performances for different people in your life; the performances that make identity; the relationship between performance and identity. I think that it’s one of the subjects for every human, but particularly an actress; you become hyperaware of that. And having a public and private life from a very young age, I’m sure has made me more attuned to that and more curious about it.

Your role as Elizabeth in May December both celebrates and skewers the act of creating a character, and a movie. What was that like to play?

It was really fun and interesting to get to explore the behavior and ethics around using someone’s life as your source material. I think journalists have an adjacent kind of quandary. Documentarians also. When you’re using real stories, there is a vampiric quality that you have to beware of, and there is a question of whether it’s really possible to be non-interfering in your subject’s life. Like, does the depiction alone interfere in someone’s life? Does your depiction in itself affect the course of the story? Of course, Elizabeth takes it many steps further, but they’re really interesting and wonderful questions to explore, even if there are no answers.


Was there anything that felt particularly new or challenging in this role?

One of the things that was challenging was to master the tone. Because there were aspects that, like you were saying, kind of skewer “the actress” and the pursuit of truth. There are aspects that, reading it, felt like satire—like when she’s watching the videotapes of the boys and she says that awful line, which I won’t spoil or repeat. But there are so many aspects that do feel like we can laugh at her, and I really was tempted to. [Director] Todd [Haynes] really pushed me to make her very true and human and trustable when we meet her, so that it is more surprising later on. And that was an incredible direction to be given, but definitely went against a lot of my instincts.

Something that scared me in Jackie was doing an impression of a real person; in May December, I was doing an impression of someone who was acting right next to me. That was quite terrifying and had to be learned on the fly. Julianne [Moore] and I were really playing off of each other. It feels weird to be considered separately from her in any way because it feels like such a conjoined performance.

There’s this constant push-pull of power dynamics, and so much bubbling right under the surface. How did you come up with that?

A lot is thanks to Samy [Burch’s] writing, which had all these incredible barbs. It was so deceptively spare and simple on the page, and then everything was just so loaded. There was so much meaning in the silences. Todd added to it with his choice of doing all of this reflection work, using the camera as a mirror and having us reflect each other, I think really created this sense of these women reflecting one another in such a way that they repel each other as much as they are drawn to each other. The extent to which they recognize themselves in the other makes each other the clear enemy as well as the one they’re in love with and drawn to and seduced by. It has this incredible tension the whole time because of that really incredible choice he made with all the mirrors.

There’s this ongoing, voracious interest in the idea of Method acting—maybe because everybody’s interested in those blurred lines between public and private—and you recently said something so interesting about the idea of Method acting maybe being a cost that women can’t afford. Is that something that you wish you could do?

Method acting requires a lot of people in your life to go along with your fictions. And I don’t know, I don’t feel that that’s been possible. Which I’m grateful for! I think it’s nice to have people in my life who are like, “We want you to be you.” Primarily kids. Sometimes I’ve tried doing accents that I’m working on when I read them a bedtime story or something, just to practice, and they go nuts. They’re like, “No way, don’t do that weird, scary voice, we want the mommy voice.” And so yes, I’m sure it’s possible with the right collection of people. I’m sure it’s complicated for many men, also, who have people in their lives who may be less interested in allowing for their fictions at home. But it seems particularly fraught for women who are maybe not afforded that as much as men.

I think in the story, of course, it also asks what the consequences are if you get too into character and start doing things that are ethically wrong. Like Elizabeth says, the most interesting characters to play are the bad ones. You think about Medea or Tony Soprano or any number of the serial killers that have been depicted, and you think, Okay, how do you get in Method acting to be a serial killer? It doesn’t seem highly practical unless you’re going to be playing a lot of saints—or unless you’re comfortable committing crimes.

Photograph by Landon Nordeman; styled by George Cortina.

There’s that question of what one is willing to sacrifice for the art. The film also brings up questions about whether art can or should be amoral, what it means to make moral or immoral art. Is that something that you think about?

All the time. All the time. I think it’s one of the great questions that it raises. We always are like, “Yes, we don’t judge our characters, we just want to explore the human heart. That’s what art is.” And I do believe that’s what we do, but then it’s also clear that art and entertainment influence people. What is the effect of showing a glamorous depiction of drugs, for example? It does feel like there’s an ethical responsibility. Or, of course, violence in films, or the way that it’s been very well-documented how smoking on film affects people. There’s so much clear information that what we show onscreen affects people’s behavior. What do you do with that, when you do believe that art should be free to explore every aspect of humanity? And then, of course, the question that we were talking about earlier of how it can actually affect real people that you’re portraying and the ethical responsibility of that. Again, no answers and really great, important questions.

Have you ever had a role where you were giving more weight to the story that you were telling because of the way that people might have interpreted it?

When I was 16 years old, I played Anne Frank on Broadway, and that is so loaded with meaning and symbolism and larger implications. Even the centrality of Anne Frank in what we teach children, what we teach Jewish children, is so loaded and controversial. And I was very young. I think I had a sense of it, but it was later when there was commentary around it that I realized how much symbolism it held and how it was much larger than just me thinking, What was this girl like?

There are a few moments that feel like real winks to what one might experience as an actor. One of them is when Gracie first meets Elizabeth and says, “Oh, I thought you’d be taller.” Is that something that you have experienced from people who are meeting you?

Oh, yeah. And again, it’s such a ripe comment that Samy chooses because it’s almost like sizing each other up on the battlefield immediately. That there is this kind of, again, reflection of herself, saying, “We’re about the same size.” That she’s saying, “You’re a good person to portray me,” while at the same time being like, “I could take you in a fight.” There’s so much couched in that very real comment that people make. It is very realistic. It’s a thing people say to me all the time.

How have you dealt with that public interest in your own life, and has it changed over the years?

I got very protective of it very early on. I chose a different name when I started, which was kind of an interesting way that I separated identities. I would get upset if someone at school called me Natalie Portman. I was like, if you know me, you know me as Natalie Hershlag at school. It was kind of an extreme bifurcation of identity that I’ve tried to integrate a little bit more as an adult. I felt like it was not accepting that both were part of me, that there wasn’t a “real” me and a “pretend” me, and that they didn’t necessarily have different names. And it’s not just two different versions, there are multitudes of ways other people see me, both public and private, and there are multitudes of ways I see myself. Somehow the intersection of all of those are part of me, and it’s important to have all of those within me and as me, as opposed to being like, that’s some external thing, this is the real thing.

As I started having kids and a family, I started realizing that maybe it was not helpful to be like, there’s two of me. I have many interactions during my day as a public person. To exclude that from my experience is not real.

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In the lead-up to this movie coming out, people were writing about your marriage and your personal life in a very public way. What is that like?

It’s terrible, and I have no desire to contribute to it.

Don’t love asking about it, either.

I can imagine.

You’ve lived for long stretches in Paris, you’ve lived in Los Angeles. Does one feel more like home to you at this point?

I find them very complementary cities. I love having both in my life. I lead a very non-Hollywood life in LA. I live on the east side. I have some friends who are in the entertainment industry, but many friends who are not, and we don’t do industry things when we hang out. We’re not going to Hollywood parties, we’re having dinners at home in the backyard. I actually found that living there made my experience of LA much less “Hollywood.” When I would visit, it would only be for work, and I’d be staying somewhere in Beverly Hills, and I’d be having industry meetings and going to industry parties. Living there made my experience much more rounded and appreciative of all the city has to offer, from nature to the arts, food to music, and of course, the people.

And Paris, of course, is just a dream. I’m so lucky to get to live here and have an enormously stimulating city life with incredible friends.

You’ve watched Hollywood change, I imagine, over the years that you’ve been working. What are the things that stand out to you?

The striking thing has been the decline of film as a primary form of entertainment. It feels much more niche now. If you ask someone my kids’ age about movie stars, they don’t know anyone compared to YouTube stars, or whatever.

How does that feel?

There’s a liberation to it, in having your art not be a popular art. You can really explore what’s interesting to you. It becomes much more about passion than about commerce. And interesting, too, to beware of it becoming something elitist. I think all of these art forms, when they become less popularized, you have to start being like, okay, who are we making this for anymore? And then amazing, too, because there’s also been this democratization of creativity, where gatekeepers have been demoted and everyone can make things and incredible talents come up. And the accessibility is incredible. If you lived in a small town, you might not have been able to access great art cinema when I was growing up. Now it feels like if you’ve got an internet connection, you can get access to anything. It’s pretty wild that you also feel like at the same time, more people than ever might see your weird art film because of his extraordinary access. So it’s this two-sided coin.

At one point in the film Elizabeth opens up her email and there’s a New York Times blast about AI and recipes (there’s also an email titled “Vanity Fair Questions” so this interview feels particularly meta). As a filmmaker, does AI feel like a threat?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I don’t know about “threat” because it just feels like it’s another form that’s going to exist, which is always interesting for art, and who knows where it will take us. But sure, there’s a good chance I won’t have a job soon.

I think about it all the time.

We’ll figure it out when it happens, I guess.

You have a book club. What are you reading and loving right now?

I just read a book that I love called Martyr! [by Kaveh Akbar].

Do you read on set? What are you doing if you’re not obsessively staying in character and demanding that people call you Jackie?

I read a lot. It depends on the role. If it’s something that I really need to kind of create a world around, I’ll read things that are related—or sometimes you just read and everything feels related. I don’t know if it feels like that when you’re writing something, but you’re so in it that everything you interact with has some sort of meaning for your character.

And I do a lot of word games. I really like all the New York Times crossword and Connections and Wordle and Spelling Bee. Actually, Julianne is also a word-game obsessive. And she gets Queen Bee almost every day. I mean, I thought I was already impressed by what a good actress she was, but that will really top it for me.

Over the course of your career, have you had bucket-list items that you have wanted to check off? And what do you still want to do?

One thing that I’ve wanted to do, and really struggled to get, was an animation movie, and I just did my first one—or I’m still, because it’s a yearslong process.

Can you say what it is?

I’m doing The Twits—Roald Dahl. Very exciting.

Why did you want to do that so much?

I love animation. And having kids, I always want to make things that they can see. I see with my kids that they watch them again and again and again and again in a way that I don’t think any other movies are watched so intensely, and therefore have such an impact on kids’ views of the world and life. You realize how meaningful they are—and how meaningful they can be.

One thing that I have left that I have not done is a musical. I would really love that. When I think about what made me most excited and happy and joyful as a kid, I took a lot of dance classes that were musical theater, and those were my happiest moments. I dreamed of being a dancer in a Broadway show. So to do that again would be, I think, returning to that joy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For fashion and beauty details, go to VF.com/credits.