Feature Interviews - Actresses >
Feature Interviews P
to T > Natalie Portman
TAKES OFF THE MASK
PLAYING HER PART IN V FOR VENDETTA
By Brad Balfour
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
July 14, 2006.
science fiction-themed films, actress Natalie Portman uses her character
Evey in V For Vendetta to test both her acting skills and her
political judgment while making a profound and timely statement. V For
Vendetta details the story of a revolutionary who challenges the
dominance of a Hitler-like dictator who rigs a disaster to prompt the fear
that stirs the population to make him the Supreme Leader. As Evey, Portman
becomes entangled in V's campaign against the government, and finally,
becomes his instrument for effecting his revolution.
Based on the
groundbreaking graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd
the story has been updated from Margaret Thatcher's England of the '80s to
a near-future that could serve as a metaphor for George Bush's
Clearly possessed of
equal doses of beauty and intelligence, the Israeli born Portman has gone
from one revolutionary scenario —
the comic book like The Star Wars saga
— to this intelligent and provocative bit
of cinema based on a comic book.
But that's not all
for Portman. She stars in the politically charged indie Free Zone,
which is about to be released, and she will appear in films directed by
the likes of Olivier Assayas (Paris
Milos Forman (Goya's Ghost) and Zach Helm (Mr. Magorium's Wonder
How was it acting
opposite Hugo [Weaving] who played V, a character behind a mask the entire
time he was on screen?
Hugo is an
incredible, amazing actor so even though he had that barrier of not being
able to use his face--which we're so used to using as film actors with the
camera right there--he was able to use his physicality and his voice to
really create his character. Hugo is such an actor that just by his
physical and vocal expressions you could tell exactly who he was; I think
as an audience you can feel that.
Did that pose any
new challenges for you as an actor?
There's also an
incredible engagement that takes place because you're always wondering
what's going on behind it. You're asking yourself, "Is he crying now? Is
he smiling?" You're trying to get into his mind in a way to the point
where you almost become V. That's even more exciting than normally. It
earns its action scenes. It has a compelling story so you actually care
about what's going on in the action scenes. It's not gratuitous, and the
action scenes are a great reward to that story because they're pretty
stylized, and are stuff that you've never seen before. It's like a sweet
What was it like
sharing your scenes with a man in a mask?
Even though he had
the obstacle of not being able to use his face as a tool, his vocal and
physical expressiveness was so specific that I had this amazing
performance opposite me and whatever I was doing as an actress,
[wondering] what is going on with him behind the mask? Is he smiling right
now? Is he crying? Is he angry? [I had to ask what is] the character is
going through, too, so I could use that.
So you didn't try it
on at all?
I may have but with
his sweat in that [laughs]? I think the make-up artist's main job
was to wipe the beads of sweat off the mask's beard.
Your character seems
to have a love-hate relationship with V. Was that your take on it?
One of the most
exciting things about the characters' relationship is that it is always
changing, which is what real relationships are like. In different
contexts, we play different roles in relationships. Sometimes, we're the
protector; sometimes we're the tormentor. There are different moments when
they are lovers, they are father-daughter, they're enemies, they're
mentor-student, and so they go through all of these stages and they build
up and at many points are all things at once.
What were you
thinking about as they cut it off your hair?
I was very focused
on being where the character is at that moment, which is in a very
traumatic place with this violence being committed against her. We only
had one shot to do it because you can't go back and re-shave the head. We
had several cameras on and we had rehearsed the head shaving with
volunteer guys from the crew. But, for me personally it was a choice I was
happy to make.
There's an article I
read about Iran in Time magazine about how consumerism was used to
quell the masses. Young people – because they're allowed to have Mercedes
and Gucci bags – are not raising their voices against the lack of freedom
of press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly that we enjoy. So,
there is that aspect of reading this comfortable material might make you
more likely to conform.
How did you feel
that you were to shave your head?
For me, personally,
I was excited to have the opportunity to throw vanity away for a little
and go around with no hair. But, obviously, I was in character at the
moment it happened, so for her it is a very traumatic experience. She is
not choosing it. It's being forced upon her as a pretty violent act.
That was the biggest
stress of the whole scene – that we only had one chance. In movies we're
so spoiled. If you mess up, you can always do it again and this was not
the case. I just tried to stay focused and do my best job with the chance
Was there any
No, it was always
something I've wanted to do. Making a dramatic change that isn't
reversible is always a worthy experience, and that sort of gave me the
courage to do it. And obviously for the character, it's a very traumatic
experience because of how it's forced upon her, and in such a violent way,
it's committed upon her.
Is that the most
pressure you've ever been under?
I would say so
[laughs]. It's hard to get more shorn than that.
Did you have
apprehension about the taking on the British accent?
You definitely want
to do the most believable job possible. I worked with a great dialogue
coach, Barbara Burker, who worked with me a month before, and was everyday
with me on-set. So it got into my mind to the point where I didn't have to
think about it. So that it sort of came naturally.
There are a lot of
British words and phrases that have dual meanings. Did you have any
difficulties with those nuances?
It was definitely a
challenge to take on the accent. Because I wanted to, first of all, not be
focusing on it too much when I was working that, [so that] it actually
broke into the character. I worked with the dialect coach for a month in
Israel while I was there, and then she was there with me the whole time so
that I could be comfortable enough that I could throw it away.
Although the movie
was shot in Germany, you've spent time in England. Would you ever consider
I don't know about
living there, because my friends and family are in New York and that's the
most important thing about where I choose to live. But I do end up working
in London a lot and really love it there. It's like the best film-going
city I've ever been to. With all of the theaters showing repertoire stuff
on the weekends, it's a fun place to be on a weekend.
You have dual
citizenship – here and in Israel – so you must have some interesting views
This film asks
questions more than anything because of the way that all of the characters
are represented. The hero is not a classic movie hero, but more the
classic Greek hero with a tragic flaw who is out for revenge. There are
many points in the movie where he is a pretty bad guy and you're not with
him. I think that complexity and the complexity of how Evey makes her
transformation to become violent is complicated, as well. In some ways you
figure she is meeting her destiny, but in other ways, she is finding her
integrity. And in other ways she is being manipulated. So all of those
things together give you a complex view of what it takes to make a person
believe that they can use violence as a means of expressing their
As to my personal
experience, having been born in Israel and dealing with issues of
terrorism and violence my whole life – it's not like a new concept for me
like it is for many people in western democracies now. I think that all of
the questions that I wonder about relating to violence ultimately break
down to how we categorize violence and put judgment values on different
kinds of violence. We say that some kinds of violence are acceptable and
legitimate and some kinds are unacceptable and illegitimate.
We say that state
violence is legitimized and individual killing is not. We say that
unintentional killing is better than intentional killing. We say that
killing a civilian is worse than killing a soldier, even if the soldier is
18 and has to serve in the military in their country. We say that
committing suicide when you're committing violence is bad, but giving your
life for your country is heroic. These sort of categories, the lines
between them are very thin. Sometimes [putting the acts] into categories
trivializes the effects of violence, which are equally horrific
everywhere. I don't think it necessarily legitimizes any sort of violence,
but it raises questions that might make us judge all types of violence in
a harsher light, I hope.
What drew you to
this role in the first place?
I was really excited
at the idea of sort of getting into the mind of someone who would use
violence. Going through that transformation from someone who started out
as a non-violent person, just trying to keep safe in a totalitarian
society and becoming someone who believes that violence is an acceptable
means to rebel against an oppressive government, because, for me, I'm so
into non-violence. But then I always wonder what would drive people who
seem like normal, good, smart people to believe that they can commit acts
of violence. So I ask myself these questions and I think, okay, what would
make me violent? If someone threatened my family?
Now, I can see from
there how that can be extended. What if you think of your whole family is
your religious group? What if you think your whole family is your country?
What if the threat you perceive is just a perceived threat and not a real
threat? You can see how that very human instinct can be expanded into a
much larger thing.
When you got this
job, did you read the graphic novel as well as the script?
When I was offered
the part, I was given the graphic novel, and that was a great resource to
have because it's practically a storyboard for the movie. It's kind of
Did you talk with
creator/writer Alan Moore [who has disavowed the film] or were you just
happy to go with what was on the page?
I'm a huge fan of
the graphic novel, and I think all of us – while I can only speak for
myself, but I have the feeling that all of us – made this with the
greatest respect for the graphic novel. If he didn't want to be involved
in the project, you got to respect that; I'm not going to force him to do
that. The greatest gift that he and David [Lloyd, the artist] gave us is
the graphic novel. There's so much in there to draw from.
Were you sad about
parts that didn't make it into the film?
I think that some of
the sub-plots were excised so that it could have a smoother narrative.
Obviously the parts that weren't in the script we luckily had in the
graphic novel to give us a more of an imagination of the details of that
world that you just can't put into a film because you don't want the
audience to be sitting there going through pain for having to sit there so
This film questions
what is a freedom fighter and a terrorist, as well as when violence
against the state is allowable and necessary. You did a lot of research
before undertaking the role, specifically about Menachem Begin. What did
you learn from that research?
That book in
particular was very helpful with details of what one's thought process may
be like in an imprisonment situation that would eventually lead you to a
place where violence was an acceptable means to convey your political
There was also a
book I read called Cloud Atlas that was pretty formative to my
ideas about violence because it has this story of the Moriori tribe in it.
They were this non-violent New Zealand tribe that thought that if you
committed violent acts your soul will be tainted, and you would become an
outcast in their society. When the Europeans came, they became violent,
and now the Moriori no longer exist [laughs]. The problem with
non-violence is that if you have violent neighbors, you cease to exist
which is sort of like violence to yourself. That helped me to understand
violence, because that self-defensive violence is one that I can
understand as a human being, but that can be extended to such a large
thing. If you think that you would defend your family from a threat, or
you're a president, and your country's your family, what if the threat is
perceived rather than real? All of these things posed questions that you
could talk about for a lifetime, and never really come to solid
Did everyone have a
healthy debate on politics throughout the making of the film?
I think you also
can't be too "what is this about" all the time. You have to focus on the
story and the characters and not a larger meaning because once you make it
specific you can draw internal conclusions from that.
When you met with
those guys – producer Joel Silver, the writers, the Wachowski brothers and
director James McTeigue – what did they ask of you?
I read the scene at
the kitchen sink and the scene where I realize that I have to stay in the
Shadow Gallery. They made me fly to San Francisco to Israel during school,
which was very friendly of them [laughs], so I went in like "arrrgh…"
But they were so great. I know James from before; we worked together on
[Star Wars] Episode II, so it was great seeing him again. Larry
was an amazing person to get to know: he's so smart, interesting and
passionate about filmmaking. So we had a great talk about the material and
I tried to make them think I was sweet and cute [laughs]… And yeah,
they said, "Put your hair back like this," and I was like [in
high-pitched voice] "Okay!" [laughs]
What were the
classes in Israel like?
I went for a
semester of grad school last year and I brushed up on my Hebrew, and some
Arabic. I took classes on Islam, and the history of Israel, and the
anthropology of violence, which was very informative for this film.
I enjoyed your
performance in Israeli director Amos Gitai's
Free Zone [which
Cannes last year,
and at Lincoln Center] that's a film just as politically charged as
V For Vendetta.
I guess I'm
politically aware, but I get sick of the news after a while because I'm a
pretty optimistic person, so I like to go back to personal joys too.
Have your political
opinions changed since making the film?
I don't know about
political [opinions], but my thinking about violence deepened. They're
questions that that don't have answers but that you can get more a
complicated understanding of.
I think the luck of
having the story take place in an imaginative future is that it respects
the audience to make their own connections to real historical and current
events. People see so many different things in it. Joel tells a story
about this South Korean reporter who was convinced it was about North
Korea. So, you see how the contexts that people come from, they bring to
You've now worked in
[V and Star
Wars] where you're on the rebel side: what insights do you have about
What rebels are all
about? I guess the main thing I thought about was what would it take for
me to become violent. I thought about it and I thought, to defend my
family, and you realize how that can be extended on such a large scale if
you think your religion's your family, or that your whole country's your
family. If the threat is just perceived or if it's real and how that can
turn into wars. I think all of us have had the feeling of why can't they
just talk it out? [laughs] It's naïve certainly, but it's in
imagining how violence starts that the whole thing starts.
Speaking of the
violence at the end, ultimately she has to make a decision that changes
everything? Does that say something about how violence is a necessary part
of growth? Is that something you thought helped motivate her decision in
order for the revolution to really take hold?
I think that her
decision and the audience's judgment of it are totally separate. She
obviously finds it necessary to commit that act, and I think the great
thing about this movie is that it leaves that question up to the audience.
Obviously we feel that the cause is just, but the means used are open to
interpretation, and obviously throughout history violence has been pretty
effective means of creating revolution, but it's also obviously not been
the only way, or anyone's ideal way.
CLICK HERE TO READ WHAT NATALIE PORTMAN HAD TO
SAY TO US IN 2009!