Natalie Portman is not one to shy away from a challenge.
After more than 20 years in the business — diehard fans may recall the 35-year-old actress as the child actress just starting out in 1994’s “The Professional” — Portman won an Oscar as a tortured ballerina in 2010’s “Black Swan,” and reportedly did most of her own dancing.
Now the Harvard University graduate is putting in the hard work again with her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” out Friday.
The movie, entirely in Hebrew with subtitles, is based on the 2002 memoir of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz (Portman plays his mother Fania). Set in the 1940s, the coming-of-age drama chronicles Oz’s turbulent childhood at the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, and the early years of Israel.
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We talked to the L.A.-based Portman during her press tour:
You were born in Israel but left at the age of 3, yet your Hebrew is spot-on. How did you manage that?
Well, before making the film I wouldn’t say my language skills were amazing. I was like, fully conversational but made a lot of grammatical errors and had a poor accent. I practiced so much before we started. I worked on my accent for like two months with a coach. When we finally got to work it was actually kind of a relief. I knew the lines backward and forward. But when I would have scenes with people like Gilad Kahana, who plays my husband, he would kind of improvise and I wasn’t able to do that the usually do. I felt like I would make an error and it wouldn’t sound right.
When did you first know you want to take on this enormous project?
I read the book when it came out in translation almost 10 years ago and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was almost instantly able to visualize the film in my head. I was very passionate about making it my directorial debut. You know as an actress when you make a movie how much of a commitment it will be. But as a director, I knew if I was going to do this ,it had to be something personal, something that was interesting to me. Something that could keep me curious and asking questions for years.
Was it hard to sign off on the final product since it was your baby?
A little. When you’re an actor in a movie —whether it’s good or bad — you can never feel like you can totally take credit for it. You’re just one aspect of what the director is mainly coordinating. So yes there is that feeling of ‘This is my product.’ I was in it every step of the way, every frame. I didn’t have that feeling of, ‘Oh, I could have done this or that differently.’ Because I did do it differently! I felt completely in control. I did have to stop at some point or else I could have edited indefinitely. But yes it’s a different kind of accomplishment, absolutely.
Are you eager to get back behind the camera on another film?
For the right thing, sure. I mean, it was definitely a lot of running back and forth, but nice. You’re using different parts of your brain. Sometimes on movies you see the director kind of bored in between takes. There’s so much stuff going on — new lighting, hair and makeup checks, costume changes. You see directors kind of not knowing what to do with themselves. That definitely wasn’t me [laughs]. There wasn’t much down time.
You also have a young son [Aleph, 5, with husband “Black Swan” costar/choreographer Benjamin Millepied]. How did you keep all the balls in the air?
Good question! I sleep a lot. I mean, as much as I can. I don’t drink coffee. That’s my secret. If I do, it makes me go up and down and my energy is not as consistent.
It must be a great feeling to have it all come to fruition. What did Oz think of the film?
It’s really hard, I think, to see his mother and his writing to come to life off the pages. But he’s been so supportive, incredibly generous and loving.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m very excited about playing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in “Jackie” and costarring in [French ghost story] “Planetarium.” Both will premiere at the Toronto and Venice film festivals, which is wonderful. But I like taking on different characters and playing all different kinds of roles. I probably always will.