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Berlin: Natalie Portman on What Terrence Malick Taught Her and Returning to Acting

Berlin: Natalie Portman on What Terrence Malick Taught Her and Returning to Acting

Following a two-year acting break, Natalie Portman has returned to the scene with “Knight of Cups,” Terrence Malick’s latest endeavor that stars Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and a bevy of other talented actors. The film premiered in competition at the 65th International Berlin Film Festival.

“Knight of Cups” follows Rick (Bale), an actor who has lost his way and finds himself maneuvering through a Hollywood dreamscape in search of clarity. Portman appears as a married lover in a small segment of the film, and spoke at length about working with Malick, who she fondly referred to as “Terry” in a roundtable chat in honor of the film.

READ MORE: Berlin: Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on Making ‘Knight of Cups’ With Terrence Malick

While much of the conversation remained film-specific, Portman broke down her experience working with the unconventional director, her upcoming directorial debut, and what she’s been up to since winning the Oscar in 2010 for her leading performance in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” 

Portman, whose first role was in Luc Besson’s “The Professional,” has since worked with a series of talented directors, which include Michael Mann, Woody Allen, Wong Kar Wai and the late Mike Nichols. Although this is her first time working with Malick, and not her last (she’s attached to his unnamed follow-up), the two have known each other for some time now.
“I had been lucky enough to meet him ten years ago and I told him how much I absolutely admired his work. And we kept in touch over the years and it was really moving to get to be asked to work with him. It exceeded my expectations.” 

Portman explained how for years the two exchanged books suggestions and ideas, before delving into what it’s like working with Malick. In recent years, the director’s efforts have been loose narratives, and those attached to his projects have often been left in the dark, never certain if they’ll even make the final cut after editing. 

“I worked for four-and-a-half days shooting this movie. Out of a two or three month shoot. I was like ‘there’s a good chance I’m not going to end up in the movie.’ The beauty is that the process is so incredible that it’s not what it’s about. Also, trust Terry that if you’re not in it is better that you are not in it. You probably deserve not to be in it because what ends up on screen is so refined.”

She also spoke positively about Malick’s method. 

“He has a shooting style that’s exploratory. He’s looking to discover things all the time. And it’s a beautiful way to work. I think it’s something to take into all kinds of movies because you tend to get into a rhythm were you feel you are executing the script, you’e putting the script onto the screen. To go everyday and say, ‘What can we find? What can we discover? What can we invent?’ It’s really a beautiful thing. Although, there is some planning. It’s not just like you show up.”

Later this year, Portman will be debuting her adaptation of Israeli writer Amos Oz’s world-renowned autobiographical novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” She directs, adapts the script and also stars. 

“I think I chose ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ because it became an obsession for me. I read it and imagined it as a movie. It was the first time I had read something and imagined it so vividly, so myself. And over the years I kept being obsessed with it and the reasons changed. I started out really obsessed with how Oz talks about the language, because he talks about the Hebrew language in such a magical way. That really made me see poetry I had never seen before. Over seven years, I then became a mother and started understanding the story in a different way, on a family level. Then of course his politics are very influential on me. Although it’s not inherently a political film, there will always unfortunately be that in the background of any film about Israel. Or any book. You can’t just write a story. It always has that beneath it. I think anyone from any conflicted region knows.”

She also brought up what she took working from Malick for her own feature.

“When you’re shooting a regular movie if a person, a civilian, walks into your shot, you go ‘cut!’ And the director yells ‘Get out of the shot!’ And they get him out and you have to do it again. With Terry, you go up to the person, you start a conversation with them, you hang out with them, you talk to them, you try to incorporate them in the scene and then afterwards they’ll try to get a release that the person is in the movie. You get in a van. You go somewhere and shoot. You get in a van and we change clothes in the car. If it stops [his unit] close the backdoor and put curtains on the windows and we change in the car. We then get out and shoot somewhere else. It feels like a student film. There’s a great freedom and you get so many things that way. I think it’s why they capture these moments that are really transcendent.”

After winning her Oscar, Portman moved with her husband, a choreographer and young child to Paris. Since then, she’s only appeared in the “Thor” sequel and hasn’t had much going on for two years.

“When you have a kid and you’re an actor you are kind of forced into a long break. I was showing from day one. There was no way I was able to work when I was pregnant. You’re basically off for a year and I chose to take more time off to be with my family. It ended up being two years that I didn’t act. It was obviously a magical time in my life. But it also was good because it gave me a hunger to come back and an excitement. Renewed energy for why I want to make things and how I want to make things.” 

At the end of the discussion, Portman discussed the ways in which she has learned to take success and failure.

“Yeah. I think I’m good at enjoying it, but not getting drunk on it. I’ve also had lows and you know that the people applauding you one day might be trashing you the next day. You can’t take too much meaning out of it. Although, it always hurts when you get trashed. It always feel nice when you’re applauded.”

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