In Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s first English-language outing, the daring Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie,” Natalie Portman turns in some of her finest work yet as the beloved First Lady in the days just after the assassination of her husband. The film has already garnered significant buzz on the awards circuit, prompting Fox Searchlight to pick up the project out of Toronto, and it was with that momentum that Larraín and Portman brought the film to the New York Film Festival on Thursday night for the film’s U.S. premiere.
It’s Portman’s performance — one years in the making, as the film was produced by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who had long pictured his “Black Swan” leading lady in the title role — that has grabbed the most attention, and while it’s still early days, it’s hard to imagine an awards season that won’t feature her work front and center. After a standing ovation in a packed Alice Tully Hall, Larraín and Portman, along with co-star Peter Sarsgaard and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, took to the auditorium’s stage to answer a few questions.
Despite Portman’s extraordinary turn in the film, the actress admitted that the work wasn’t always easy, but she took strength and inspiration from Larraín’s dedication to finding the real “human being” at the heart of the film.
“I think Pablo had such an interesting take on just, looking for the human being,” she explained to the crowd when asked about what set Larraín’s vision apart from other filmmakers who had vied for the gig. “It felt like it could be something we hadn’t seen before.”
That idea guided Portman’s own take on the role, and she later admitted that her understanding of the First Lady before taking on the part was “a pretty superficial perception of her…the common perception of the hair and the clothes and the style and the elegance.”
“I’d never really considered what she had gone through emotionally or the legacy that she built or her family or the amazing contribution that she made in a very short time,” Portman continued. “She was really sort of so many things that I really didn’t know before.”
Larraín’s film uses the clever — and true — framing device of Jackie participating in a deeply personal interview with a journalist (played by Billy Crudup, whose character is literally billed as “The Journalist,” though he does actually have a name and a real history) in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. As the film flips between the present of the interview and the past of her life as First Lady, her character is revealed in increasingly compelling ways.
Although he plays a different journalist in the film — Crudup is cast as LIFE magazine’s Theodore H. White, who penned the famous myth-making “Camelot” story after a four-hour interview with Jackie — the character also seems heavily influenced by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former Special Assistant to the President, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who interviewed the First Lady in the spring of 1964, a few months after JFK’s death. Their interviews were later released as a special oral history, one that Portman relied on to help craft her part.
“There is so much material on Jackie,” Portman said when asked about her research process. “It was lucky and overwhelming, all at once. I read whatever I could. The most helpful was the Schlesinger book, because it’s exact transcripts of her interviews with Schlesinger right after the assassination. There are audio tapes that accompany them, so you can read it and listen to them at the same time.”
The style of that seminal interview also aided her process, especially when it came time to imagine the First Lady’s interior life and emotional state during those trying times.
“There’s huge chunks that she edited out of those Schlesinger interviews,” Portman explained. “That felt like it gave a lot of license for us to kind of do whatever we imagined, because there are these mysterious gaps. What did she say that she might have regretted? Why did she regret it? Why did she take it out? It leaves a lot of opportunity for some the license that we took.”
“Jackie” is screening at the New York Film Festival. It will open on December 2.