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Natalie Portman Is Unafraid to Fail: The ‘Vox Lux’ Star Explains How Flawed Movies Made Her More Ambitious — IndieWire Honors

Portman has learned from experience how to take risks, and the gambles keep paying off. Here, she explains her secret.

Natalie Portman

Daniel Bergeron

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On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate eight filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews this week.

Natalie Portman is one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood, but has no problem acknowledging an acting record that’s far from spotless.  “It takes the fear out of the risk a little more,” she said. “I’ve been in stuff that didn’t work and it didn’t kill me.”

Portman’s willingness to swing for edgy and unorthodox material helps explain a lot about her work in recent years, from her Oscar-winning achievement as a disturbed ballerina in “Black Swan,” to her commanding Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” and her latest turn in writer-director Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux.”

The sprawling narrative finds her playing a narcissistic pop star who embodies the worst of America’s celebrity-obsessed culture. Portman was a fan of Corbet’s directorial debut, “Childhood of a Leader,” and said she appreciated the bold choices of the script, which included the duel casting of Raffey Cassidy — first, as the younger version of Portman’s character, and then as her daughter. “I was struck both by the specificity of this person he’d created that was such an opportunity to play, and also the ideas he was bringing up in the larger story,” Portman said. “It’s very rare to read something that gives you new insight into the current historical moment.”

She credited an underlying philosophy that helped her embrace the challenge. “The worst thing that could’ve happened was that it wouldn’t work,” she said. “That came from failing a lot, having a lot of experiences making movies that I thought would be great but didn’t turn out that way, and seeing that I could survive that. At the end of the day, it’s a movie. You will move on and make another one.”

Portman won’t name her duds — “I’m sure people can come up with their own ideas,” she said — but her career trajectory speaks volumes about the clarity of purpose driving her choices today. When Portman leads a cast, audiences pay attention, even as they never know exactly what to expect. That willingness to swing for the unknown without giving up her star power is the reason she’s receiving the Performance award from the IndieWire Honors, and it gives her a singular identity in contemporary cinema. “I’m just operating in an instinctive way about what kind of things would be interesting and meaningful to me at different parts of my life,” she said.

It’s been over a decade since she starred in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, and while she was the centerpiece of Alex Garland’s Paramount-released “Annihilation” earlier this year, she has avoided big franchise opportunities. But she won’t limit her options on that front, nor has she ruled out the opportunities of the TV landscape. “All forms of different entertainment have the potential to be great,” she said. “It really has to do with the particular circumstances.”

"Vox Lux"

“Vox Lux”

Venice Film Festival

Portman credited CAA agent Make Dahil for helping her explore projects with a range of filmmakers beyond the biggest names in the business. “For the first time in my career, I feel like I have someone who’s a great guide,” she said. “She introduces me to a lot of filmmakers, writers, and material that I wouldn’t have known before. She figures out how to get me in a room with that person and find something I can potentially do with them.”

While actors are often asked how they relate to their characters, Portman has made it clear that she avoids roles that feel too familiar. “If something feels too familiar to me in terms of my daily life, I don’t want to do a facsimile of that,” she said. “The whole point is to enter another world that you don’t normally have access to.”

As a founding member of Time’s Up, Portman has been outspoken on women’s rights, both within the film industry and beyond it. But she admitted one area of her filmography that needed work. “In my 25 years, I’ve worked with two female directors on features, and one of them was myself,” she said, referencing her 2015 directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness” and “Planetarium,” directed by Rebecca Zlotowski. “I’m not someone who can claim a great leadership in this, but it is something that I am conscious of and wanting to change.” In broader terms, she added, “I do think there’s not enough opportunity given to women, to people of color, to queer people, to people with disabilities, to tell stories. We just don’t have enough chances to tell these stories. That opportunity needs to come from who actors choose to work with.”

Nevertheless, she refused to propose any limitations on which filmmakers should tackle certain projects. “Anyone should be able to tell any story,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s any content control about who gets to tell a woman’s story or a story of a person nationality or background.” She cited Ang Lee as an inspiration. “He’s always my greatest example,” she said. “He can tell the story of women of British women in a Jane Austen novel or gay men in the American west. He’s just been able to do everything. A great artist should be able to tell any story.”

She’s in no hurry to launch into a new project. With “Vox Lux” hitting the awards circuit this fall, Portman has been balancing promotional duties with her own activism. On the phone from Texas, she was doing double duty: In addition to presenting the movie at the Austin Film Festival, she was appearing at an election campaign event for Democratic congressional candidate MJ Hegar. “My activism is my role as a citizen of this country who happens to have a platform because of my work, and then my work feels completely separate from my politics,” she said. “But they both come from a sense of my emotional makeup that makes me feel like I want to create and be honest in my work and my life. I want to fight for what’s important to me.”

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