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‘Vox Lux’ Director Brady Corbet On Natalie Portman: ‘I Found My Gena Rowlands’ — IndieWire Honors

The filmmaker recalls how Portman made his "unusual protagonist" possible.

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Brady Corbet and Natalie Portman on the set of “Vox Lux”

Atsushi Nishijima

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

Paying tribute to the people you admire most is a daunting task because of how it can unwittingly turn into a piling-on of generalities and platitudes – instead of describing the honoree, those platitudes often result in descriptions that could be about anybody, and for me, Natalie really isn’t just anybody. Before extolling the talents of my colleague and collaborator though, I’ll preface this all by saying that my sentiments come from the heart, and I do hope that it does her and her increasingly impressive body of work a little bit of justice.

I first took serious notice of Natalie in Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain.” I had met Anthony around the time of that film’s release and I have a vivid memory of him advising a group of us at a dinner party to keep a close eye on the young actress in a supporting role. She was already a household name at that time but he was right; the devastating role did cast her in a new light. He was very proud of her work in his film and after viewing it myself, it was easy to understand why. It was risky stuff; an unhinged, brutalized performance that made its mark in just a few short minutes of screen time.

Not surprisingly, there was more where that came from and over the years, I was continually struck by the breadth and complexity of the roles and projects Natalie took on — not only because of the exactitude of her technique, but because celebrities are simply not obligated to “roll the dice.” Undoubtedly, it’s easier once one has achieved a certain level of notoriety to coast on projects that would simply maintain his or her status. What’s the point of fixing something that isn’t broken?

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Many years later, I was writing the screenplay for what would be my second film. It featured an unusual protagonist: a pop star designed as a baroque expression of the narcissism and mania that mark our contemporary values. That was a big idea, and I was concerned that the role might be un-playable. The monologues were long and they needed to be delivered with urgency. The takes would often be unbroken. The actress would need to record songs and would have to commit themselves to a great deal of choreography for the film’s real-time concert sequence at the end. On top of it all, the film’s unconventional structure meant that they would need to flip to page 50 to discover the proposed main role. It was a lot to ask of someone. I needed a Gena Rowlands.

I’ll spare everyone the details of how difficult it was to put such a film together, but needless to say, I eventually found my Gena Rowlands. I will also say that “Vox Lux” would not exist if not for Natalie’s participation and dedication, in that order. I’ve never worked with someone more prepared or daring. That commitment and daring is represented in the other equally significant aspects of her life such as her outspoken political activism, as well as her own work as a filmmaker. Like Anthony was 15 years ago, I’m so proud of her and I anxiously await whatever she brings to life next.

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