Interview: Natalie Portman Talks Black Swan

Natalie Portman has been a busy girl of late, appearing in a litany of film projects that include the upcoming superhero actioner Thor and the medieval stoner comedy Your Highness. Before those movies drop, however, she'll hit big screens -- just in time for awards season -- in the considerably less commercial psychological thriller Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Swan sees Portman play an obsessed, overly ambitious ballerina just chosen to star in a new production of the ballet Swan Lake. The role is actually one of split identity: the lovely White Swan and the dark and haunted Black Swan. Portman's character begins to experience a similar divergence, struggling with identity and reality. It's a beautiful, magnificent allegory for the artistic struggle that, yes, sounds very highbrow, but, trust me, is far scarier than you might ever expect a "ballet thriller" to be. I sat down with Portman recently to A) pant, and B) ask her a few questions about making the movie and all the attention it's receiving.

Light spoilers near the end.

Cole Haddon: This must be a bit of a dream role for you. It's not every day that parts this complex, this rich for an actress to play, are actually allowed to reach the screen.

Natalie Portman: Well, I had danced when I was younger, until I was about 12 and I guess always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film related to dance. So when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just related to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character, two characters to go into, it was just an opportunity, and especially with Darren who is a director that I would do anything for -- it was just something completely exciting.

CH: Now this is a movie about transformation, exemplified by the use of the ballet Swan Lake. It also required you to achieve a physical transformation yourself, to prepare your body for the part. Can you talk about how you approach something like that?

NP: Well, it was a great challenge and I had really, really amazing support. I mean, all the teachers and coaches and the choreographer, obviously, and the director first and foremost were shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time, Mary Helen Bowers, and she started very basically with me, but we would do two hours a day for six months. That was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn't get injured, and then at about six months we started doing five hours a day where we added in swimming. So I was swimming a mile a day, toning, and then doing three hours of ballet class a day. And then two months before we added the choreography. So we were probably doing eight hours a day, and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer's life. You don't drink. You don't go out with your friends. You don't have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, and you really get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.

Black SwanCH: There's already Oscar buzz aplenty around your performance. How do you feel about being in those shoes?

NP: The best thing that you can hope for when you make a movie and you put your soul into it like all of us did, is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. So it's a great, great honor.

CH: Speaking of shoes, what was it like wearing pointe shoes in Black Swan?

NP: Pointe shoes are torture devices. I mean, ballerinas get used to it and so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval.

CH: The choreography in the movie is exquisite. You performed almost all of your own ballet, from what I understand.

NP: Well, the choreography were different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting. She is sort of the premier, was the premier Swan Lake coach for Odile/Odette and so she worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements that are sort of ballet acting. It's little gestures that you can do that really differentiate between those two characters.

Black SwanCH: You have a degree in psychology from Harvard. What would your professional diagnosis of your character Nina be?

NP: Well, this was actually a case where something that I did learn in school did translate into something practical which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there's such a sense of ritual -- the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It's such a process. It's almost religious in nature. It's almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads, and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because, when you do a film, you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything, and you devote yourself to them, and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis.

CH: Well, as you just put it, so much of this movie is about obsession with a character. How do you pull yourself out of that as an actress? What keeps you from spiraling?

NP: Well, pulling out of it, I'm very much like, as soon as I finish a scene I'm back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting I want to be myself again. I'm not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences.