As an actress, Natalie Portman has never been short of audaciousness, from her breakthrough role aged 12 as a precocious assassin in Léon: The Professional, to the role that won her the Oscar, as a masochistic ballerina in Black Swan, to her turn as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. She builds on this repertoire of complex protagonists with Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, in which she plays Celeste, the survivor of a brutal school shooting who becomes a pop superstar after she writes and records a heartfelt anthem for the victims. The film is a commentary on the loss of innocence, set against the backdrop of our nation’s tragic gun culture and obsession with celebrity.
Did you know Brady Corbet before this project? Were you looking to do a musically-themed movie?
I watched his film [The Childhood of a Leader] and was really impressed by his work. His writing [in Vox Lux] was so specific and great. I would say the words as I was reading the screenplay; both the form of how Celeste says words and how she speaks in a specific manner. And she’s monologuing all the time. The content that she’s saying; she’s an incredible character and sometimes says nonsense, and sometimes says really insightful things all mixed together. It was a childhood dream come true to get to sing, like singing with a brush in front of the mirror, but I wouldn’t categorize this movie as a musical.
How does the PTSD from the school shooting impact her as she gets older?
It definitely affects her. Whenever we go through devastation, it haunts us, but she picks herself up. Because she had the experience, it becomes like a common occurrence, and people learn to live with the most extraordinary circumstances.
Production was delayed due to financing dropping out. How did that time off further assist in your preparation?
I was on my way to the airport to fly to New York when they called me, and I turned around and went back home. I had prepped everything, but had to prep again and I worked on the accent. In preparing the choreography we had three or four weeks with Benjamin [Millepied]. He was working with his company at the same time. He’d teach me and then I’d rehearse with movement trainer Raquel Horsford. I also did five or six recording sessions.
What rock musical documentaries did you watch in preparing to play Celeste?
I watched all the top ones, but I don’t really feel that she’s based on a particular person at all. I learned a lot about the lifestyle of what they’re doing, the rigor of being on the road, the taxing shows night after night, all the work and preparation, the dynamic relationship between all of the people a pop star travels, lives and works with; the family members and how they fit in. Sometimes they work for the pop star. Having difficult relationships with siblings seemed to be a recurring theme. I picked up on all their small behavior.
Being politically active, how did you feel after the midterm elections?
I feel excited about the many types of people who are representing more of what America looks like. The typical make-up of our government is slowly looking more like the make-up of our country. [Editor’s note: In an election record, 101 women won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives including such landmarks with the first female Muslims, Native American and youngest candidate being elected.]
Being an active member of Time’s Up, do you find that there’s any resistance from the industry in the campaign for inclusion riders on productions?
There is a resistance because I think a lot of people are making the argument that you’re hiring someone for their talent, not for their gender. Of course, I don’t think that anyone thinks the argument should ignore bias. There’s the great orchestra example which started a few years ago. The top orchestras were entirely male and what they started doing were auditions behind a curtain to judge the listening of the music. Suddenly there was a 50/50 parity in the make-up of their orchestras. They didn’t realize the unconscious bias against women. Most industries can’t do job interviews behind a curtain. It goes to show that we have so much bias in not recognizing talent and allowing it to express itself. Of course, no one wants to get a job because of their marginalization, you want to get the job because of your talent. But there are so many who don’t get the opportunity since they are marginalized, and there are those who actually appreciate others’ values, talent and voices.
Roles for women—have they improved since you first began in this business?
I think it’s still really challenging, there’s a lot of tropes that are repeated and revisited. Also for women of color, it’s extremely difficult to be represented. However, this year, we saw the first Asian-American female story to be told by a studio in 25 years [Crazy Rich Asians]. Latinos are even more poorly represented; that is something people aren’t being shown at all. But white women are the most represented of all the women and it’s a challenging thing to show a full humanity. So, I think there’s a lot to be done when it comes to giving more opportunities to other people, and allowing people from all types of experiences to tell their stories.
You have increasingly become more involved as a producer on the projects you star in. What do you love about that part of the job, and does it help to have a voice in productions when they become challenged, as was the case on Jane Got a Gun?
It’s nice to be a part of projects I believe in and can help shepherd, even if I’m not the director or writer. I’m still learning and I’m not one to claim something when I have so much to learn. With Jane Got a Gun, that started with a lot of genuine interest in the creative process, and turned into a harrowing experience for everyone involved. I don’t look at that as any sort of victory. It was very challenging and humbling, an experience where you learn how much you can be better and how much you still have to learn.
Will you direct again?
Yes, but I’m not sure what.
Has there ever been any talk of doing a sequel to your first breakout film Léon: The Professional, where we see a much older Mathilda?
There was a little bit of talk about that at one point, but I don’t have any plans to do that project.