The last time Natalie Portman portrayed a real-life figure onscreen was Anne Boleyn, the queen of England who was executed on charges of treason and incest. Her character suffers a decidedly different fate in Jackie, a film depicting the grief-filled days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the eyes of his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.
Portman stuns as Jackie, vividly rendering her unique mélange of vulnerability, strength, and grace in the face of unspeakable tragedy; it’s a performance that will surely be on the lips of awards’ pundits in the coming months. The Oscar-winning actress—flanked by her director, the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain—opened up about the movie during a post-screening press conference at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, where it made its world premiere.
“It definitely felt like the most dangerous [role], because everyone knows what she looked like, and sounded like, and walked like, and had an idea of her, and I’ve never played a character like that before,” said Portman.
Larrain’s film captures the different sides of Jacqueline Kennedy, from the public (her CBS News tour of the White House, an interview with a Life magazine reporter) to the private (intimate conversations with her priest, played by John Hurt). According to Portman, she calibrated her performance differently depending on which side of Jackie she was meant to show.
“It was something we noticed a lot in looking at the existing film and audiotape of Jackie: that her voice and her presence was very different,” she said. “When she was doing a public interview, she got a lot more coy, and maybe a little bit shy, and her voice got a bit higher. There were a lot of small details of how she presented herself when she was doing an interview as the wife of a politician even before she was the wife of a president to the audiotapes of her talking to [Arthur] Schlesinger when it’s her with friends and the ice against the glass in the background. It’s a much different tone and quality of voice.”
Jackie came to Larrain at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, where his movie The Club was screening, and where Portman’s Black Swan director, Darren Aronofsky, was serving as jury president. According to Larrain, he received “an invitation that I got from Darren Aronofsky” to direct the film there, and though he is “not as attached” to U.S. history as he is his home country’s, he recalled reading a section of the Warren Commission Report describing how President Kennedy died, and how Jackie was “sitting next to him.” This, he says, inspired him to want to assume her point of view.
In addition the Aronofsky connection, Portman said that they filmed much of Jackie in Paris, leading to a reunion with the filmmaker Luc Besson—who famously directed a young Portman in the 1994 cult classic The Professional.
“We filmed Jackie in Luc Besson’s studios in Paris, so every morning before work I would see Luc and we would just pass in the hallways, like the office,” Portman shared.
Of course, playing an American icon like Jacqueline Kennedy, later known as Jackie O, is no simple task. Due to her incredibly sense of privacy, she remains largely a mystery.
“She’s a young woman, she’s a symbol for all these people, she’s a mother, she’s a wife, she’s a betrayed wife, she’s a person just trying to figure out her way in the world. There are so many things she’s dealing with,” said Portman.
“That’s a big part of the conflict: When you know you’re a symbol for people, when you know that people see you as something from the outside, how can you maintain your humanity when for everyone else you’re this… mannequin for a lot of people?” she added. “That’s what she was.”