Natalie Portman Talks ‘Song to Song,’ Tupac, and the ‘Absurdity’ of the Trump Administration
The Oscar-winning actress chats with Marlow Stern about her new Terrence Malick film, SNL’s political sketches, and how President Trump must do more to condemn hate crimes.
It’s odd—and, dare I say it, rather trying—to promote a film that you shot in fits and spurts five years ago, but such is the predicament for those who had the privilege of making the final cut of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, a lyrical rock ‘n’ roll odyssey set against the vibrant music scene of Austin, Texas.
Malick took over four years to fine-tune his sprawling tale of musicians, romantics, and lotharios, which shot footage during concert performances at Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun Fest, and SXSW. And, after trimming his initial 8-hour cut to a decidedly more wieldy 129 minutes, numerous accomplices were left on the cutting room floor: Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Boyd Holbrook, Haley Bennett, Trevante Rhodes, and the Arcade Fire among them. One of the revelers that did manage to make her mark is Natalie Portman, whose transfixing portrayal of Rhonda, a wide-eyed waitress who falls under the spell of a Svengali-like music mogul (Michael Fassbender), serves as the film’s moral compass.
Rhonda’s is a tragic, all-too-familiar tale: a small-town girl seduced by a charismatic interloper into a life of drugs, partying, and group sex. It’s a fate that Portman, who made her big screen debut at the age of 12 in The Professional, thankfully sidestepped in her own life.
“I’m sure I dodged bullets without even knowing it, because I’m sure my parents kept me from things when I was younger, having been around for so long,” she tells me. “But there are certainly figures around who are seductive and can take you down a dark path.”
Portman, 35, is in many ways an anomaly when it comes to child stars. She’s never so much as made a damning tabloid appearance, famously skipped out on the premiere for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace to study for her high school finals, and put a piping-hot acting career on hold to graduate from Harvard University. She credits her “overprotective” parents with shielding her from Hollywood hedonism, and affording her a semi-normal childhood.
There is no actress who can capture fragility and inner torment quite like Portman. As her Jacqueline Kennedy roams the halls of the White House in Jackie, a paragon of poise in bloodstained Chanel, we feel the true weight of her burden. It is a performance so richly meticulous, it should have earned her a second Oscar. In conversation, Portman speaks softly, and carefully, whether it’s about the music she’s currently listening to (“A lot of Bach, Schubert, and James Blake”), or the rappers she’s into (“Chance the Rapper and all my old hip-hop stuff, like Tribe and Pac”). It is this mélange of delicateness, worldly precaution, and thirst for adventure that’s made Mathilda, Alice, Nina, Jackie, and now Rhonda such vivid, emotionally tangled creations.
Of course, when people think of “Natalie Portman” and “music,” the movie Garden State comes to mind. Though it was hailed as a cultural touchstone of sorts upon its 2004 release, the film has since received a harsh reassessment, with contrarian hipsters branding it a mawkish, regressive study of millennial entitlement. (Editor’s Note: I still think it’s a nice little film.)
“Well, I mean, I don’t know!” Portman says of the Garden State negativity. “I’ve been in movies that people love, movies that people hate, and movies that people started loving and then hated later, and the opposite—movies that people hated at first and then loved later. I think that stuff is totally unpredictable, and you can’t really think about those things. As an actor, your approach has to be totally independent of the reaction to it.”
“Honestly, I don’t watch my films after they come out,” she adds. “I watch it once after it’s finished and then I never see them again. Also, I don’t read about myself or my films. If you did, you’d just be miserable, I think, if you read all the mean things that were written about yourself. And it just turns into some ego trip about you. So I have not been following it or thinking about it!”
She is, however, still a fan of The Shins—though the very mention of the band makes her giggle with embarrassment: “Yeah, they’re a great band! I don’t listen to a ton of indie rock kind of stuff anyway, but they’re great. They’re definitely connected to [Garden State] for me.”
Our chat eventually arrived at the biggest news of the day: President Trump’s Twitter war with Snoop Dogg. Yes, our notoriously thin-skinned POTUS took time out of his busy schedule of alienating allies and Mar-a-Lago golf outings to publicly condemn the gangster rapper for an incendiary parody video.
Portman finds it just as surreal as you do. “It’s certainly not what we want, and what our president should be focused on,” she says of the president’s preoccupation with The Doggfather.
Trump’s tweet against Snoop Dogg is all the more ridiculous considering that the president has yet to use his considerable social media presence to denounce the wave of anti-Semitic threats and hate crimes across the country, including the shooting death of an Indian immigrant in Kansas who was reportedly told, “Get out of my country.”
According to Portman, who is Jewish, the Trump administration must do more to condemn these heinous acts.
“All of the examples of hate crimes and hatred, whether it’s against the Indian-Americans who were killed in the Midwest, or against Jews, or against all the different minority groups where it’s been happening, it’s really outrageous and the government certainly needs to step up against it and make their voice clear on the unacceptable nature of these attacks and threats,” she says.
One thing that’s brought Portman—who stumped for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania while several months pregnant—joy since the election is tuning in to NBC each weekend and watching Saturday Night Live lampoon the chaotic Trump White House. “I’ve been watching,” she says. “ The political sketches are really right-on and amazing. They’re great at showing us the absurdity of the situation right now.”
Another is reminiscing about working with Malick, a renowned recluse who recently made his first public appearance in ages to discuss Song to Song at SXSW.
“I love Terry, and I love working with him. He does things his own way and like nobody else, and breaks down all the preconceptions about what a movie has to be and what the process has to be like,” recalls Portman. “It’s very freeing to get to shoot with him. And as a person, he’s so kind, so attentive. If you tell him something, he remembers it forever. He has this persona or mystique about him where he’s sort of hiding in the shadows, but when you’re with him you love to laugh and have fun.”