The Transformation of Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman is a highly accomplished star of the screen whose Golden Globe Award last Sunday night for "Black Swan" may be just the beginning for her. Mo Rocca pays her a visit:

If you had any doubt that Natalie Portman is all grown up, go see "Black Swan."

As Nina, a ballerina driven mad in a quest for perfection, Portman delivers a sensitive, sexy, scary tour de force performance that last Sunday won the star, now pregnant, a Golden Globe.

It's the latest in a string of critically acclaimed and transforming performances, including her head-shaven revolutionary in "V for Vendetta," her charming free spirit in "Garden State," and her 2005 Golden Globe-winning turn as a stripper in "Closer."

Her range has earned Portman a reputation as perhaps the best actress of her generation.

She describes herself as having been a "show-offy little kid."

"I just wanted everyone to look at me, you know?" she laughed.

Born in Israel, Natalie Hershlag was an only child raised on New York's Long Island by her mom, Shelley, an artist, and her Dad, Avner, a doctor.

She says she was discovered in a pizza parlor, spotted by an agent for Revlon Cosmetics who told her he thought she could do commercials.

But Natalie had other ideas.

"I was like, 'I don't want to model. I want to act!' I don't know, my ten-year-old self!"

Soon, she was cast as the orphaned apprentice to a hit man in "The Professional" - and she started using her grandmother's maiden name.

So what was a nice Jewish girl from Long Island doing starring as an aspiring assassin? "My parents were equally confused," she laughed.

"My parents were very, very protective people. I mean, they were like, 'No, absolutely not! No, no!' And I was like, 'You guys are kidding me. This is a great movie!"

"I love it - some little girls are begging for a Barbie Dream House, you're begging to be in a French thriller,' said Rocca.

"Exactly. I'm begging to work!"

Her parents relented, but her father demanded script revisions: The character's cursing and smoking were strictly limited.

"They had a system where I wouldn't actually smoke," Portman explained. "Where they would have a cigarette that wasn't even actually a real cigarette. It was some sort of like clove, herbal kind of situation. I would put it to my lips. And then they'd have someone behind me blow the smoke so that it would look like I was smoking.

"You can kind of tell," she admitted.

The smoking was fake, but Portman was a natural.

As the precocious neighbor in "Beautiful Girls," she was a girl both beautiful and wise beyond her years.

How does she feel about the word "precocious"?

"I don't know, it took me a long time, I think, to stop wanting to be older than I was," she replied. "I think when I was little, I always wanted to be older and act older and have people think I was older."

"And at one point, you're too old to be precocious," said Rocca.

"Yeah, and then one day you're like, 'Wait, I'm actually supposed to be this level of maturity? No one's impressed? No one's patting me on the back for being like witty or cute?'"

In real life, Portman says, she was a late bloomer, not much like the little adults she was playing onscreen, such as in "Beautiful Girls" (made when she was 15) when he propositions Timothy Hutton's character, describing him as "a dude in flux."

"I had no idea what that meant," she admits. "But I would be like, 'You're a dude in flux.' And everyone would be laughing, you know? And I had no idea what I was talking about."

"Do you think it gets harder to act as you get older?' Rocca asked.

"Oh, yeah. You're more aware of what you look like and sound like and so you can be more self-conscious."

And no films captured that awkward phase more than the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy. The movies were gigantic hits. Portman was not.

Her performance in the first film, "The Phantom Menace," was considered wooden and monotone.

"Did that shake your confidence?" Rocca asked.

"I think so. I think the good thing about, when people knock you down, is that - I mean, for me personally - it makes me want to, like, prove them wrong, you know?

"When someone's like, 'You can't do that,' I just want to be like, 'Yes, I can. Watch.'"

Always an excellent student, Portman knew that if acting didn't work out, she had her education to fall back on. She credits her mother especially with making sure good grades remained the first priority.

"After school my mom would drive me in," Portman said. "She would never take me out of school."

Portman went on to get a bachelor's degree in psychology from Harvard University.

She spends much of her off-time traveling for charitable work.

But to the tabloid media, she's downright . . . boring.

Never caught out drunk. Never caught being rude.

"My job is to make people believe I'm someone else," Portman said. "So it's not very good for anyone to know too much about what I'm really like. So, my friends know who I am, and otherwise I just try to be bland in the press."

But when she performs, she's anything but …

She lampooned her good-girl image with a gangsta rap on 'Saturday Night Live" in 2006. "It was really, really an amazing thing for me actually, because it was the first time people thought that I could be funny. And it really opened a door for me to do comedies."

Case in point: her comedy, "No Strings Attached," which opened this weekend.

It couldn't be more different than that other role she's playing. In "Black Swan," Nina is the lead in "Swan Lake," a part that requires her to be an innocent white swan, then transform herself into the sexually mature black swan.

To play Nina, Portman, directed by Darren Aronofsky, underwent her own transformation.

(Fox Searchlight )
"Darren basically took me aside before the film and was like, 'I want you to get as thin as you can without being sick.' He's like, 'I want you to look sick, but I don't want you to be sick.'"

She said she lost about 20 pounds. "You definitely see changes. Your chest opens. And your arms get longer, like literally longer, through a lot of work."

And like many hardworking people, Portman fell in love with someone she met at work.

Shortly after our interview, she revealed that she's engaged to choreographer Benjamin Millepied, her onscreen dance partner in "Black Swan." But Portman isn't tipping her hand about marriage.

"Marriage, I mean, I want to be in like a long-term committed relationship," she said. "Marriage is less important to me, because I just - I don't know, I'm not sure how different it is from just being like, 'I am committed to you forever,' you know? Why the actual contract is different. But I'm not like anti-. I just don't necessarily understand the specific difference."

She's announced that she and Millepied are having a baby together; she's in her second trimester.

But when it comes to pregnancy, Portman hasn't followed religious expectations…

"It's important for me to retain my Jewish culture, my Jewish identity, and, you know, pass that on to the future. But I think, you know, if we can take any clue from genetics, it's that mixing is the best. Mixing is the healthiest for your children, you know?

"In-breeding leads to problems," she laughed.

Portman believes in diversity, not just in genetics but also in films. She's built a career choosing roles both surprising and challenging.

And her latest, in "Black Swan," is expected to earn her a second Oscar nomination.

And given everything we know about Natalie Portman, an Oscar just might be the least surprising thing of all.

"How much of your success, do you think, is due to sheer focus and will?" Rocca asked.

"Look, I think anyone who does well and doesn't credit luck with a lot of it is not being honest," she said. "But, yeah, I mean, I would say that I am very focused. I'm very hardworking. I feel like it's the least I can do for all the luck I have to be doing this job that I absolutely love."

For more info:
"Black Swan" (Official Movie Website)