Natalie Portman, the Oscar-winner and Dior Beauty ambassador, talks to Richard Godwin about her hopes for the next generation, moonlighting on a hit Aussie cartoon and challenging the norms of the female body
CREDITLINE: Richard Godwin / ES Magazine / The Interview People
It’s hard to think of an actor, male or female, who has navigated 21st-century Hollywood with as much skill as Natalie Portman. She is, let’s not forget, the only Harvard graduate ever to win a best acting Oscar. From her debut as a 12-year-old orphan in Léon to her haunted ballerina in the body horror Black Swan, from the Star Wars prequels to Closer and on to Jackie, her range is unmatched. Even the films that have failed to light up the box office have usually faltered because they’re a bit too intelligent.
And in 2022, Portman has appeared in a role that, more than any other, demonstrates her superior discernment and willingness to confront gender stereotypes in her laughably regressive industry. No, I don’t mean Thor: Love and Thunder. I mean Bluey, the cult Australian cartoon about a family of blue dogs, beloved for its larky humour and depiction of the modern working family in which both parents play supportive roles.
‘It’s such a great show,’ says Portman, who makes a cameo in the third season. ‘In so many kids’ shows and books, there are traditional mum and dad things that the parents do. In Bluey, it feels more like they both work, they both cook. It has quite an even relationship between the parents, too, which I think is really nice.’
The cameo came about as her role in the aforementioned superhero movie required her to relocate to Australia last year with her husband, the excellently named French dancer Benjamin Millepied, and their children Aleph, 11, and Amalia, 5. One of Portman’s co-stars there, Daley Pearson — a friend of the director, Taika Waititi — was also a key creative force on Bluey. ‘I had asked him for tickets to a live show in Sydney and so he knew that I was a fan. We were shooting together and he asked if I would be interested ever and I was like: “Of course!”’
Portman is not primarily, you’ll be shocked to learn, speaking to me to discuss blue dogs. For the meantime, we are talking over Zoom, chaperoned by Dior Beauty, for which Portman, 41, has been a face since 2010. The call comes as the new Rouge Dior Forever Lipstick premières but unfortunately, I am denied a glimpse of this expensive visage: ‘It’s meant to be just audio,’ she says kindly when I express confusion at her black screen. The relationship has been remarkably long by the usual standards of celebrity endorsements and it’s not hard to see why Dior has been so keen to retain her services. ‘I always carry the Dior [shade] 999, red lipstick in my purse because it gives me a sense of boldness and strength when I need that little extra boost,’ she informs me with what truly comes across as unfeigned enthusiasm. ‘I think it’s really miraculous how a different look can give you a different persona. It’s kind of the way everyone can bring what I’m lucky enough to do as a job into their own life and bring out different sides of themselves.’ Lucky us, eh?
Portman also discusses the recent revamping of the Miss Dior perfume, originally created in 1947 by Christian Dior. Covid has not only made her newly appreciative of her own olfactory apparatus (‘very, very sensitive’, apparently); it has reframed her entire conception of beauty. ‘I think I was kind of worried that beauty was superficial as a kid,’ she says. ‘As I’m older, I feel like I see it as a mode of expression and play and joy — and also, like, indulging yourself and treating yourself. Whereas I felt before a little bit like: “I should be writing a book right now, why am I sitting in this chair?!”’
But perhaps Portman simply has less to prove these days. She may not have fulfilled the academic promise that her Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz once saw in her (‘a terrific student’). However, she has actually written a book — Natalie Portman’s Fables, for children, released in 2020 — and meanwhile runs the impressively highbrow Natalie’s Book Club on Instagram. Recent authors under discussion have included Rachel Cusk and Natalia Ginzburg. Meanwhile that other big summer role of hers, Jane Foster in the campy Marvel romp, Thor: Love and Thunder — has allowed her to explore her physicality in a different way.
Portman made peripheral appearances in the first two Thor movies before evidently deciding there were more rewarding ways to spend her time. However, she was persuaded to return for the fourth instalment by Waititi, who put her character front and centre and gave her a terminal illness storyline. For much of the film, Jane inherits the Thor mantle, so she spends quite a lot of time prancing around with a large hammer.
‘I loved Taika’s work so much and I’m such a big admirer of his and of course also love [co-stars] Chris [Hemsworth] and Tessa [Thompson], so it wasn’t very hard to convince me to be there,” she says. There was also the enjoyable challenge of acquiring a Hemsworthian physique. ‘I feel like every previous experience of training or exercise for me as a woman has always been about being smaller, so this is pretty amazing. This is something most of us don’t question. When most men go to the gym, the aim is to become bigger. When women go to the gym, the aim is to diminish. It’s something that we ignore as an aspect of the ideal woman’s body being thin. So it’s pretty incredible to celebrate a character who is large, where the goal is to be as big as possible.’
The reception to the film has been decidedly mixed. ‘You know, I really don’t pay much attention to any of it, honestly,’ Portman says. ‘My experience has been that the work that you make never correlates to the response at the time. If you get a good response right away, that doesn’t mean people think it’s great forever.’ Does she feel things have appreciably changed since the industry’s #MeToo reckonings? A founder of the Time’s Up movement, Portman spoke about the ‘environment of sexual terrorism’ that had shaped the way she made choices in her career. ‘I think there’s been some progress and also a far way to go still,’ she says, diplomatically. ‘There’s been a lot more consciousness of hiring women in leadership positions throughout the industry. There’s been a lot more awareness of people’s behaviour. But there’s still a lot more that needs to happen.”
Such as? ‘Oh, I don’t know that I have solutions but we still see large disparities in hiring. We still see large disparities in compensation. We see a lot of toxic discourse in many places. And there are actual legal challenges to our full autonomy in the United States.’ Roe vs Wade was, she says: ‘crushing’. ‘My child will have fewer rights than I did growing up. That is certainly not what I ever dreamed of. It’s absolutely a crushing moment but I am hopeful that it will unite a new generation of people demanding full freedom and full autonomy for all people.’
In these uncertain times, what scares Natalie Portman? ‘Well, of course I always want the world to be a safe and joyful place for my kids. So you know, the environment; climate change is quite a scary thing.’ However, our time is nearly at an end and she must wrap up fast. ‘But what I’ve been really happy with in this relationship with Dior is that they’ve really moved toward sustainable and clean products, which has been really, really happy for me!’ You cannot fault the woman’s professionalism. I compliment her on a masterful segue and we return to our separate worlds.
HOW TO TAKE UP SPACE AND BOOST YOUR CONFIDENCE
Natalie Portman aimed to put on muscle and take up space for her role in Thor—something she found refreshing. Take a page from her playbook and learn to confidently take up space, too.
Written by Chelsea Clarke
Natalie Portman isn’t just progressive in the film roles she chooses—she decidedly leads the pack on breaking societal standards placed upon women’s body images, too. For her role in Thor, the aim was to take up space, to be larger than life, both physically and mentally—a far cry from the expectation that a woman’s endeavor in the gym is to become smaller. And while society has become more accepting of a woman’s goal to be strong (we see #ArmGoals all over TikTok, and those gals have built some enviable muscle!), the quiet narrative that still seems to run through our collective mindset is that, sure, women can be “curvy” in some places—as long as they’re still small in others.
So, while Portman may be onto something, women are still a long way from taking up space with no strings attached. Here are some ways to take on Thor-sized status in body and mind.
DIVERSIFY YOUR MEDIA
Surrounding yourself with representation from all walks of life is a powerful step in accepting yourself, and others, as is. Take an audit of the media you consume via social accounts, television shows, and movies. How often are you seeing different body types, varying ability levels, or minority groups? Challenge yourself to seek out representation of diverse women from a multitude of backgrounds so you can become more accustomed to the exposure.
SEPARATE SELF-WORTH AND YOUR BODY
Many women have grown up with the idea that their appearance is what’s most interesting about them, or is what sets them apart. And if you caught America Ferrara’s monologue in Barbie, you know that the internal narrative is a fine line between how to look “right” and how to look “wrong.” While this isn’t a simple dialogue to separate yourself from, part of creating a stronger sense of self-worth is to abolish the notion that it has anything to do with how you look at all (trust us, it doesn’t). Instead, consider the “worth” you bring to your friends and family. We bet it has nothing to do with how you look, and everything to do with how you show up for them. Whether you’re a great listener, you’ve always got a funny meme to make someone laugh, or you give the best hugs, these are the qualities that make up your self-worth—not your dress size.
AIM FOR BODY NEUTRALITY
Especially when you’re just starting out on your goal to take up more space, the common self-help wisdom to just “love yourself” can be really challenging. So, why not aim simply to be neutral? Rather than declaring that you “hate” or “love” something about your body, shift your internal dialogue to note what your body does for you—and leave it at that for now. Statements such as “I’m glad my body carried me to work today” or “My body allowed me to have fun in my fitness class” can be helpful stepping stones in secretly altering negative thoughts into appreciative ones.
FOCUS ON ANYTHING BUT YOUR BODY
We’re all guilty of becoming fixated on our bodies now and again, but putting intentional focus on all other aspects of your life can amplify just how much there is to enjoy and get involved in during your days. Taking the pressure and scrutiny off of constantly ruminating about your body and instead apply that energy to pursuing hobbies, learning new skills, or spending time with friends and family, which can be a strong reminder of not only how much you have to offer the world, but also of how much the world can offer to you.
While society as a whole still needs to play catch-up to removing judgement from how women’s bodies are perceived, these little steps add up to big leaps in moving the needle. So, whether you’re someone who’s on a mission to take up more space physically (just like Portman), or mentally to fortify your resilience, an investment in building your personal confidence won’t just change your own mindset—it’ll shift the societal narrative too.