March 16, 2006
N for No-Nonsense Natalie
The big-haired, far, far away queen of "Star Wars" becomes a bald, futuristic action hero.
Natalie Portman has probably populated more fanboy fantasies than anyone this side of Jessica Alba.
Besides presiding over the recent "Star Wars" films as Queen Amidala, she plays a bald, beautiful and badass revolutionary in "V For Vendetta," opening March 17, the latest film from "Matrix" masterminds Andy and Larry Wachowski. As the missing link between the universes of George Lucas and the Wachowski Brothers, Portman holds a unique place in geek-movie history
"Yes, they're all somehow linked now," she says. "It's sort of hard to put a genre label on 'V For Vendetta,' but it fits in the action category with 'Star Wars,' even though it's a little bit more provocative. But I will leave it to all the people who love to write essays about this kind of stuff to make 'Matrix' and 'V' connections and 'Star Wars' and 'V' connections. There's certainly plenty to discuss."
Portman professes much love for Lucas and the "Star Wars" experience, but she also insinuates that the trilogy provided her with a handy way of staying in movies while she was off attending Harvard University.
"I was in school during the year, and then on summer break I would do a
'Star Wars,'" says the Jerusalem-born actress. "But I'm done with school, done with 'Star Wars.' I've graduated."
"V For Vendetta" is a whopper of a graduation present. Adapted by the Wachowskis from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the movie is set in a future world squirming under the thumb of a totalitarian chancellor (John Hurt). Homosexuality is illegal; freedom of speech is a memory; and hope is in short supply.
One day, a mysterious figure appears, wearing a mask designed to look like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up British Parliament in 1605. Calling himself V (Hugo Weaving), the cape-wearing anti-hero is planning a series of terrorist attacks against the repressive British government. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a waif who becomes V's protégé.
Making a $50 million movie with a terrorist as a hero is a bold movie in post-Sept. 11 America. Portman knew the film would spark controversy but found herself instantly drawn to its provocative, envelope-pushing subject matter.
"Being from Israel was one of the reasons that I wanted to do this movie, because terrorism and violence have been such a daily part of my thought process and conversation ever since I was young," she says. "One of the books that I read to help me with this role was Menachim Begin's book about his experiences in a Siberian prison. Eventually he came to lead Israel in the British occupation of Palestine. He was called a terrorist by many people. Israelis have been called terrorists all through history."
"The movie asks important questions, like, 'When, if ever, is violence justified?' And 'What is the threshold for how pressing a situation can be before we have to revolt?' One of the great things about the movie is that it leaves those questions open for discussion," she says.
Portman has always tried to pursue thought-provoking material. She played the title role in a Broadway production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" in 1997, embodied an American stripper living in London for "Closer" (earning a best supporting actress nomination in the process) and starred in the Israeli film "Free Zone," which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Fest.
The actress accepted the vanity-destroying role of Evey knowing that one of the requirements was an on-camera trip to the barber.
"It wasn't traumatic because I was trying to focus on what my character was going through," says Portman about getting a buzzcut. "We only had one shot to do it. I don't really have any personal memories of the experience."
Since shooting the film, Portman's hair has grown out a few inches. For today's interview, she's wearing it spiky and punked-up. Dressed in jeans, an open sweater and the world's tiniest ballet slippers, Portman looks a good deal younger than her 24 years.
As a former child star who made her film debut in the bullet ballet "The Professional," Portman is used to suffering for her art, but she drew the line when it came to doing her own stunts. Claiming to be "not in great shape," she allowed her "Vendetta" double to do all of the tough stuff.
"I would do the end of the stunt," she says. "Someone else would fall out of the window, and then I would end up there on the ground. That's movie magic."
Not everything about "V" has been so easy. In fact, the film has been surrounded by controversy since production got underway last year. Real-life terrorism, the firing of a leading man and the airing of a famous filmmaker's dirty laundry all figured into the long, arduous process of bringing the graphic novel to the screen.
Originally published in 1981, "V For Vendetta" was written as an indictment of Margaret Thatcher's conservative politics. A few years later, the rights were scooped up by producer Joel Silver ("Lethal Weapon," "The Matrix") who approached the Wachowskis about penning an adaptation. When "The Matrix" trilogy started winding down, the brothers finally decided to revisit the risky material.
Instead of directing the film themselves, the brothers and Silver hired "The Matrix" second unit director James McTiegue to call "action" and "cut."
The Wachowskis were apparently on the set nearly every single day, which inspired rumors that McTiegue was a mere figurehead and that the brothers were calling the shots themselves.
McTiegue insists that gossip was unfounded.
"The Wachowskis were the producers and they wrote the script," he notes. "They were a great sounding board but they were the first to tell me that I could take or leave their suggestions."
The production encountered another problem when the graphic novel's writer Alan Moore requested that his name be taken off the final film. Stung by the poor adaptation of "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," Moore apparently made his decision without ever seeing a frame of "V For Vendetta."
"I did call Alan and ask him not to have his name removed," notes David Lloyd, who illustrated the graphic novel. "I wish he hadn't done it. But he isn't happy until the movie is a perfect reproduction. Alan has a clear viewpoint of what he represents as a person and an artist. My viewpoint is completely different. I think they've done a great job with the film."
Yet another potentially disastrous turn of events unfolded when the original actor cast as V -- "Rome's" James Purefoy -- was fired midway through the film and replaced by "The Matrix's" Hugo Weaving. Purefoy apparently wasn't a dynamic enough presence for the filmmakers. Even though Silver confirms that some of Purefoy's scenes remain in the film, Weaving receives the sole screen credit and also provides V's voice.
Portman was surprised when the change was made. She enjoyed working with both actors but saves most of her praise for Weaving.
"With an actor like Hugo, your job is so much easier because he has this incredible, very specific character that he creates just through his vocal and physical expressiveness," she says. "Even though he was wearing a mask, I felt he was there with me all of the time."
Originally scheduled to be released in November 2005 -- to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day -- the film was delayed after a July 2005 bombing in a British subway claimed the lives of 52 civilians. Portman believes the intermingling of reel and real events is indicative of just how much "V For Vendetta" has its finger on the pulse of the times.
"Obviously, when you see any act of violence anywhere with casualties, you're always horrified," she says of the London tragedy. "I'm optimistic to hope that this movie doesn't present an exact vision of our future, but obviously there are many elements that resonate with historical events and current events."
With its depiction of a repressive government without checks and balances, "V For Vendetta" can be read as a commentary on Bush's America. Does Portman see any parallels?
"I think that there are many people who will take it that way," she says. "But there are other people I know who are pro-Bush and they've seen this as an anti-fascism movie."
A few weeks before the release of "V For Vendetta," Rolling Stone magazine published an unflattering story about Larry Wachowski's increasingly unusual behavior. Apparently, Wachowski left his wife, took up with a dominatrix named Mistress Strix and began cross-dressing. Wachowski, who never consents to interviews, has yet to respond to the claims.
McTiegue also refuses to comment on the chit-chat surrounding the brothers.
"I pay about as much attention to those stories as they deserve, which isn't much," McTiegue says. "I don't comment on people's personal lives."
To hear Portman tell it, "V For Vendetta" dovetails nicely with her burgeoning interest in world affairs. Recently, the actress helped promote the efforts of FINCA, an organization devoted to helping establish banks for women in developing nations.
Visiting Uganda, Ecuador and Guatemala with the group has opened Portman's eyes to the amount of work that needs to be down to help end global poverty.
"I definitely think that maybe someday I'll be doing other things besides acting," she says. "But until I do them, I've learned not to talk about it. I've been interviewed since I was 12 years old and I feel as if I've left a trail of unfulfilled dreams behind me."
After finishing "V For Vendetta," Portman "took a breather" by contributing supporting performances to Milos Forman's costume drama "Goya's Ghost" with Javier Bardem and the kiddie flick "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" with Dustin Hoffman.
"I'm just trying to do different things because I feel like if I can keep myself interested then there's the hope of keeping an audience interested, too." l
Amy Longsdorf is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.