A month before the release of her new film, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," Natalie Portman tackled a more terrestrial conflict: defending Israel.
The Jerusalem-born actress -- who plays Darth Vader's squeeze Padme Amidala -- objected in her Ivy League college newspaper to a law student's essay condemning Israel. Faisal Chaudhry's essay decried a "racist colonial occupation... [in which] white Israeli soldiers destroy refugee camps of the brown people they have dispossessed."
"It just angered me that someone who is obviously intelligent enough to attend law school could be so misinformed," says the 20-year-old, who immigrated to the United States at age 3.
So the porcelain-skinned actress dashed off an April 12 letter to the editor dismissing the essay as "a distortion of the fact that most Israelis and Palestinians are indistinguishable physically. The Israeli government itself is comprised of a great number of Sephardic Jews, many of whom originate from Arab countries.... Until we accept the fact that we are constituents of the same family, we will blunder in believing that a loss for one 'side' -- or as Chaudhry names it, a 'color' -- is not a loss for all human kind."
The vivacious, effusive Portman says her letter gleaned "positive response on campus from both Arabs and Jews. "But she was less pleased with an April 29 Time magazine story comparing Queen-turned-Senator Amidala to the United Nations secretary-general. The piece says, "Padme, in a scene cut from the film, sounds like Kofi Annan pleading for Palestinians when she tells the Senate, 'If you offer the separatists violence, they can only show us violence in return!'"
Portman, her bubbly voice suddenly hushed, says "I'd hate to think I'm ever portraying Kofi Annan as a benevolent queen." She pauses, then adds with feeling, "But I agree violence is not an answer."
Long before Portman was proving the pen is mightier than the lightsaber, she grew up in a "Star Wars"-less household on Long Island. The daughter of an Israeli fertility doctor and an American-born artist, she didn't see George Lucas' original "Star Wars" films until she was cast in the prequels. She says that the flicks, while paradigms of American pop culture, weren't iconic for her predominantly Israeli family. "I do remember a couple cousins running around on the Jewish holidays imitating Chewbacca," confides Portman, who visits Israel twice yearly and has dual citizenship.
Back in her American suburb, Portman says she attended a Conservative Jewish day school through seventh grade "to preserve my Hebrew and my sense of Israel more than anything religious." Like many Israelis, her parents were proud but secular Jews, so young Natalie did not become a bat mitzvah. "Because I had hardly ever been to temple, it just would have seemed like a false thing to do," she says. "Also, I think the way people were bat mitzvahed where I lived seemed much more to be an excuse for a party and for people to write checks to you and to have an extravaganza than a religious experience."
The young actress -- who was "discovered" by a Revlon scout in a pizza parlor at age 11 -- was dismayed when her budding career caused classmates to spurn her. "In seventh grade, I cried every day when I came back from shooting 'The Professional,'" she says of her debut film.
Portman switched schools and went on to portray gritty characters light-years away from her nice Jewish-girl self. She was a beguiling preteen in "Beautiful Girls," a pregnant Oakie in "Where the Heart Is" and Susan Sarandon's beleaguered daughter in "Anywhere But Here." One critic described her as a "ravishing little gamine," though her protective parents wouldn't let her do sex scenes. She also doesn't use her real surname -- Portman is her grandmother's maiden name.
Nevertheless, she insists, "I don't think you have to equate who you are with the characters you play -- that's your job as an actress. And since nice Jewish girls from the suburbs don't make very interesting movies, at least I'll never have to play myself."
Portman's most personal role was the lead in "The Diary of Anne Frank" on Broadway in 1998, for which she received rave reviews while maintaining straight A's. "I grew up with the Holocaust, because my grandparents lost their entire families," says the actress, who noted an eerie similarity between a relative's story and Anne's. "My grandfather's 14-year-old brother was also hidden, but one day he couldn't take it anymore and he ran outside and was shot." No wonder Portman frequently found herself crying offstage: "It's a stunning realization when you come to see how much historical memory affects you," she says.
After director George Lucas cast her in his three "Star Wars" prequels, Portman couldn't help but compare the saga's clone warriors (predecessors to Darth Vader's storm troopers) to Nazis. "The clones actualize the sort of deindividuation necessary to give rise to something like the Holocaust," Portman says.
The actress also feels "Star Wars" -- with its desert landscapes, warlords and shadowy villains -- has particular resonance since the Afghanistan war. The saga explores how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in "Episode II") turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader; a question one could ask of American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh. "Why there is evil in the world and what purpose it serves will keep imitative mythologies like 'Star Wars' alive," Portman says.
She found herself pondering the same question during a visit to Israel three months ago. While sitting on a Tel Aviv beach, her reverie was interrupted by explosions. "Then we heard the ambulances coming," Portman says. "When we got back to the hotel, we heard that 20 [people] my age had been killed in a suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium, just a block away from where we had been."
Despite the Middle East crisis, Portman is determined to keep on visiting Israel. But she's unsure if "Star Wars Episode III" will commence shooting in North Africa next year. "I have a feeling we'll have to figure something else out," says the psychology major, who takes advanced Hebrew, attends Hillel and reads the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz. "It would be great if we could end up shooting in Israel, because we've got plenty of good desert there."
"Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" opens May 16 in Los Angeles.