Jewish Journal

Natalie Portman and the psychology behind ‘Black Swan’

by Amy Longsdorf

Posted on Nov. 29, 2010 at 3:54 pm

When Natalie Portman cracked open the script for “Black Swan,” the saga of an ambitious ballerina’s mind-blowing nervous breakdown, she instantly understood where her character was coming from.

It’s not that Portman has any personal experience with mental illness. In fact, the actress, who’s best known for roles in the “Star Wars” prequels, “Garden State” and “V For Vendetta,” has a reputation for being one of the hardest-working, most well-adjusted stars in Hollywood.

But Portman has a secret weapon when it comes to sussing out troubled characters - a degree in psychology from Harvard University.

“This movie is actually a case of something that I learned in school translating into something practical, which is very, very rare,” she says with a laugh during an interview with a select group of journalists.

So, what’s Dr. Portman’s diagnosis of Nina, a dancer who begins to lose her grip on sanity as she prepares to dance the starring role in a pressure-cooker production of “Swan Lake”?

“This is absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior,” says Portman, a native of Jerusalem who grew up in Long Island, the only child of a doctor father and an artist mother.

“Nina’s bulimic. And anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD. Ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual that goes along with dancing - the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance.

“It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their Tefillin or Catholics with their Rosary Beads, and then [the dancers] have a godlike character in their director So I think Nina suffers from a sort of religious obsessive compulsion. That would be my professional opinion.”

From the beginning of “Black Swan,” Nina has a loose grip on reality. Locked in a too-close relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey), she begins to unravel after her company’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) fires his star ballerina (Winona Ryder) and hands the leading role in “Swan Lake” over to her.

Nina’s problems are intensified when a new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company. The pair instantly begin a pas de deux of love and hate, which pushes Nina even closer to the brink. As one critic noted, the Darren Aronofsky-directed film resembles ” `Mommie Dearest’ meets `Repulsion’ meets `Single White Female.’ “

Story continues after the jump.

Portman is in nearly every scene of the drama and it’s her out-on-a-ledge performance which is earning plenty of Oscar buzz. Asked how she’d feel about a second nomination (following her nod for “Closer”), the actress, 29, says, “it would be a great, great honor.

“The best thing that you can hope for when you make a movie and you put your soul into it, like all of us have done, is that people respond to it well. The fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated is extraordinarily flattering.”

If awards were given out for the most harrowing preparation for a performance, Portman would surely pirouette to the podium on Oscar night. A veteran of eight years of dance training (from the ages of 4-12), Portman still needed to work out for nearly 14 months to into tip-top shape.

Portman’s teachers included former New York City Ballet company member Mary Helen Bowers and choreographer Benjamin Millepied (whom the actress is now dating but declines to discuss).

So, what exactly did Portman put herself through while preparing to play a ballerina?

“Mary and I did about two hours [of dancing] a day for about six months,” recalls the actress, 29. “That was really just sort of strengthening exercises, getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn’t get injured.

“Then at about six months, we started doing five hours a day. I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet a day. Two months before shooting, we added the choreography. So, by the end, we were doing eight hours a day.”

Portman says the intensity of the preparation allowed her to better get under Nina’s skin.

“The physical discipline helped for the emotional side of the character because working out eight hours a day, you get the sense of the monastic element of a ballet dancer’s life.

“You don’t drink. You don’t go out with friends. You don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain. I came to understand the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.”

Amazingly, in the midst of her intense workout regime, Portman went off to Ireland to shot a romantic comedy called “Her Highness” with James Franco and Danny McBride.

“They were out having fun every night, and I was the little good girl; no drinking, waking up at five to do my workouts, and not eating,” Portman told Entertainment Weekly. “I was the really unfun one.”

Still, despite all of the sacrifices she made, Portman calls “Black Swan” one of the best experiences of her career.

“My relationship with Darren felt almost telepathic,” she raves. “I never had that with any director before. Darren could say half a word and I felt like I could understand him, and I could say half a word and he could understand me. We were in some strange zone of focus that allowed us to share this attention.”

The idea for “Black Swan” began with Aronofsky more than a decade ago. During the making of “Requiem For a Dream,” he kicked around ideas for a script called “The Understudy.” A few screenwriters later, Aronofsky’s idea was honed into “Black Swan” by scriptwriter Mark Heyman, who also worked on “The Wrestler.”

According to Aronofsky, “Black Swan” was hard to get financed despite the acclaim - and Oscar nominations - which “The Wrestler” racked up.

“Two weeks out, the money fell apart,” says the director. “But we were very lucky because we got Fox Searchlight to come in after we were on our hands and knees begging. We had so little money, so every single day was difficult.

“Everyday was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we have to do all that today’, and then there was no money for post-production and we had to do over 300 special effects shots so it was very, very hard.”

Having to push back the production forced Portman to keep on practicing - and dieting.

“I didn’t realize until recently that every time we [delayed our start date], Natalie was going, ‘another three weeks of carrot sticks and almonds! I’m gonna kill you!’ So she really was tortured pretty badly because we had such a hard time getting the money for the film.”

As tortured as Portman was, she was able to shake off the role the day the production wrapped.

“As soon as I finish a scene, I’m back to being me,” she says. “I want to be myself again. I’m not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being more like my character while we were shooting the film than any past experiences. But even so, when it’s over, it’s over. I’m back to my regular life.”

On the last day of filming, Portman kicked off the ballet footwear she’d grown to detest - “pointe shoes are torture devices; they felt medieval to me,” she declares - and she went back to eating her favorite fattening foods.

“I believe the first meal I ate afterwards was pasta,” she says. “For breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Reprinted with permission.  Featurewell.com

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