It's a well-known fact that movie stars are smaller in the flesh than they appear on the big screen. (In actuality, J. Lo's booty, for example, isn't much bigger than most women's.) So you can just imagine how little space Natalie Portmanan itsy bit of a girl even on celluloidtakes up in person. Sitting in a caf in Berlin, where she's filming the Wachowski brothers' V for Vendetta, the 23-year-old actress is all big eyes and tiny fingers, delicacy incarnate.
"Physically, I haven't really changed since I was 13," she admits, patting down her messily ponytailed hair, which is still a bit traumatized after being teased into a bouffant for her W photo shoot. "I have shoes from Beautiful Girls that I still wear!"
Being small can be a hassle. She recently went to London to do reshoots for the third Star Wars prequel, which arrives in theaters in May, and a customs official, peering down at the makeup-less, elfin figure before him, asked her if she was traveling with a guardian. "And," she adds, "I get asked for I.D. when I order a drink in Englandwhere the drinking age is 18!" But most of the time, Portman sees her preternatural petiteness as an asset. "You can use it to your advantage," she says. "It's like how women have an advantage in war in some ways because they're perceived as being weak." It's that sort of self-aware statement you'd expect to hear from one of the wise-beyond-her-years characters that Portman is known for playing. And the sentiment rings true: At five feet three and a size zero, she's easy to underestimate, but this featherweight is far tougher than she appears.
Her schedule, for starters, is not for the faint of heart. Just last week she was filming a movie in Israel. On the final day of shooting, she went directly from the set to the airport to catch a plane to Los Angeles for the Oscars. The morning after the ceremony, she was bound for Berlin, where she was scheduled to start filming her next project five days later, after somehow squeezing in a press conference, a full-day photo shoot, this interview and several intense sessions with her dialogue coach, who was teaching her how to speak with a convincing British lilt for the film. Things have been raahther busy, as Portman, who has been trying out her new accent for the past month, would say.
Perhaps because she's been doing it for so long, Portman seems to prefer living life with an overcrammed calendar. "It's always been school, work, school, work," she says. After graduating from Harvard in 2003 (she majored in psychology and was, by all accounts, an excellent student), she did take an extended vacation but found loafing around Long Island, where she was raised and bought a waterfront home two years ago, mind-numbing. "All of a sudden, not to have a schedule, it was a shock," she says. After a few weeks of whiling away the hours until her friends got off work ("My friends are from school," she points out, not actors), she signed up for daily ballet classes. When that didn't satisfy her, she started studying Spanish. "I was at Berlitz on Long Island and doing those tapes in the car!" she says, laughing at her type A tendencies.
Portman also ended up getting more involved with the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), a charity that provides small-business loans to women in developing countries. She's traveled to Uganda and Guatemala with the group, which she became associated with through Jordan's Queen Rania, a particular idol of hers. But ultimately, she says, "I decided to go back to school because I was going stir-crazy." This time she chose Hebrew University over Harvard, relocating to Jerusalem in spring 2004 and enrolling in graduate courses in Hebrew, Arabic, Islamic history and anthropology"The Anthropology of Violence," to be exact. ("It has to do with the way violence is expressed and reacted to in different cultures," she explains.)
The choice to spend almost a year living in Israelwhere she also did a Hebrew-language film, Free Zone, with director Amos Gitaiis a brave one, even for someone like Portman, who was born in Jerusalem and lived there until she was three. Most Americans have avoided the country altogether since the advent of renewed tensions. But for Portman, who rented an apartment near the Old City, the decision felt both natural and necessary. "When you care so much about the situation and you read everything about it and you have opinions about it, you start to wonder, How can I really know anything when I'm not there?" she says.
Portman's stay in Jerusalem coincided with a time of hopeful developmentsmost notably the elections, cease-fire and peace talks that came in the wake of Yasser Arafat's passing. "During this whole intifada everyone's been really, really pessimistic and sort of accepting that this is the way it's going to be forever," she says. "But I really did feel an incredible sense of hope there for the first time in a long time."
Still, even at its most serene, Jerusalem is a far cry from sleepy suburban Long Island. "It felt safe," she says, "but obviously you always think about it. Every time you're in a crowded place, you're like, s---! Maybe this could be bad." She dealt with the fear, she says, by taking calculated risks: She'd go to nightclubs with security checks, but wouldn't ride a city bus.
Though she never found herself in harm's way, Portman was involved in at least one headline-making incident during the time she spent in the country of her birth. While filming a scene for Free Zone the last month she was there, she incited the ire of a group of ultra-Orthodox men by kissing her male costar in an area behind the Wailing Wall, a holy spot where men and women aren't even supposed to pray next to one another. When asked about the incident, Portman is contrite but still seems surprised by the intensity of the anger. "I was sleeping five hours a night and we were running from location to location and making up the story as we went along," she says. "There's a scene where my arms are uncovered and I'm very close to the guy. People got upset and we moved to another place. It was just crazy because they were calling us Nazis, and I think that's a little much."
What's most interesting about the Wall incident is not so much the fact that it happened but that it represents one of the very few times that Portman has actually seen her name in the gossips. Her decade in the limelight has been notably free of the nipple slips, petty feuds and dramatic public breakups that have plagued many other twentysomething starlets. Part of it is that she's not really the type for tequila-fueled grinding on tabletops (this is, after all, someone who says she was admonished as a child for finishing her newly purchased books on the way home from the bookstore), but she's also been carefulextremely carefulabout maintaining her privacy. She answers questions about her rumored romances (she's been linked to Gael Garca Bernal and has been spotted recently, at the Oscars after-parties and elsewhere, with a smoldering Israeli actor named Liron Levo) with a downward look and a firm "I don't talk about my personal life." And you won't catch her on the red carpet holding hands with a date anytime soon either.
"There's something about being that exposed to strangers that always struck me as a real neediness, and I've never felt that needy," she says when asked why she's adopted such a guarded stance. "I've had moments of feeling that neediness. If something really horrible happens in my life, all of a sudden I understand why people want to go on TV and be confessional about everything. Because sometimes, when you're in a hard place, you just want to tell someone. You think maybe a stranger will have an answer, maybe they'll understand. But I'm lucky enough that most of the time I have enough intimacy in my life, and love of family and friends, that I'm not craving that from strangers."
Perhaps because she feels so uncomfortable when there's a possibility of paparazzi, Portman tends not to partake in the celebrity social scene. She prefers to go about life rather anonymouslyanother benefit, she says, of her pixie proportions. "People don't pay attention," she says. "It's different if you're Claudia Schiffersix feet and blond and walking into a room." Instead of attending premieres and industry parties, she hangs out with her friends from Harvard and from her time in Israel. They seem like a fairly wholesome bunch. When asked what she'll do on her weekends off from filming in Berlin, she mentions not Amsterdam, the party city of choice for the under-25 set, which is an hour's plane ride away, but London. "One of my friends is obsessed with Mary Poppins," she says. "And now they have the musical and it's a big deal."
On the whole, she seems to prefer social settings that involve watching rather than being watchedmovies, concerts, Mary Poppins the musical. The Oscars, which she attended for the first time this year (she was nominated for her breathtaking performance in Closer), doesn't quite fit the bill. "It was my first time and, I don't know, it was weird," she says of the event, to which she wore a Lanvin bronze goddess dress that landed her on many a best-dressed list. "I was really honored and grateful to be there, but it was a lot less glamorous than I thought it would be. It's in a shopping mall, so you leave the ceremony and you go up escalators past, like, T.J. Maxx to go to dinner afterward. It's sort of like the promeveryone's in tuxes and ballgowns and you take an escalator." Portman is quick to add that, in the end, she had a good time"and I liked my dress"but it's clear that she's more comfortable playing the role of denim-clad grad student than movie star in floor-length chiffon.
"She's really down-to-earth," says Zach Braff, who directed and played opposite Portman in 2004's cult hit Garden State. "She's very low maintenance. It's almost shocking how real she is."
And it's hard not to wonder if she's referring to the awards shows when she says later, on the subject of relationships, "It's sort of sad. Most people, if you want to celebrate something at your job, you bring your husband or boyfriend or whatever. [But in this business] you have to be so careful when you're going to everything and censor. You just want to celebrate together and you don't want to have to think, Okay, now we can be close, or now we can't, because there are cameras everywhere."
Closer, of course, was a breakthrough for Portman, not only because it won her an Oscar nod and a Golden Globe, but because she proved that she can play an exceedingly mature role (what could be more adult, after all, than a stripper?) and do it well enough to show up Julia Roberts and Jude Law. As for how it may have affected her standing in Hollywood, "it's not vastly different," she says. "But people trust you a little more. There's less auditioning, less, 'Can she do this?'"
Joel Silver, executive producer of V for Vendetta, has absolutely no doubts when it comes to the star of his latest movie. "She's magic," he enthuses. "She's funny, she's cute, she's sexy, she's intelligent, her beauty is aberrant. When you look at her, you just get it. She can go all the way."
The film is set in London in an alternate future. Germany has won World War II and Britain is a fascist state. Portman plays Evey, a passive everywoman who ends up joining a terrorist freedom fighter (James Purefoy) in his quest to overthrow the totalitarian government. At one point, Evey ends up in prison, where she's tortured, and Portman plans to both lose a few pounds and shave her head# la Sigourney Weaver in Alienin order to look the part. "I think I'm going to enjoy having no hair," she says, with characteristic pluck.
But before V for Vendetta, Portman fans will get another dose of Amidala. In the latest Star Wars installment, Revenge of the Sith, Portman, as the Kabuki-faced senator, is pregnant with Luke and Leia. Though the trilogy has been financially successful, it has been widely criticized as overblown, in stark contrast to the more thoughtful projects (like Closer and her first film, The Professional) that Portman is known for. But the actress is too savvy to reveal anything undiplomatic. "I made the first [Star Wars] film when I was 16, and I think I have a much different approach to acting now," she says. "When you're a child actor you just sort of follow directions and do what everyone wants you to do. It's become much more of a creative process with me as I've grown up, where I feel like I can bring ideas and come to the set with my own vision of how I want everything to be."
And the Star Wars films have undoubtedly been good for her career. For one thing, they've provided the sort of mass exposure that something like Garden State, as well received as it was, cannot. For another, being committed to three movies didn't leave her much time to make careless choices about other projects. Between school and Star Wars, she says, "I didn't have time to do things that were great but not amazing." Not that she hasn't occasionally been tempted by the guilty-pleasure genreshe admits to considering the deliciously terrible Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and, as a 13-year-old, was "really obsessed" with doing the Baby-Sitters Club movie. But lately Portman hasn't been sent those sorts of scripts. She's a grown-up actress now, and, despite her ability to pass for a little girl at times, her newfound maturity is more and more in evidence.
For her W photo shoot, Portman arrives right on time at the Quatsch Comedy Club in the former East Berlin. She is poked and prodded, hairsprayed to the hilt and zipped into multiple frocks ("Doesn't this dress look kind of bat mitzvah?" she jokes about one) before she is finally deemed ready to face the lens. As Madonna blares and a smoke machine pumps out clouds, Portman steps onto the stage, decked out in a velvety Marc Jacobs affair. There, under the lights, a bouquet of black roses framing her face, she's the picture of sophisticationa full-fledged movie star. Maybe it's the six-inch bouffant, or perhaps it's the sky-high pumps, but she looks, suddenly, almost tall.
"La Belle Natalie" by Jenny Comita has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the May 2005 issue of W.