A quick flip through the list of films on Natalie Portman’s resume shows that, except for a couple of reappearances in a couple of series sequels, she’s an actress who doesn’t like to repeat herself. Either that or she’s just unafraid to try any kind of role. She’s played everything from innocent as young Mathilda in her debut feature “The Professional” to powerful as Padme in a trio of “Star Wars” films to funny as Sam in “Garden State” to downright creepy as Nina in “Black Swan.” Now Portman, 35, is entering new territory by taking on the iconic role of Jackie Kennedy in Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s first English-language film “Jackie,” a searing and insightful look at what might have been going on in the mind of the First Lady during the week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Portman recently came to New York to speak about the experience of making the film.
Q: Jackie Kennedy is such a familiar figure to so many people. How did you manage to make the role your own?
A: It was definitely scary. I’ve never prided myself on any ability to mimic or imitate. That wasn’t anything I’d even tried before. But obviously I’d have to if I was taking this on. I thought, “Oh, no, I’m setting myself up for failure big time here.” (laughs) Because people know what she sounded like and what she moved like and what she looked like. But I was so moved by the script and by Pablo’s approach, which was to examine the humanity of someone who we’ve only considered as sort of a symbol. So I thought, let’s do it.
Q: Did you go through any special preparation?
A: I worked with a coach on the dialect and voice. We listened over and over again to the White House tour (television special) in particular, as well to transcripts of the interview she did with Arthur Schlesinger. That helped to get the voice and the accent, and once I was comfortable with that, I could forget it and focus on the emotion behind it.
Q: Did you have a picture of Jackie in your head that changed after you got into the role?
A: I hadn’t really considered her. I thought of her very much as a facade, as this sort of thing, like the Warhol Jackie. People talk about how she dressed and the way she wore her hair. But she was such a substantive person, and I don’t think I had considered her deep intellect, strength, and control. She really took authorship of the story during a period of the most intense mourning, shock, and grieving. She had the presence of mind within all of that craziness and confusion to take hold of the legacy, and shape it herself. That was quite astonishing.
Q: Looking back on the time you spent playing the role, do you feel that you really understood what she went through?
A: I don’t know that I can ever say that I understand any other human being. I think the phrase that bugs me most is, “I know exactly how you feel.” No, you don’t. No one knows exactly how anyone feels. We can imagine, and that’s the best we can do. That’s empathy. That’s what I do in my work, and I think that’s what most actors do in their work. Also, I don’t claim to have any truth about Jackie. This is my imagination, backed up (in the script) by a lot of research about what happened during those days. The film is historically close, but I think there’s a higher artistic truth that you hope for that has to do with fiction.
Q: The scene of the assassination, and what happened in the car right after the shooting, is devastating. What was going on in your head while filming that?
A: That was a Pablo idea. He said, “OK, we’ve all seen the assassination, the Zapruder film. But there was a 7-minute drive to the hospital afterward. What were those 7 minutes like?” So I thought, “What is it like holding your husband’s exploded head on your lap for 7 minutes trying to get to the hospital?” It’s horrible, harrowing. And it’s not recorded; we have no record of what happened. And who can imagine what that was like? It was very, very hard to do, and it was like the coldest day when we shot it. It was physically difficult and emotionally kind of unimaginable.
Q: So, how do you follow up a film like this? Do you do a comedy?
A: Oh, I would LOVE to do a comedy (laughs).
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.