Natalie Portman on the pageantry of evil and playing a pop star in ‘Vox Lux’
The Oscar winning follows 'Black Swan and 'Jackie' with another role about a woman who is defined by her performance in public.
Natalie Portman has been a movie star for nearly a quarter-century.
The Israel-born actress started her film career as a child assassin in Leon: The Professional in 1993 when she was 13. Since then, she’s starred in three Star Wars prequels, graduated from Harvard, and turned Zach Braff on to the Shins in Garden State.
In those roles, Portman played women who perform in a public sphere, and that’s also the case in Vox Lux, the jarring new film by 30-year-old actor-turned-auteur Brady Corbet about a teenager who survives a school shooting and becomes Celeste, global pop star.
British actress Raffey Cassidy plays young Celeste and Portman portrays her as an adult, singing songs written by Australian pop star Sia and giving a no-holds-barred performance. Just as she’s set to release her comeback album Vox Lux, Celeste learns gunmen in Europe have slaughtered tourists while wearing masks modeled after those in the video for one of her biggest hits.
Portman spoke on the phone from a hotel in New York, a setting not unlike the scene in Vox Lux when Celeste meets the press. “Every interview now has that meta aspect,” she says with a laugh, adding that she thinks she’s doing better handling the media than her character does. “Hopefully, I’m less impulsive.”
How did Vox Lux come to you?
I got the script from Brady. We had a conversation before, so he framed it for me as referring to the wars of this century, which are not conventional wars but sort of civil wars, of school shootings and mass shootings. And this foreign war of terrorism and the intersection with pop culture.
So I read it, and that was really wild to read this incredible character written with such big ideas behind it. And then also I had the mp3s of the Sia songs attached.
Were you concerned that the adult Celeste doesn’t turn up until late in the story? Like, "Hey, I’m only going to be in half of this movie?”
No. It was really wonderful to have this very intense, brilliant rich character to play.
Had you seen Childhood of a Leader, Brady Corbet’s first film?
Yes. That was really impressive that such a young director could pull off such a complicated film. There are so many interesting choices that he makes. He’s very bold with the way he films and scores.
Leader is about the birth of fascism. What’s the connection between the two movies?
Brady talks about how that movie bridges World War I and World War II and this bridges the big violent conflicts of this century. He says that if the last century was about the banality of evil, then this century is about the pageantry of evil. It’s all spectacle now.
And acts of terrorism are acts of performance.
Yes, absolutely. That’s why they work. They have dramatic impact and emotional impact on people’s lives because of the spectacle they see, and then it enters people’s psyches. And that’s what creates the terror.
Is there an element of fascistic spectacle to pop music?
I don’t know about fascistic, but it certainly relies on attention, and people know they can get more attention if they do something scandalous or outrageous. There’s a lot of news out there, and to get any attention, you have to do something wild.
And politicians are entertainers.
Right. It all is kind of a jumble.
Speaking of politics, you worked for Hillary Clinton in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2016, including spending time at her headquarters on the Main Line.
That might have been the most exciting thing that’s ever happened in Ardmore. It’s surprising you did that rather than something more public, like a celebrity appearance at a rally.
It was amazing for me to talk to community leaders about getting the vote out locally and learning what is happening in particular communities. It’s really interesting and a great privilege to learn about particular concerns in different areas of the country.
How do you feel about the current political moment?
I’m hopeful. I read a lot of Rebecca Solnit [essayist author of Men Explain Things to Me], who inspires so much hope. I think so much activism has been borne out of the current situation. … The demographics of this country are changing rapidly and the politics will have to change to truly represent the people.
Was playing a pop star on your wish list?
It was nothing that I ever aspired to, but it was a great opportunity. It was really exciting to live out those childhood fantasies of getting to sing and dance on a stage to screaming fans. That was pretty fun, and it was exciting to sing Sia’s songs and do these dances that my husband, Benjamin Millepied, choreographed.
Whom did you have pop star fantasies about? What are you listening to now?
When I was growing up, when I was 7 or 8, I was listening to Madonna, Debbie Gibson, Kylie Minogue, Tiffany. And then when I was like 12 or 13, I started seeking out more indie, angsty music. Juliana Hatfield and Jeff Buckley. Now, I listen to a little bit of everything. A lot of soul: Nina Simone. Aretha. And then James Blake and Radiohead. I’ve been listening to a lot of Gregory Isaacs lately, actually.
How did preparing for Vox Lux compare to Black Swan?
It was a shorter preparation but involved different things. The singing, of course, and recording the music was a challenge. The dancing was very different. And the character required more swagger. She just has a way about her. Entering a room and dominating the people around her.
Where Nina from Black Swan has doubt.
With Black Swan and this and Jackie, you’re playing women who have a public persona in which they have to perform. Were you attracted to that as someone who’s been a performer for so long?
You know, it wasn’t conscious for me at the outset. But in retrospect, there is this thread that connects them about performance that’s very interesting to me. It’s something I think all people do to some extent in their life. Everyone performs different roles with different people and in different situations.
And then for people who are public figures, it’s kind of more extreme. I guess it’s more obvious. How they want the public to see them, how they want to present themselves, how they want to craft their image. How other people want to craft their image.
Even in private: What ceremonies they’re performing because they’ve got to be down to earth and are pretending to be just normal with their kid. It’s definitely very, very interesting.
And in Jackie and Vox Lux, the public persona is forged by violence.
Yeah, and also the collision between how the woman wants to craft her own public persona and how journalists want to craft it and how the public wants to craft it. There are definitely parallels.
You have a lifetime of experience. You started really young.
I did start really young, and there are definitely issues that have interested me, but also I never felt it to the extreme that someone like Jackie or Celeste would feel.
Do you ever wish you hadn’t started so young?
Um, I have a curiosity about it, I wouldn’t say a wish.
What would it have been like if I did something else? What if I hadn’t had this path? Because of course it’s unusual to do what I do. I feel very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and to end up in a place where I love what I do. I feel very lucky. I wouldn’t want to erase that.