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Interview: Natalie Portman Talks Black Swan, Fashion And Ballet

21/01/2011 12:59 | Updated 22 May 2015

Natalie PortmanShe started her film career at the age of just 13 and has been working ever since, but Natalie Portman's latest film, an indisputably grown-up piece, could well be her biggest hit yet.

Her role in dark thriller Black Swan (in cinemas 21 January) as Nina, a member of the corps in a New York ballet company, has already won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress and she's hotly tipped for an Oscar.

We can't think of another actress who's more deserving of this year's awards. Hers is a performance of a lifetime, and as we found out in our interview with Natalie, it took a huge amount of physical and psychological stamina to create.

Natalie transformed herself into Nina, a perfectionist ballerina who's finally given her dream - a lead role in a modern adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake.

The part requires Nina to play both the white and black swan; leading the already icy self-harmer to become further unhinged with the pressures of her impending stardom.

It's full of delusions, fantasies, back stabbing and anxiety and makes for uncomfortable viewing. But that's what makes this tale of identity crisis and ambition so great.

MyDaily caught up with Natalie to find out more about making the film, ballet fashion and transforming her body...

It was interesting to see that Andres Heinz's original Black Swan idea was set in the world of theatre, why was the ballet backdrop actually better for this very dark psychological thriller?

I actually never read the theatre version of the script, Darren Aronofsky spoke to me about the idea 10 years ago when I was still in college and he already mentioned it to me as a story set in the ballet world, which was really exciting to me because it was a world that always really appealed to me. It's expression without words, but I think the ballet world is particularly fitting for this because it's a particularly female form that's still dominated by men. I thought that was really interesting to sort of represent the larger world of women where one woman gets too old or out of shape and there's a younger women that gets slipped right into her place.

Your character strives for perfection in the film, can you relate to that?

I'm very demanding of myself, but I'm not self punishing. I never think I've done enough, I always feel like I can do more, but I don't like being hungry, or in pain, or tired. So for this character I went into that self punishing mode and didn't sleep and didn't eat and worked out all day through injuries for three months because I was living in that character, but on my own I'm a pleasure seeker.

How did you prepare for the ballet?

I started training a year before the film with a ballet teacher who was in the New York City ballet for ten years and so we were doing five hours a day training. Three hours was ballet practise and then we would swim a mile and tone for two hours. Then closer to the shooting, about two months before, we started doing the choreography with various ballet coaches like Georgina Parkinson who really worked on the very detailed work, from fingertips to elbows, all of them really helped shape it and they were there throughout the filming so they gave me notes after every scene. I had five people giving me notes – Darren, plus all these ballet experts.

You really understand the discipline and the rigger and the willingness to work through physical pain and also spending five hours a day with a former New York city ballet dancer for a year gave me a lot of stories. You really go through everything and that was really helpful in building a very detailed back story for this world.

What was Aronofsky's approach to the film? Did he push you as hard as Leroy (the head of the ballet company) pushes Nina?

Darren is a really exacting director; it was really wonderful to watch him work because we were really the only ones who were there every day. I got to see him work with the different actors who came in and out and see how he tailored his approach with every actor, which is really incredible to see and I think we had early recognition that we are equally military about our approach to our work and really focused and disciplined and alert.

It was a really quick connection between us, almost telepathic, and he gave me one of the greatest gifts that any directors ever given me - after we tried everything he wanted to do, he we would say "now do this one for yourself" and a lot of directors say "this is a freebie" or "this is a free take" but to just put it in those words gave me such a different understanding of the character. Artistry has a lot do with pleasing yourself not someone else and Nina's key to becoming an artist is finding pleasure in herself, not trying to just please her mother or please Leroy.

There's been a certain amount of controversy in the States from people in the ballet world towards the films depiction of a ballet company. What is your reaction to that and do you think it's a far portrayal?

I think we've had some really wonderful responses from dancers verifying a lot of the details of the film that you can find and I think it clearly depicts one particular dancer's story in on particular fictional dance company. So it's not meant to be taken as truth for every company or every dancer. It's not even trying to be one real person's story, its fiction. However, I think a lot of the details are from true stories. I read autobiographies of many dancers from New York City ballet, and that's where I got a lot of my ideas from and there's some stuff that people might not want to admit is true but a lot of it is deeply darkly true.

Nina really, really, wants this role, so much so that she'd kill for it. Is there any role that you would really want to grab with both hands and say that's it I've achieved it?

I don't know if I'd kill for a role as you put it, I don't think anything's quiet that important. But yes there are things you really think are right and this film is an example that I was very honoured to have the opportunity to do and excited of challenging myself in this way.

Natalie Portman as the Black SwanIs the awards side important to you, there's a lot of buzz now around the film, how do you get your head around that?

It's very flattering especially to be named with the actors and the films that are being recognised this year. It's exciting to be in a film that people like in a year of good films. But at the same time the real rewarding thing of the work itself is audience reaction, which is overwhelming, it's really exciting to see people debate their different takes of what the movies about and different themes and what's real and what's not real. It's your greatest dream when you're making a movie.

This film has been a long time in the making (almost a decade) - do you think if you'd taken on this role eight years ago it would have been a very different film? Do you think you needed that extra time to feel like this is a role that fits you?

That's exactly right. Having the experience of my twenties when I did the film was really an absolute asset. I started as a child actress and wanted to make everyone happy and it's almost like that pageant thing where you see the little kids do there dance and then look right away to their mum, like "how did I do? How did I do?" and that's sort of how you feel as a young actor. You want to please everyone and look for that approval and to get to a point when you're really trying to make yourself happy through a performance is a whole new experience. I really gained that in my late twenties and it gave me a perspective that really helped with the film, but it also made the earlier parts of the film where she's just like young and insecure and naive and trying to please everyone all the more difficult because it felt like a regression of sorts.

Do you think there are any similarities between the pressures of the ballet world and Hollywood, in terms of competition for roles and pressure to look good? And how do you cope with the emotional demands?

I think there are similar pressures particularly with that sort of replacement age limit in film and theatre, for actresses you can change from a leading lady to a character actress or something like that but for dancers you're sort of over. And also there's more material for what we do than for dancers there's is truly an art form of passion, no one's becoming rich and famous from being a ballet dancer anymore so there's something incredibly beautiful about that.

The trickiest part was balancing the physical with the emotional, sometimes just to do a certain mood you need so much concentration and you have to try and not to do your concentration face. Half the time I was trying not to have my tongue sticking out and to add on to that I have to be acting in the scene and often those demands are quite contrary to each other. You need to be really confident to do your turns and be insecure in the scene and having to do them at the same time is probably the most challenging thing. It's the constant attention, there was no break in the day, as soon as I finished a shot I would be warming up.

What have you learnt about yourself from doing such a dark psychological role? Have you surprised yourself?

I suppose I learned how much I could do. I think because I think of myself of someone who seeks pleasure and doesn't like pain to put myself through that, for that long, and not just make myself feel good was a scary thing to discover. But also to know I could do that role and deprive myself in that way. I don't think I expected how hard it was going to be and I feel lucky that I didn't expect it, because I think I went in with all this enthusiasm and excitement about getting to do ballet and it really propelled me through the difficult moments. I'm not sure that would have been possible had I expected the hardship

Which of the two swans do you think resembles you the most?

I think everyone is a little bit of both, I think we all have the purity and impurity battling inside of us.

The clothes in the film help to signify your transformation, how much did they help you to get in to the role?

The costumes were really incredible. Rodarte's Laura and Kate Mulleavy designed the ballet costumes and they were magnificent and really did help me feel swan like. They did the headpieces and even from the beginning they made those knit scarves so that from the beginning there was this very feather like suggestion of swanness. Clothes, makeup, all that aspect of building a character helps you look in the mirror and see a different person and you wouldn't get that feedback without them.

Can you talk us through any injuries you sustained during filming?

There were lots of strained muscles but the worst thing was the dislocated rib which happened during a lift when one rib went under another rib. It sort of feels like a stitch, it happened at the half way point so in the second half of the film I couldn't take a deep breath, but they just changed the lifts.

It showed me what other dancers go through because they are constantly dancing through very difficult injuries and it often happens to them when they get promoted because they'll work really hard to get promoted and then when they are promoted they have injuries because they've been working so hard and they don't want to give up their spot because they'll be replaced. So they dance with a sprained ankle or really extreme thing that would usually have people benched, they'll dance beautifully on stage and then limp off in to a bucket of ice. It's pretty shocking.

Can you relate to any of your characters struggle to distinguish between fact and fiction as she becomes so absorbed with her character and performance?

I really try and distinguish clearly what's real and what's not but there's always little strands of your character that you don't realise are in you and they linger afterwards. I think because you have to internalise so much of what your characters going through and the way they think it goes into your brain and into your body in ways you don't really understand until months later. So this one was much harder to shake than most because it was so all consuming.

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