How Natalie Portman became Jackie Kennedy

By Helen Barlow

A scene from Jackie.
A scene from Jackie.

As she twirls around in a double-breasted black dress Natalie Portman is keen to show her girly side.

"It's McQueen!" she laughs, as she sits down demurely, showing off an almost regal composure that hasn't wavered after several days on the publicity trail.

Ever since the Toronto Film Festival in September, the petite 35-year-old has been flooded with praise for her role in Jackie, playing one of America's most famous first ladies.

Now, six years after her Oscar win for Black Swan, she's once again an Oscar favourite, despite missing out on the Golden Globe earlier this week.

A scene from Jackie.
A scene from Jackie.

Told in flashbacks during her interview with Life magazine's Theodore H White (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Jackie deals with a very specific time period, the week surrounding President John F Kennedy's assassination.

It was November 22, 1963, when the first lady was sat next to her husband in an open-topped limousine as the president was fatally shot, dying in her lap.

As we see in the film, Jackie wore the blood-splattered pink Chanel suit during the swearing-in of Lyndon B Johnson and for the flight back to Washington with her husband's body.

Portman, who is about to give birth to her second child with her French husband Benjamin Millepied, her choreographer on Black Swan, could only imagine what it was like for Jackie to not only deal with the tragedy but to have the world's media focused on her as she organised the funeral.

"There were so many things that she was dealing with, everything was in question and it happened in such a sudden, violent, tragic and traumatic way," Portman says. "I think it's shocking when those questions come up so suddenly when the day before her biggest question was picking out the colour of the wallpaper.

"One of the things that I focused on was her determination to author her own story and to be the author of her legacy and that of her husband. She was very aware of splitting herself between who the public wanted her to be and who she really was."

Portman was keen to give Jackie her due. Before JFK became president she had been thought of as a liability, the actress notes.

"On the campaign trail they used to hide her because they thought she wasn't relatable for women at home. People thought she was a snob. They said, 'Oh she speaks French, she wears these fancy clothes and she does her hair funny'. Then all of a sudden as First Lady it became a trend. Everyone started wearing their hair like that and women started taking French classes."

Portman exerts just about every acting muscle to embody the US icon.

"This was the most challenging role because everyone had an idea of her," Portman notes. "I've never played a character like that before."

Natalie Portman is the best actress Oscar favourite for her role in Jackie.
Natalie Portman is the best actress Oscar favourite for her role in Jackie.



While the Harvard graduate threw herself into an enormous amount of research - "there is so much out there" - the televised White House tours Jackie conducted proved invaluable.

"They were almost completely recreated so I had the opportunity to put the original and our scenes side by side. It was terrifying because I've never thought of myself as a great imitator. You always have yourself in there, too, of course."

When it came to the all-important accent, Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, admits it helped that like Jackie she grew up on Long Island, even if Jackie came from the posh area (now The Hamptons).

"I'm a Long Island Jew, not a Long Island patrician," quips the only child of a politically-minded Israeli gynaecologist and a forceful American mother, who once worked as her manager.

Despite all the pressure, Portman, who is clearly nervous not to say the wrong thing about a former First Lady, admits she was not afraid to fail in her portrayal.

"Some people have made me out as a perfectionist, but I'm actually very comfortable with failing. I always try and do a good job but if it doesn't work out, I'll just go on to the next thing."

The film Jackie focuses on the week of JFK's assassination.
The film Jackie focuses on the week of JFK's assassination.



Interestingly Jackie came about after her Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky handed Chilean director Pablo Larrain the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim. Larrain, the son of a prominent right wing Chilean senator, knows a thing or two about politics. He would only agree to direct if Portman was in the role. A fan of Larrain's movies, Portman instantly agreed. He reshaped the screenplay with Oppenheim so the actress is in almost every scene and often filmed in close-up.

"It was wonderful that Noah focused the movie on a narrow period of time," says Portman. "He believes you can sometimes get more of a sense of a character, of what their life is, when they're in a kind of a crucible rather than telling a cradle-to-grave story."

"You can get an emotional truth that might be higher than a factual truth and that was what we were hoping for," says Larrain, who mixes historical footage with fictional re-creations.

Filmed in Paris, the shoot saw Portman and her family return to the City of Lights, where her husband used to be the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet.

"I loved living in Paris," Portman beams, although she admits there are no plans to return to the French capital, after moving back to Los Angeles with their son, Aleph.

Natalie Portman in Jackie.
Natalie Portman in Jackie.



For the moment, Portman has her hands full and once again her impending birth is just in time for the Oscars (Portman was heavily pregnant with Aleph when she won in 2011).

While she will first take a break, she says she would love to direct another movie after being inspired by her Planetarium director Rebecca Zlotowski.

The actress, who played Princess Leia's mother in the three Star Wars prequels is unlikely to return to blockbusters and says she will definitely not return as Thor's squeeze in the Marvel franchise.

"Directing does feel like both a desire and a responsibility because obviously we need more representation of the female gaze," Portman says, noting that so often in movies she is surrounded by men. "We just need more diverse experience behind the stories that the world is exposed to."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Natalie Portman in Jackie
When: In cinemas from today

- TimeOut

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