With her piercing deep, dark, oval eyes, her sweet smile and her tiny frame, Natalie Portman was perfectly cast as the smart and powerful Queen Padme Amidala, the mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, in the Star Wars prequels.
She had already won our hearts as a young orphan in The Professional at age 13, yet in her adult career she was struggling to gain our attention, even if she dangled from a pole as a stripper in Closer (and was nominated for an Oscar for her performance), shaved her head for a freedom fighter in V For Vendetta and had her head chopped off as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.
Through all the wide-ranging roles, few realised that the publicity-shy Portman's real name was Herschlag or that she was Jewish. Since unveiling her Hebrew-language directing debut, based on Amos Oz's autobiographical novel A Tale Of Love And Darkness, in Cannes this year, she has been revealing more of herself.
This change of heart for the reserved, serious actress - considered one of the most beautiful women in the world; something she rails against - coincided with major changes in her life, including a new husband and child. Somehow, having a family of her own made her ready to reclaim her roots.
When heavily pregnant and beaming with happiness at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, she was hardly thinking of her next career move as she captured the world's hearts while accepting her best-actress Oscar for her portrayal as an ambitious ballerina in Black Swan.
Three months later she gave birth to Aleph, her son with Benjamin Millepied, her choreographer on the movie, whom she married in a Jewish ceremony in August 2012.
Throughout this period she took only a minor role, filming alongside Christian Bale in Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, while quietly preparing for what would become her proudest artistic achievement: filming A Tale Of Love And Darkness in her native Israel, the country she left when she was the age her son is now.
"I was obsessed with the book over a very long period of time," says Portman. "I first read it eight years ago and loved it because of the way it talked about the Hebrew language in the most poetic way, the meanings of words and how they relate to each other. It was incredibly visual and I wanted to make a movie of it then. As time went by, the mother/son dynamics really interested me, and Amos Oz, of course, is a big hero of mine. He's one of the founders of the Peace Now movement, so politically he's very, very important and especially at a moment like this. But also as a writer he's really one of the greats. The book is Tolstoyan in its scope."
Was she afraid to take that on? "Of course, of course," Portman replies emphatically. "But it's also so rich. I'm so lucky to draw from material like that." Oz, now 76, had been the favourite for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, however, he missed out and Portman is keen to give him his due. His story is set before and after the formation of Israel and tells the autobiographical story of his mother, Fania, whose torment and suicide at the age of 38, when he was 14, inspired him to become a writer. After surviving the war and moving to Israel Fania couldn't settle down to married life.
"I could personally relate to this story of an immigrant woman," Portman admits. "I moved to the US as a kid but my mother was an immigrant to Israel and my grandmother was an immigrant to Israel [her grandparents fled Europe in the 30s] so I've been thinking about that sort of history and feeling the emotions around that for a long time." While she personally adapted the novel - "I was talking to writers but that didn't work out so I decided to do it myself" - Portman had to portray Fania in order to raise the finance. It was essential that she perfect her Hebrew for the part.
As an only child, Portman grew up on Long Island discussing politics and humanitarian issues with her Israeli gynaecologist father and American mother, an artist and also her manager for many years - but always in English. She attended a Hebrew school where half the tuition was in English and half in Hebrew, while at Harvard University she studied psychology, her other career option.
It was in 2004 when she returned to her hometown of Jerusalem for a semester of graduate studies - she studied Hebrew, Arabic, Middle Eastern studies and the history of Islam - that she really lived the language for the first time.
"I was going out and hanging with Israelis, going to bars and parties. That's the best way to learn."
In 2005 she appeared in her first Israeli movie, Free Zone, by leading director Amos Gitai, though the rigours of starring in A Tale Of Love And Darkness over the six-month shoot proved far greater.
Was it important to give her son a taste of his Israeli heritage?
"Yes it's where I was born and it's where my father was born and we have a lot of friends and family," she responds, "so it's important for me that he knows them and it was wonderful to spend time there. I was very lucky that my husband came for the whole time and was with our son while I was filming. He was incredible."
Portman has said that although she loves the US, her heart is in Jerusalem.
"That's where I feel at home."
Millepied fell in love with the city and, according to Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot, he is currently converting to Judaism.
Late last year the family moved to Paris when Millepied, the Bordeaux-born former principal dancer at New York City Ballet, took up his prestigious current post as the director of dance at the Opera Ballet, where Rudolf Nureyev once took charge.
It was not long afterwards that the Charlie Hebdo and anti-Semitic attacks happened.
"Unfortunately there are just crazy people in our world and it's upsetting to see how quickly people can destroy so much," Portman says. "But it gives you momentum to also try and create beautiful things because the world needs more of that." She finished her film in Paris and by the time she presented it in Cannes she had been living in the French capital for more than six months.
Today, sitting ramrod straight and sipping tea from a china cup, the demure actress displays her typical poise. Wearing a sheer, beaded black Rodarte dress, she looks like she fits right in with the chic Parisian scene.
"It's absolutely different to live in a place than to visit it," she says of the city where she filmed The Professional and has visited many times. "Luckily France is still a western nation, but there are important cultural differences and I feel you learn lot about yourself. I never thought of myself as particularly American but now I'm here, oh, I'm very American," she laughs knowingly.
In which ways?
"You know, I smile a lot," she responds blushing slightly and emitting a big grin. "I want to make people feel comfortable and good and happy. And then I wear Uggs, a big no-no in France, ha ha ha! You know, I'm not all that chic," she confesses.
Is it easier for her to be a movie star in Paris?
"Yes, very," she sighs, as if giving thanks. "No problem. Tourists are the only ones who will ever come up to you and they're totally nice. Like American tourists again, going 'Hi, hi!'" Of course Portman is not the only American celebrity living in the City of Light. Scarlett Johansson, Portman's Other Boleyn Girl co-star, has a young daughter and lives there with her French journalist husband; Salma Hayek splits her time between Paris and London with her French fashion mogul husband and daughter; New York director Wes Anderson spends most of his year there with his girlfriend, while Sofia Coppola, who is married to French rock star Thomas Mars, is a sometime resident.
"I'm actually friends with all those people," Portman admits, "but it's not like we have dinner every week. Unfortunately all of us are in and out all the time with our various projects. Sometimes we see each other around, but it's not like we're a gang or anything."
If they're making films she might be interested?
"Sure, it would certainly be convenient. I love their movies."
That's, of course, if she can find the time. Portman always keeps busy and her films are stacking up. Shortly after Knight of Cups she made a second, untitled Malick film, with Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling. "I wanted some tips from the master," she admits.
Still there would be a major hiccup before she would go on to direct and produce her own movie. Jane Got A Gun, which she also produced via her company, Handsomecharlie Films, suffered through a procession of directors and cast and ultimately the bankruptcy of Relativity Media.
The 2013 film, which she shot more than a year after Aleph's birth, will finally come to cinemas in 2016. In a newly released trailer Portman looks impressive in her starring role as a Wild West gunslinger doing her all to protect her family.
"Taking a break from acting made me really hungry and excited to go back to it," she confesses. "When you're acting a lot it can just feel like a job sometimes, which is not a good way to go to work."
Currently filming in Paris, she is starring in Planetarium, directed by up-and-coming Jewish-French director Rebecca Zlotowski. "I'm working hard on my French," Portman says of the 1930s set fantasy film where she plays the elder sister of Lily-Rose Depp. She is also set to portray America's most famous First Lady in Jackie, the story of the days following JFK's death, which is being produced by her Black Swan director and good (Jewish) friend Darren Aronofsky.
"It's obviously fascinating subject material and I'm a big admirer of the director Pablo Larrain, who Darren introduced me to," she says.
How does she now choose her projects?
"I guess the big thing is you want everything you do to really matter because it means time away from your child," she says. "Whereas I used to sometimes get bored because I'd do something just to keep busy, now there's no room for that which is wonderful. It distils your purpose."
Has motherhood changed her attitude regarding what she will do on screen? Hilariously she muses how she and Cate Blanchett play the "non-nakeds" in Knight of Cups, a film where Bale's Hollywood star encounters an array of scantily clad women. Portman suddenly snaps into another gear to stress her opinions as a mother and feminist.
"I think if people are sexual or sexy it's more than easy to write off their depth - which as woman we should not make the mistake of doing. I don't think motherhood particularly has changed what roles I might do, but maybe it changed the way others would want to cast me." In Knight of Cups Malick asserts that big vacuous Hollywood mansions mean nothing without a child inside. Does she agree?
"No I don't," she responds forcefully. "Every person is different and I think people can find great fulfilment through their children and people can find great fulfilment without children. There's a weird obsession about kids and actresses in our media that's over the top. It's a personal choice. For me it was a wonderful, meaningful, life-changing experience that I couldn't live without. But someone else might never want that and still be completely fulfilled and whole without it."
A Tale of Love and Darkness premieres at Academy Cinemas in Auckland tomorrow at 7.40pm. Knight of Cups will screen next year.