At one point Natalie Portman had been the Oscar favourite for her portrayal as Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, until the La La Land juggernaut took over and Emma Stone emerged the best actress favourite.
Even if Portman was probably aware she was not set to win as she nursed her newborn baby (born just days before the ceremony), she must have been stunned by the Oscars debacle, and in the era of President Donald Trump the Los Angeles resident and recent Hillary Clinton campaigner, possibly wishes she was back in Paris.
“Oh I miss Paris!” the 35 year-old told me last September in our Toronto Festival interview for Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium. As with Jackie, Portman made the film in the French capital while her husband, Benjamin Millepied headed the Paris Opera Ballet.
The big deal about Planetarium, which follows two spiritualist sisters who claim they can communicate with the dead in 1930s Paris, was that it marked Portman’s first film in French. She had a little help from a voice coach and her bilingual co-star Lily-Rose Depp, and as with most things the Harvard graduate does, she does it so well.
Naturally I bring up the fact that the sisters are named Barlow. Portman chortles when I tell her I used to even indulge in séances with galpals in my misspent teens.
“You’re hired! Clearly you’re part of our show!”
When I ask if she’s held a seance herself, she declines a yes or no answer, though in terms of contacting the dead she admits, “Yes, I believe it’s possible.”
HB: You wear impeccable clothing in both Jackie and now the sumptuously filmed Planetarium.
NP: It always helps when you put on the clothes and get your hair and make-up done. You look in the mirror and you’re in another era. Rebecca chose so beautifully. Every new costume was gorgeous.
HB: Is she your first female director?
NP: I’ve made shorts with female directors and it’s my first feature directed by a woman who is not me, because I directed my own film, A Tale of Love and Darkness. But it’s significant that in 25 years of making films that this is my first time being directed by a woman in a feature film. That affects the kinds of stories being told and presenting the female point of view, the female experience, which of course includes relationships between women, which is central to any woman’s existence but of course is invisible to the male imagination.
I’ve found it rare in films that I’ve acted in to even get to work with another actress. Often you’re the only female on the set, so it’s already a joy when you get to work with another woman and not be one of the boys, which is kind of what you get used to as an actress in the US.
Planetarium was also the first time I worked with someone I was close to before filming. I was already friends with Rebecca and there was a high level of trust. She knew exactly what to say to me, how to put me in exactly the right place.
HB: How did that change the way you worked?
NP: She challenged me to be tougher than my instincts. She wanted the character to be tough which I felt was a great step for someone who started as a child actor as you can go into cute things very easily. (Portman debuted in Luc Besson’s 1994 film The Professional at the age of 13 and the following year appearing in Michael Mann’s Heat). Rebecca always encouraged me against that and showed me ways of directing that I’d never seen before. Sometimes she would have me say things to make the character more emotional; she had a very specific vision. It was really empowering seeing someone who had no hesitation saying exactly what she wanted.
HB: Did you base your character on anyone?
NP: I didn't have a specific reference for the look, but in terms of people I admired I watched Garbo and Dietrich and all the great actresses of the era.
HB: How was it coming back to acting after directing?
NP: It really did make me watch movies differently, because you realise how many decisions go into everything. You realise that everything is a choice, from whether there is music or not, to what type of music, to when the music starts and ends.
HB: How was the dynamic between you and Lily-Rose, especially since she speaks perfect French?
NP (Laughs): I definitely I felt the whole time that Lily-Rose had to diminish her French level to match mine so we would be believable as sisters. But actually from the beginning it was very easy to take it on. She’s a delightful human being and incredibly talented. It’s exciting to see someone on one of their first films and you know there is so much ahead of them.
HB: Was there an advantage to being away from the Hollywood machine and making these films in France?
NP: I feel that every movie is different. It was an amazing experience and very unique and there was this family feeling. It felt like everyone was there out of passion--but I’ve definitely felt that on American films before. I don’t think there’s a Hollywood/foreign film divide. I don't think there’s a big budget/low budget divide. I don't think there’s a male/female director divide. I think every project is individual and can surprise you.
Planetarium opens the 2017 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Sydney, and screens throughout the travelling festival in March and April.