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November 2007
An Interview with Natalie Portman

An Interview with Natalie Portman

By Brad Balfour

November 19, 2007


Though 26 year-old, Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman is no longer the child star she once was, she retains this innocence and grace that makes her the ideal star for novice director Zach Helm's kid-fantasy, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." Pairing her with a former youthful icon, Dustin Hoffman as the eccentric Mr. Magorium was Helm's masterstroke.

At 11 years-old, Portman was discovered by an agent in a pizza parlor. She started in modeling but decided to pursue acting. She was featured in many live performances, but she made her powerful film debut in "The Professional" but it wasn't until 1999 that she gained worldwide fame as Queen Amidala in the hughly successful $431 million-grossing Star Wars prequel, "The Phantom Menace." Afterwards, she starred in the critically acclaimed "Anywhere But Here," Where the Heart Is," and "Closer," for which she received an Oscar nom.

Now in this kid-oriented fantasy she plays Molly Mahoney, the Composer, store manager, and the 243 year-old Mr. Magorium's protege. Though she takes his magic for granted, she figures he will be there forever; then he tells her his time has on Earth has come to an end and she must take over the store. Devastated, she and the store grow dark with despair but finally they rise to the occasion for themselves and the kids who love the place.

Q: Unlike two recent films you starred in—"V for Vendetta" and "Goya’s Ghosts"—you weren't going to be tortured in "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium"—how appealing was the notion?

Natalie Portman: Interesting question. It really wasn’t that. I’m just trying to do stuff that’s different all the time. Yeah, I had the unfortunate position of having that in "Goya" and then in "V" also, but I’ve also had a few… I guess I have only had "Hotel Chevalier" since "Goya."

I just want to do stuff that’s different and challenging in different ways, and this script was like a no-brainer when I read it. I was like, "I have to do this." I immediately called Zach and was like, "I’m in. Whatever. You tell me when."

Q: Did the film take you back to when you were younger?

NP: It did take me back to my childhood in a way. What was interesting was because I started working as a kid—I started working when I was 11—but I was never in a kids' movie. And all of a sudden I'm in a kids' movie, but I don't get kid treatment because I'm the grown up.

That was sort of a bizarre experience, to be like, 'Ooh, I'm finally doing a kids' movie,' and then be like, "Wait, but I have to work as many hours as they want. There's no limit. I don't get a few hours off for tutoring. I don't get a longer lunch." All the perks of being a kid I was sort of left out of. My favorite toys as a kid…

Q: Did you have to change your demeanor because you weren’t on the set of an R-rated movie?

NP: Yeah, I’ve got a toilet mouth over here [laughs]. It was definitely appealing to me that I could make a movie that I could take my friends’ kids to and that kids could enjoy, but that also I thought was something that I really related to.

It’s a character whose struggle was something I really understood and I think is really relevant to people my age and I also thought this really has so much in it that will interest parents, too. When they go with their kids it won’t be like they’re being dragged to a kid movie. There’s a lot of adult stuff, too. [Did I act] differently on set? I don’t know. I’m not particularly curse-happy in general, but I guess….

Q: Was it a different vibe?

NP: Yeah, definitely. The thing that is cool about kids, which, I think, is part of what the movie is about, is how a kid will see everything as new and special and exciting and magic and when you see movie set through a kid’s eyes, you sort of learn all—not necessarily that they think it’s amazing all the time —but that they notice the things that you start taking for granted as being strange. They’re like, "Wait, this is a toy store why can’t I play with the toys? Why can’t I move the toys from one place to another?"

One kid, the kid who was coloring next to me, Liam, he was like, "I don’t want to color with green anymore; I want to color with red," and we were like, "But the continuity, you’ve got to keep coloring with the same color."

It was so weird. And he kept being like, "Why does that lady keep asking the same question?" So when you get that kind of energy it’s great, it sort of makes you look at everything a little bit more uniquely.

Q: What was it like working with such a great actor as Dustin Hoffman ["The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," Tootsie" among the countless others]?

NP: Dustin is such an original and unique person that it was just a completely different relationship than I’ve ever had with anybody else. He’s just so wonderful and has such a combination of being a mentor and a colleague and a parent and a friend and a kid, all of those things. There are many different levels to it, both in the movie and in the professional working relationship.

Q: What were your fave toys growing up?

NP: I was a big fan of Tub Toys. I was full into all the '80s toys: the Cabbage Patch Kid, the My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite. All of that stuff was fully in my sphere. And I did love the toys in the movie. The weird thing was the really simple, not-flashy stuff was the stuff that I got obsessive about. I loved the bouncy balls. I'd addictively [bounce them]. And, well, now I'm admitting it because they can't really come after me, but there was this barrel of squishy lizards, like stress-ball lizards. I took a lot of those.

Q: What are some of the kid films you loved?

NP: I’m trying to think. My childhood obsession from like age eight was not a kids’ movie, but (it was) "Dirty Dancing." I’d watch it 400 times. I watched a lot of musicals, like "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" and stuff like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and those kinds of movies. I remember seeing those a lot as a kid... and oh, "My Fair Lady."

Q: Was it tough being a child actress? Do you feel like there’s stuff you missed out on because you were working?

NP: Look, I’m very happy with how everything worked out for me and I feel very, very lucky and there’s also this crazy thing that almost all of the actresses working today in my age range started out as kids; if you look at Lindsay Lohan, Scarlett Johannson, Keira Knightley, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Ricci, Claire Danes, or Reese Witherspoon—all of us started really young. Most of us started between 8 to 10 years-old, so it clearly gives people help if they want to do it as adults.

Obviously, [starting out as a child stars] broke us all in. It’s sort of the same group of people who are getting the parts now as were then. I have awesome parents, but now seeing a lot of kid actors, it’s like… it makes me worried and I definitely did miss out on a lot of kid things, but everyone has their different path and it’s not something that I’m like, "Oh, I missed my childhood."

I played and had fun. I was that kind of kid anyway. I always wanted to be a grown up. And now I have to be a grown up and I am like: "What was I doing? Why?" [laugh] I don’t think it’s a great thing now when I see… because also most kids get put into it because [their parents are there to] take some of their money. That’s usually the motivation, which, obviously, was not my case and that’s why I think I’ve been lucky.

Q: Actress Marcia Gay Harden said you were an example of what’s good about young Hollywood today…

NP: I’m just trying to be a good person and trying to be a person, too, and make mistakes and hope they don’t end up in a newspaper and hope they don’t influence other people, but you can’t stop being a flawed person. You have to fall on your face a lot, but it’s unfortunate...

I’ve been lucky that most of my big falls have been missed by the tabloids and obviously other people have not been so lucky. I think it’s a tricky thing and I don’t think that it’s not necessarily a positive thing that’s happening with how young people are working and seeking that sort of attention and getting that sort of attention that then changes them...



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