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Natalie Portman finds her balance

Ballet, Harvard, most of her 20s were behind her when she leaped at the opportunity to play 'Black Swan'

By Janice Page
Globe Staff / November 28, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Natalie Portman was a senior at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg arrived on campus as a freshman, in 2003. The movie star says she never actually met the Facebook founder, or spent time on his promising little website, but she remembers how quickly the revolution that unfolds in “The Social Network’’ took over student cyberlife on the banks of the Charles.

Here are two other things she remembers about her alma mater as it relates to David Fincher’s current film: She never once saw a naked girl dancing on a table there, and — just like the elite New York ballet company at the center of Portman’s own new movie, “Black Swan’’ (opening Friday) — Harvard remains an institution shaped mostly by and for men.

“It is a very sexist social system that the school has not dealt with properly,’’ Portman says both frankly and delicately (it’s a talent) as we begin a revealing conversation in a Hollywood hotel suite. She then throws in a qualifier (“I loved my experience there and I want to make sure that comes across’’) before concluding: “The problem is there is no parallel infrastructure for women friendships, which you really feel. Like there’s this instant thing for guys to have fun, buddy up. And there’s no similar sisterhood.’’

Lately, Portman, 29, has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways women suc ceed, particularly in the arts, and the crazy, entrenched definitions of perfection that sometimes keep them from succeeding more. Because of “Black Swan,’’ she says she has a deeper understanding of requirements for real artistry. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing girlfriends and “Star Wars’’ action figures.

“The ballet world is such a clever stand-in for the way women are in the world at large,’’ she explains. “[It reinforces] that there’s a sort of male-imposed social structure that women are supposed to fit into; that women are supposed to shape themselves based on men’s expectations; that they’re meant to stay as children — you know, have these little-girl voices and these skinny bodies that take away their womanhood. And to become a true artist, to become a voice, they have to break out of that.’’

This is the journey of Portman’s character in “Black Swan,’’ and it’s also a pretty good summary of her career since debuting, at 12, in Luc Besson’s “The Professional.’’ Her latest role, easily the most demanding and nuanced she’s ever attempted, has made her the talk of every festival the film has played. And whether or not her performance rewards her with a pile of trophies this winter, there’s good reason to think it might mark a moment that exceeds every too-easy ballet pun. Yes, this could be Natalie Portman’s turning point. It could also be her destiny.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler’’), “Black Swan’’ is the story of Nina (Portman), a fragile beauty so obsessed with ballet — the industry term is “bunhead’’ — that she may drive herself mad in a quest to single-handedly execute the perfect “Swan Lake.’’ She’s pushed to the edge by the company’s devilish impresario (Vincent Cassel), who won’t stop until he’s created a one-woman embodiment of both white and black swan — a light-dark mindmeld that threatens to bring human duality to new and dangerous artistic heights. Mila Kunis plays Nina’s “All About Eve’’-style rival, and Barbara Hershey (the thin-lipped version) plays the stage mom who nurtures Nina’s dreams and delusions. Dance fans will no doubt recognize overt homages to “The Red Shoes’’ and other ballet classics, but it’s been amply pointed out that Aronofsky’s style of psychological horror thriller owes more to Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg.

Though she readily admits she’s no prima ballerina in real life, as a former dance student (ages 4 through 13, or thereabouts) and lifelong ballet fan, Portman (nee Natalie Hershlag) says she coveted the lead role in “Black Swan’’ from the moment Aronofsky first proposed the idea, back at the dawn of the 2000s. Portman was just getting started at Harvard then, on her way to a bachelor’s degree in psychology that she says came in very handy when playing Nina’s personality disorder. Aronofsky (Harvard class of ’91) knew he wanted to do something stylishly creepy, Gothic, and twisted, but didn’t have the keys to it until screenwriter Mark Heyman came aboard to reshape earlier efforts, and then one day a dancer friend gave the director some invaluable insight into the nature of the “Swan Lake’’ lead.

“I said, ‘What exactly is she?’ ’’ Aronofsky recalls in a separate Hollywood interview. “And [my friend] said, ’‘Well, during the day she’s a swan; at night she’s kind of a half-swan, half-human creature.’

“I was like, ‘Oh. It’s a were-swan movie.’ And that was the big click for me. It was like, OK, we’re doing this werewolf movie where we’re going to turn Natalie Portman into this creature, but it’s all built out of the myth of ‘Swan Lake.’ ’’

Portman spent more than a year training for the role — five hours a day, stepped up to include additional cross-training in the final months before shooting. She lived on carrot sticks and almonds. She danced through injuries (ripped toenails, strained muscles, a dislocated rib). And, in her spare time, she read dancer autobiographies and watched and rewatched ballet films (Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries topped the list). It wasn’t enough, of course. Professional ballet dancers are made, not born, and there is no crash course for mastering the torture of toe shoes. But the hallmark of any Aronofsky film is its attention to realistic detail, particularly in the pain and suffering department, especially where it comes to sport.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people trying to control the body and turn it into art,’’ Aronofsky says. “Going through pain to create beauty is really fascinating. And I don’t know [the psychology of why I’m so interested], but I just think it’s a losing war, because entropy is coming, and all these dancers and wrestlers get old.’’

This is partly why the director has called “Black Swan’’ an intentional companion piece to 2008’s “The Wrestler,’’ though for Portman the ballet melodrama may have a closer connection to “Closer,’’ the 2004 Mike Nichols-directed drama that brought her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. That was the film in which she played a wounded sparrow-of-a-girl, who abruptly walks off into a kind of breezy, unconvincing independence at the end. In her new film, she plays a more deeply damaged bird, one who has the guts to leap off a cliff, if she must, to set herself free. Ten years ago, or even two (when Portman quietly made her directorial debut with the short film “Eve’’), we might not have believed she could do it. Now, though, there’s a visibly matured confidence that, along with the patented vulnerability, lets her swan take flight.

“I feel lucky that I got to go through my 20s before I did this, even though I’m playing a character who’s younger,’’ she says, not shy about identifying with a character whose life involves “going from being someone who is trying to please people, and trying to do what other people want from them, to pleasing yourself. That’s what turns [Nina] into an artist. It’s ‘What do I want?’ Not ‘What do they want from me?’ ’’

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

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