To Become A 'Black Swan,' Portman Had To Go Dark The Black Swan star describes what it was like to train with members of the New York City Ballet in preparation for her role as a mentally unstable ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller.

To Become A 'Black Swan,' Portman Had To Go Dark

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of film, "Black Swan")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Nina Sayers) I had the craziest dream last night, about a girl who was turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself.

GROSS: That's my guest, Natalie Portman, playing a ballerina in the new psychological thriller "Black Swan." Portman's character dances in a New York City ballet company that is about to do its annual performance of "Swan Lake." She gets the lead, playing the dual role of the innocent white swan and the seductive and evil black swan. Because this dancer is inhibited and sheltered, it's difficult for her to convincingly play the black swan.

In the process of preparing for the role, she goes deep into her dark side and confuses both herself and the film's audience about where reality ends and paranoid fantasy begins.

The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed "The Wrestler." Both films are in part about people who push their bodies to physical extremes.

Natalie Portman made her film debut at the age of 12 in the 1994 film "The Professional." Her other movies include "Beautiful Girls," "Anywhere But Here," "Garden State," "The Other Boleyn Girl," and the three "Star Wars" prequels.

Natalie Portman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. PORTMAN: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: So what was the preparation like for you to try to develop a ballerina's body and movement?

Ms. PORTMAN: I started training a year ahead of time with a great teacher, Mary Helen Bowers, who was in the New York City Ballet for 10 years. She started very basic with me, really focusing on strengthening my toes. We would do 15 minutes of just toe exercises a day to get ready for going en pointe, plus obviously ballet. And then we upped it to, you know, we added more time as we went along, more hours a day of ballet, and we added swimming.

We swam a mile a day. We toned. I watched the Frederick Wiseman documentaries on ABT and Paris Opera Ballet, which were really helpful, and read a lot of autobiographies of dancers.

I tried to do mainly New York City Ballet dancers because I thought it was important to locate it in a particular culture, to have a sort of specific world, because every company is very different. So it was sort of Balanchine-era New York City Ballet that gave me the background.

GROSS: Are there things you have to do in ballet that you had to learn how to do that a human body would otherwise never do?

Ms. PORTMAN: Absolutely. The turnout is extreme and, you know, something that is not natural for a lot of bodies. I think because I had the dance training when I was little, it wasn't impossible for me to have turnout starting at 27.

GROSS: Describe what turnout is.

Ms. PORTMAN: Turnout is having your sort of - from your hips to your toes pointing outwards instead of being parallel to each other. And, you know, everything is supposed to be turned out, every move, every, you know, tendu or grand battement, you need to be turned out.

You have to sort of tuck your butt underneath and, like, pull in your stomach towards your back so that your back becomes flat and doesn't have an arch, which is not very natural for the spine.

And of course, going en pointe is also very unusual. It's not a natural way for your body to hold itself.

GROSS: Did you have to do en pointe for "Black Swan"?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yes, yes, I was en pointe for - I mean, there's no way, obviously, I could have learned, you know, fouette turns en pointe for the film. That's something that takes a lifetime to perfect.

So there's a wonderful dancer, Sarah Lane, who did the more complicated pointe work. But I did the stuff that was possible to learn in a year.

GROSS: So what happened to your feet in the process?

Ms. PORTMAN: They get disgusting. Toenails fall off. You know, they get blistered and calloused, and you don't want anyone to look at them and certainly not touch them.

GROSS: And what about the rest of your body? I read you, what, you dislocated a rib? Do I have that right?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, that was the sort of worst injury I had, was a dislocated rib, which basically we just dealt with by not... I didn't...

GROSS: By not breathing.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, exactly. No deep breaths for six weeks, and I didn't get lifted from my ribcage anymore. I got lifted under my armpits, because that's sort of what does it. Yeah, but it wasn't the end of the world. You know, real dancers dance with such incredible injuries that you wouldn't even believe. You know, it's such a nightmare for them to be replaced.

You know, once they've made it to the top and they get these great roles, they will dance on a sprained ankle or torn plantar fascia or twisted necks, you know, just to make sure that they can keep their moment.

GROSS: There are some very gruesome, disturbing body images in the film. Maybe gruesome isn't exactly the right word, almost surreal. Like there's an image where your toes are completely stuck together. It's almost as if they'd grown into each other. And you're like trying to like pry them apart.

And then there's an image of you peeling skin off your hand, you know, as if it's dry skin and you're peeling it off and, like, a whole bunch of skin comes off.

And then you have this rash on your back, we're never really sure what caused that or what it is, and it keeps getting bigger and uglier. You crack your feet and you crack your toes.

Like some of this reminded me of the kind of, like, body imagery you're likely to get in a surreal dream.

Ms. PORTMAN: Right, absolutely. Darren Aronofsky, our director, who's clearly unbelievable, he is so good at physicalizing anxiety and terror and obsession. And that's so much of it for dancers. I mean it's all about the way your body looks and the way your body moves.

And when your worst anxiety and your worst terror is that you're going to be prevented from moving or, you know, that your toes would stick together or that, you know, that your skin wouldn't be pale enough, or your body wouldn't be thin enough, I mean these are real ideals that people talk about. And obviously any blemishes would be the worst nightmare to cover.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natalie Portman, and she's starring in the new movie "Black Swan," and she plays a ballet dancer in it.

When you accepted the part in "Black Swan," and you were working with, you know, professional ballet choreographers and trainers, were people sizing you up and thinking, like, oh, this is going to be tough - you know, she doesn't really have a ballet dancer's body and we're going to have to...

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah...

GROSS: stretch this and change that and move this and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah.

GROSS: Is that a weird process, having people assess you and finding you, like, wanting and then figuring out how to fix you?

Ms. PORTMAN: It was, and, you know, it's also you have physical limitations. You know, I have - I'm short and I have short limbs. And, you know, the Balanchine sort of City Ballet ideal is to be very long. And they had me working with a physical therapist, Sash Jairotani's(ph) teacher, Michelle Rodriguez(ph), who's fantastic, who works with all the dancers in New York, to lengthen me.

And she was literally just pulling my arms and opening my back and, you know, having me over a ball. I would be lying on this sort of small ball and she would just open my shoulders and open my back and do arm exercises to try and slim my arms and lengthen them.

I was given instructions to lose as much weight as I could without getting sick and, you know, was told every day sort of by the coaches and stuff that I wasn't looking like a ballerina yet.

And all of a sudden, when I really started dieting and lost a serious amount of weight, all of a sudden I started getting compliments from everyone. But it was very much like what that world is.

GROSS: Now, Mila Kunis co-stars, and she plays a new dancer in the company, and the ballet master thinks that she's very good. And, in fact, she becomes your understudy. And it's always hard to tell whether she's trying to be your best friend or trying to totally undermine you so that she can take over as the lead. And this is where the thriller aspect...

Ms. PORTMAN: Right.

GROSS: ... of the movie comes in. Now, I read, and tell me if this is true, that the director of the film, Darren Aronofsky, actually created a backstage competition between the two of you, that he would tell you that she was doing better than you were in terms of really getting the ballet moves down. Then he'd tell her that you were doing better than she was.

Ms. PORTMAN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did he actually do that?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, it was really funny because Mila and I have been friends for years. And when we were - you know, Darren and I have been talking about the film for 10 years, and finally when it started rolling, a year ahead of time, he said, you know, do you have any ideas for who could play Lily?

And I was at the flea market with Mila, and I was telling her that I was doing the ballet training. And she's, like, oh, be careful. I broke all of my toes doing ballet.

And so I called up Darren, and I was like: Mila dances. Mila dances. So then, you know, he met her and cast her, which was really exciting, to work with a friend.

But then I was, like, why can't we train together? You know, we're doing the same thing. Can't we take class? He kept us completely separate. He tried to make us, like, not see each other. And then he would tell me things like: Mila's looking really good. And then he would tell her, like: Oh, Natalie's so much better than you.

And we would talk. So we knew that he was totally just messing with us. And we would just laugh because, you know, we'd go out for our salad or whatever we were eating at the time and, you know, dish on what he was, what kind of feedback he was giving each of us. So we didn't really let him manipulate us as he, as he desired.

GROSS: My guest is Natalie Portman. She stars as a ballerina in the new movie "Black Swan."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natalie Portman, and she's starring in the new movie "Black Swan."

Now, you had your first film role when you were 13?

Ms. PORTMAN: I was 11, actually.

GROSS: Oh, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: I turned 12 while we were filming "The Professional." Yes, very young.

GROSS: And what a role to have at such a young age, because you play a girl whose family is murdered. So you kind of move in with and apprentice yourself to a hit man. And you want to learn the trade so you can get revenge against the person who killed your family, particularly your brother.

And then you think you're falling in love with him, and of course he's this middle-aged hit man, and you're 12 in the movie. So how did you get that part?

Ms. PORTMAN: Well, I had sort of begged my parents to audition for things. We lived on Long Island, where a lot of sort of kids I knew were going out on auditions for Broadway shows or commercials.

And my parents weren't really that keen on it but saw it as my passion and supported it. And then that was just the first thing I got, which probably attests to the kind of kid I was, that I wasn't getting, like, Rice Krispies commercials, which I would have died for, but that they cast me in this kind of crazy French film.

GROSS: What does that say about what you were like as a kid?

Ms. PORTMAN: I think I was, you know, acting like a grown-up, even though I certainly didn't have the maturity of one. But I knew how to mimic a grown-up pretty well.

So I think the sort of cute kid roles just never were the things that anyone was interested in me for, whereas, you know, the child-woman was sort of my type.

GROSS: Now, your father is Israeli, your mother American. You were born in Jerusalem. At the age of three, the family moved to the U.S.


GROSS: How much time have you spent in Israel since moving to the U.S.?

Ms. PORTMAN: A lot. I go back at least once at year, but usually two, three times a year. And five years ago I did a semester of grad school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So I lived in Jerusalem for, like, six months.

GROSS: Do you find that your personality changes a little bit in Israel compared to when you're in the States?

Ms. PORTMAN: I don't know about my personality. Probably my politics. You know, it's like how you can, like, say bad things about your parents to, like, your brother or sister, but you wouldn't say it to, like, you know, just a friend. It's sort of like you can criticize the government more when you're in the country among other Israelis than outside; it sort of feels like you're betraying your family or something.

GROSS: So you're more critical of Israeli policy when you're there than you are when you're here?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, well, I think you just feel more at ease to talk about it because you're talking to other people who are in the same boat as you, you know, as opposed to being, like, oh, someone here is going to take my opinion as an Israeli and make it represent my entire country, you know?

GROSS: How politically involved have you gotten in Middle East politics?

Ms. PORTMAN: Not - you know, I think I was really, really involved when I was probably in my early 20s. I was, you know, reading Haaretz every day. It was like my - the page, the website I opened to on my computer. I would read obsessively and was very passionate and very emotionally roused by it.

And then I sort of had to disconnect, and I barely pay attention anymore because I think it's just - I know it's not necessarily the proudest thing you can say, because I know it's important to be engaged, but it's just - it can get so hard to feel that emotional about something that you have no impact on, you know, for such a long time.

GROSS: One set of your grandparents - stop me if I'm wrong here - one set of your grandparents was killed in Auschwitz?

Ms. PORTMAN: No, no, no. My great-grandparents.

GROSS: Great-grandparents.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yes, my father's parents migrated to Israel before the war, in the late '30s. So their parents were killed in the camp.

GROSS: How was the Holocaust first described to you? Do you remember?

Ms. PORTMAN: I don't remember the first description. I just remember it being a prominent feature of my education, because I went to a Jewish school. I went to Jewish day school until I was 13. So...

GROSS: In the United States?

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, in the U.S. I went - because we moved a lot when we were in the States. So I went to different schools in Maryland and then Connecticut and then Long Island. So it was just such a central part of our learning, of everything we learned, which, you know, definitely has its - you can understand the power of memory for the Jewish people.

But also there's the drawbacks, too, because no one mentioned Rwanda to us, which was happening at the same time, which is kind of an interesting thing, which I regret and I, you know, wish was different.

GROSS: Were you religious when you were going to Jewish school? Or...

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PORTMAN: No, my family - my family, like most Israelis, are very, very non-religious. But they - my dad wanted me to keep my Hebrew, and because it was half a day in Hebrew, that sort of was the purpose. And so they would, you know, tell me to sort of abstain from prayer in the morning, because we had to pray every morning.

And we had to bring kosher lunch, and my mom would pack me, like, chicken salad sandwiches and tell me to lie and say it was tuna, and that's, like, part of why I became vegetarian, because I hated lying so much, because everyone was like: It doesn't smell like tuna.

So yeah, then I was, like, you're just sending me vegetarian lunches from now on.

GROSS: Why was chicken bad?

Ms. PORTMAN: Because it - it was only dairy at school.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. PORTMAN: You know, with milk and meat, it was only a dairy kitchen. So you could only bring dairy lunches. So if she would pack me meat, she would make me say it was, like, something else.

GROSS: Did you wish you were going to a public school at that time?

Ms. PORTMAN: Oh yeah, and I finally convinced my parents to let me switch in eighth grade, mainly because I think it was just really small. There were only 20 kids in my class. And I switched to a public school where there were 500 kids in my class, and that made me really happy.

GROSS: Now, a lot of actors drop out of school so that they could just act, you know, in a TV series or in a movie, or they just study acting. I mean, they major in acting in college, whereas you studied at Harvard and majored in psychology while continuing your acting career. And then you spent a semester, I think, at University of Jerusalem.

But from what I read, it sounds like you didn't study acting. You studied other things.

Ms. PORTMAN: Yeah, well, I've been acting since I was 11 in, you know, film and stage. And I've gotten to have so many amazing experiences and work with so many people that it's been sort of a school for me.

And so having the opportunity to go to university, which is really such luck. I mean, how many people in the world, especially how many women in the world, get to have higher education? It's really so, so rare that I just wanted to take advantage of, you know, everything I could.

And psychology seemed also a way where I could learn things that would be eventually helpful to my acting career without, you know, actually taking acting classes there.

GROSS: And was it helpful?

Ms. PORTMAN: Absolutely. I mean, for this part, you know, just reading the script and immediately having insight into obsessive-compulsive behavior and ritualistic, almost religious practices, the relationship with the mother that is, you know, restrictive and suffocating, and this desire to please, the ability to dissociate oneself, when you're seeing yourself through other people's eyes - you know, because she's always viewing herself through her mother's eyes, her director's eyes, her audience's eyes, the character, you know, starts seeing herself out of her body and then has to do the dissociation where she starts seeing this double.

So it was really - it was really helpful for this role and has been helpful for roles in the past.

GROSS: Natalie Portman, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. PORTMAN: You too. Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Natalie Portman stars as a ballerina in the new movie "Black Swan." We'll talk with her co-star, Vincent Cassel, in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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