Natalie Portman flaps her arms and moves as gracefully as a bird in the twisted psychosexual thriller “Black Swan,” but the comparisons don’t stop there. The actress ate like one, too.
To transform into mentally unstable ballet dancer Nina Sayers, a darkly disturbing role that’s already giving Portman major Oscar pull, the 29-year-old had to train intensely – for nearly eight hours a day she exercised, toned and practiced – and eat lots of carrots and almonds. Then, as soon as production wrapped, she stuffed her face with pasta… for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The physical discipline really helped for the emotional side of the character,” Portman says, a sweet laugh escaping her as she discusses the film during a press day at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre. “That’s a ballet dancer’s life – you don’t drink, you don’t go out with your friends, you don’t have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, and you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.”
But simply twirling around in pointe shoes, in Nina’s case anyway, is only the half of it. Pressure to be the best, to succeed in every way for everyone – herself, her mother (Barbara Hershey) and her instructor (Vincent Cassel) – mounts in mental madness, as “Black Swan” becomes less about dance than the psychosis of performing it. New dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses with her dark Black Swan personification, only adds to the fire burning inside Nina, throwing her into a charged competition that’s as destructive as the dance form itself.
“It’s really just a retelling of “Swan Lake,”” says director Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”), “but it definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer.”
Hype, however, isn’t over how much weight Portman and co-star Kunis (“That ’70s Show”) shed to play rivals – about 20 pounds each – or that it took a grueling year for Portman to move as skillfully as she does onscreen. All anyone’s talked about is how they get it on (intensely), how far they go (pretty far), and how much of Portman you see (sorry, zilch). Recently, Portman told V Magazine, “It’s not raunchy – it’s extreme.”
At the November premiere in New York, she also insisted that shooting sex is hard whomever it’s with: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend, a male, a female,” she told The Huffington Post from the red carpet. “You’re with 100-something crew members, lighting you, repositioning you; there’s no comfort whatsoever.”
It was just as awkward for Kunis, who spoke about the scene at the Pantages Theatre: “Whether you have a same-sex scene or a scene with the opposite sex, it’s a sex scene nonetheless,” says the actress, who suggestively bedded another woman – but not so graphically – in 2007’s “After Sex.” “Doing something like this with Darren was very safe and as comfortable as it could be. I never had a fear of being exploited.”
The steamy scene, a switch from Portman’s usually prim-and-proper image (there’s a reason we fell madly in love with her in “Garden State”), is pivotal in creating Nina, whose newfound liberation after years of repression leads to a raging sexual awakening.
She masturbates, vomits, hallucinates and anxiously scratches herself until she bleeds. The Harvard-educated actress – who says, “This was actually a case where something I learned in school did turn into something practical” – has a name for it: “religious obsession-compulsion.” And then there’s Nina’s smother-mother. Think “Mommie Dearest,” but with Hershey in Faye Dunaway’s place.
“It was really exciting to come in and do this insular, claustrophobic, intense relationship,” says the “Beaches” actress. “(Portman and I) got to a feeling of ritual. And I tried to copy her eyebrows as much as I could. We were very aware of the symbiotic everydayness of living together forever, and that was fun. We didn’t talk about it too much, but we knew it.”
How they reached that unique bond was the product of Aronofsky’s genius suggestion: Exchange letters in character, as mother and daughter.
Portman starts, “Barbara wrote gorgeous letters that were really in character that really gave a sense -”
“Of our history,” Barbara adds. “To suggest that was just amazing preparation and it gave me the door to my character, which was great.”
Singularly, as Nina, Portman was made for this role. Until age 12, she was a dancer and dreamed of growing up to be one.
“I always idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most beautiful art,” Portman says. “I always wanted to do a film related to that. So when Darren had this incredible idea that wasn’t just related to the dance world but also had this really complicated character – two characters, really – it was just something completely exciting.”
Really tough, too. Training aside, it’s one of the actress’ most complicated characters, a role that summons an extensive out-of-body performance that only someone with Portman’s range could pull off. And she has before, effortlessly slipping into the erratic seductress role in “Closer,” as a stripper, and in period pieces like “The Other Boleyn Girl.” In January, she’ll star alongside Ashton Kutcher in the sex farce “No Strings Attached.” Aronofsky was sold far sooner, though, with one of the actress’ first films, starring a then-13-year-old Portman as a precocious sidekick to a hit man in “The Professional.”
“One of the reasons I think Darren and I had such telepathy during this was because he’s as disciplined and focused as could possibly be, and that’s what I try to be,” Portman muses, mulling over her “Black Swan” character. “And I’m not a perfectionist but I’m definitely… I think I like discipline.” Laughing, she insists: “I’m obedient!”