November 13, 2018

For her directorial debut, Natalie Portman mines her inner Israeli and what it means to be Jewish

A security detail opens the doors to the Beverly Wilshire’s Royal Suite, where Natalie Portman looks up from the middle of a grand, high-ceilinged hallway. She is huddling with one of her handlers, but their conversation doesn’t register above a whisper, as if secrets are being exchanged. The setting is pointedly opulent — a large, corner apartment on the hotel’s eighth floor, with grand, sun-drenched spaces — but the mood is staged, ceremonial, as if a play is about to begin.

When I approach Portman, she smiles, introducing herself with a light handshake. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, her lovely face unflashy in the natural light, yet her look is inscrutable. Almost instantly she conveys an uncanny resemblance to the character I had just seen her play — a bit remote; fragile like fine porcelain, her interior somehow off-limits and unknowable.

Portman’s mutability is her gift as an actress, a calling she’s pursued since age 11. She can canvass emotions with a subtlety and ease that makes it seem she isn’t doing much of anything at all. But, for the first time, I suspect, she has taken on a role — an entire film, actually — that reveals more of her real self than she has ever exposed on screen.

For her directorial debut, Portman chose Israeli writer Amos Oz’s celebrated memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Set in the 1940s during the British Mandate of Palestine, Oz’s coming-of-age tale — “Sipour Al Ahava Vehoshekh” — pivots around the relationship between young Amos and his enigmatic, melancholy mother, Fania (played by Portman), who commits suicide at 38. It is the first time in Portman’s career she has served as writer, director and star, and she labored more than a decade to bring Oz’s heartrending elegy from page to screen.

Natalie Portman and Amir Tessler play mother and son in her adaptation of Amos Oz’s “A Tale Of Love and Darkness.” Photo by Ran Mendelson/Focus World 

“I read [the book] when it first came out in translation, and I was so moved right away,” Portman said, sitting at the edge of a large leather divan. She appears even more delicate in person, draped in an oversized navy shirtdress, hands clasped in her lap. She speaks in a voice almost childlike in its softness. “I was so moved by the language and the story, the relationship between Amos and his mother. … It was the first thing I really felt I wanted to direct.”

It makes sense that the Jerusalem-born actress would fall under the spell of Oz’s story, which is as much the story of one boy and his family as it is a historical account of their nascent country. Against the backdrop of the emerging Jewish state, a country full of traumatized, rejected immigrants tries to forge a future in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Oz’s recollection is universal in its evocation of Jewish memory, history and nationhood, and could just as easily be a story of Portman’s own relatives.

“The story of Oz’s family at the dawn of the state of Israel is remarkably close to all the stories I heard growing up about my father’s family,” she wrote in an email correspondence with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer published in The New York Times. “[T]he worship of everything European, refugees confronted by the desert, the atmosphere of constant violence, the political debates, the obsession with books and storytelling and language, womanhood in a religious/military/socialist amalgam, the dark fantasy of building a utopian community when all the parents have been killed, the mythology of the pioneer and the new Israeli man. The themes are endlessly interesting to me, as is the question of how much of the mythology is an accurate reflection of history, and how much is storytelling cemented by repetition.”

Creating a film adaptation of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” offered Portman a rare chance to revisit the roots of her identity, to indulge creatively in the mythologies that shaped her, and to put her own artistic stamp on the complex set of conditions that preceded the birth of modern Israel.

“That time period is so unique, [and] I feel like we don’t talk that much about the uniqueness of the situation; that it was essentially all these orphans descending from Europe to this desert, with these utopian ideas,” Portman said. “They just experienced the worst horror of the 20th century, but then they have a dream of creating, like, this socialist experiment. And then, of course, they’re going into a political situation that has ramifications, we know now, for the next hundred years. It’s just a fascinating moment, all of those dynamics.”

When the book was released in Israel in 2003, it quickly became one of the best-selling books in Israeli history. “What made ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ an event,” David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker in 2004, when Nicholas de Lange’s English translation came out, “is the power with which it entwines the history of an immigrant family — a lonely, depressed mother, a distant father, and their son — with the larger historical story; Europe’s rejection, the frantic search for refuge among the Arabs in Palestine, the idealism and the disappointments, the establishment of Israel and the war that followed.” Portman read de Lange’s translation and was transfixed. She asked her agents to reach out to Oz and soon flew to Israel to meet him. “He was so kind immediately,” Portman recalled, “and he gave me the permission to make the film, which was crazy. He was very easy about it. And patient, too, because it took a while for me to do.”

Portman was born Neta-Lee Hershlag in 1981 to an Israeli father and American mother, who were then living in Jerusalem. By the time Portman was 4, her family had decamped to the United States, where her father would practice medicine as a gynecologist and fertility specialist. Portman grew up between Washington, D.C., and New York, attending Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County, where she said she received much of her Jewish education. At 12, she scored her first film role, playing an orphan who befriends a hitman in Luc Besson’s 1994 film, “Léon: The Professional.”

Almost instantly, she won the attention and interest of Hollywood, landing roles in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” the “Star Wars” franchise and a long list of critically acclaimed independent dramas. She also starred on Broadway as Anne Frank in a 1997 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Two years later, she announced that she would take a break from acting to attend Harvard University, where she studied psychology and served as assistant to lawyer and professor Alan Dershowitz.

Just before her graduation, Rolling Stone interviewed Portman for a cover story — she was 20 — and she spoke in depth about her family’s Jewish history: the grandparents and great-grandparents from Poland and Romania; the great-grandmother who served as a British spy; the relatives who died at Auschwitz. Asked about her post-graduation plans and where she might live next, she said, “I really love the States, but my heart’s in Jerusalem. That’s where I feel at home.”

“A Tale of Love and Darkness” represents a homecoming. Now 35, with a 20-year career already, Portman said she worked on the screenplay in fits and starts for years, while simultaneously pursuing other projects.

Early on, she had difficulty getting financing for the $4 million film, until she agreed to star in it. Portman wouldn’t say whether investors were squeamish about the fact that she was a first-time director, a first-time director who is also a woman, or if the subject matter — the establishment of Israel — was too problematic.

Nevertheless, Portman pressed on, and in the decade since she began penning the script, she met and married dance choreographer Benjamin Millepied, won an Oscar in 2011 for “Black Swan” and gave birth to a son, Aleph. Becoming a mother was a seismic event, she said, and intensified her relationship to the project, which is very much a love story between a boy and his mother.

Portman and husband Benjamin Millepied appear at the opening ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival in France in 2015. Photo by Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com

Having a child “absolutely affected my understanding of the story,” Portman said. “I think, a lot of the expectations that you have with certain roles in your life that are sort of talked about from the time you’re young — whether it’s marriage, having children, getting jobs, moving, all of those things — [are] just so different than what you have in your head. The real experience of what those things are like [makes you realize] the distance between the two. I felt it in the way I think about Israel, being away from it, and then going there; it’s not the same thing at all. So I feel like the way you project onto things and then when you’re in the reality, there’s such a divide. And that was what I felt like I understood better, aging with the material.”

As writer and director, Portman could easily empathize with the young Amos, who struggles to find his footing between alienation at home and the promise and chaos of pre-state Jerusalem out in the streets. But as an actress, Portman had to understand the character of Fania, who takes her own life, even as her only child depends on her.  “I think [becoming a mother] helped me understand that you wouldn’t be thinking about your child,” she said of Fania’s suicide. “You couldn’t be thinking about your child. You would have to be so in your own pain that it’s not where your brain is, because that’s the thing that would stop you. That’s the only thing that would stop you, when you’re in that amount of pain.”

In the film, Fania serves as a kind of cautionary symbol. Portman’s script suggests that perhaps, having come from a comfortable upbringing in Rovno, Ukraine, Fania couldn’t handle the constant struggle of life in a burgeoning country; that she hated the poverty, the violence, the uncertainty, the desperation. Fania is filled with fantasies, and she shares her fantastical, often tragic stories with her son, who sees his mother as the heroine of a corrupted fairy tale. In a sense, Fania becomes a stand-in for Israel, the country ever on the brink, imperiled by a thousand dark forces, assailed by an inability to realize her own promise.

“I realized how much Judaism for me was connected to yearning — to wanting what you don’t have — which is maybe why Israel is so complicated emotionally for Jews: It’s built into the emotional structure of our religion to yearn for a homeland we don’t have,” Portman wrote in the Times.

“So then, if we have it, what do we yearn for? We say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ as if we are still in exile. But maybe Jerusalem as an idea is never attainable — so we can keep longing for it, even when we have it.”

Portman’s eloquence on Israel is decidedly uncharacteristic of most of Jewish Hollywood. In good times and bad, Israel is a subject Jewish celebrities tend to avoid, lest they be seen as too tribal, or worse, unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But Portman is an exception, and, over the years, she has become a kind of a de facto defender of Israel (when I use this label with her, she laughs), especially in the face of public misconception or outright hostility toward Israel or the Jews. When a video surfaced in February 2011 of Dior chief fashion designer John Galliano spouting anti-Semitic comments in a Paris bar, Portman, then the face of a Dior fragrance, was quick to condemn him.

“I am deeply shocked and disgusted by the video of John Galliano’s comments,” she said in a statement at the time. “In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way. I hope at the very least, these terrible comments remind us to reflect and act upon combating these still-existing prejudices that are the opposite of all that is beautiful.”

Galliano was subsequently suspended from Dior. Four years later, when The Hollywood Reporter questioned her about the incident, she said she could forgive him, but not his comments. In the same story, she was equally unforgiving of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom she condemned for “racist comments,” which she said she was “very much against.”

Weighing in on Israel comes naturally to her: “I don’t know that it’s that conscious,” she told me. “Everyone has their opinions.” She wrote to Foer that she sometimes wishes she were from someplace “inoffensive … neutral, unproblematic,” but in the end, it is the one place that most ignites her imagination.

“It is funny, though,” she added of the fraught nature of even mentioning Israel. “It’s like that Jon Stewart thing. … I remember he did this, like, Israel-Palestine [segment], you literally get, like, a word out and it’s, like, ‘Nanana you’re WRONG!’ You kind of, like, can’t win.

“But it’s not really about winning,” she continued. “It’s about humanizing the situation. And it has to be done over and over and over again. And that’s why, hopefully, storytelling can be a powerful tool, because at the end of the day, it’s, like, people live there in every part of the conflicted area — they’re human beings and there’s a variety. There’s good and bad people; there’s strong and weak people; people who are succeeding and people who are suffering; and it’s human. And the more human stories that can be told, the more people can understand it.”

Portman is fascinated by the role storytelling plays in shaping identity, and she’s talked about it often over the years, even writing a paper at Harvard on the subject. When I asked how Jewish identity has influenced her creatively, she said: “It’s definitely related to reading and language. I’m definitely a word and language person, and I’m sure that’s been influenced by having Hebrew early on and Jewish teaching early on that was so book-centric.”

What appealed most to Portman about “A Tale of Love and Darkness” was Oz’s sparkling prose. Oz himself has described writing in Hebrew as an almost transcendent experience: “It’s my musical instrument,” he told Charlie Rose in 2011. “I’m a great chauvinist for the language. I’m not a chauvinist for the country. Modern Hebrew is in many ways like Elizabethan English: It’s an erupting volcano, a lusting earthquake. The language is [constantly] absorbing new idioms and new forms, and a writer of Hebrew or a poet of Hebrew may take daring liberties [by] legislating [experience] into the language.”

Portman recalled one little piece of trivia Oz shared with her: “His uncle was one of the members of the academy that creates new words to update modern Hebrew, so he came up with words for, like, ‘pencil’ and ‘shirt.’ And [Amos] was, like, ‘If my uncle didn’t come up with the word shirt, would I put on my coat of many colors every day?’ Because if you don’t have the word, you’re gonna have to find the closest thing in the Bible to express it. And I found that so magical and beautiful,” Portman said.

Words … language … stories — these are the things that spark her; little meteorites exploding in the Jewish soul of a woman whose theatrical destiny was in some way ancestrally ordained.

“The centrality of storytelling in identity is a very Jewish thing,” she continued. In the Torah, she pointed out, “the world is created through words: ‘Let there be light, and there [was] light.’ The words create the reality. The story we tell creates who we are. And Jews have been a people because of the story they tell, not because of a state they have.”

The Jewish story is what Portman hopes to pass on to her now 4-year-old son, Aleph — a name symbolic of words and language if ever there were one. Between homes in Los Angeles and Paris, where her husband just stepped down as director of dance for the Paris Opera Ballet, the family has been making an effort of late to observe Shabbat.

“It’s hard,” Portman admits, with everyone’s erratic schedules. “But whenever we do it, it’s so wonderful, and just nice having a connection to who you are. It’s nice to give your kid something that they’re free to reject, but it’s not like they have to search for ‘Who am I?’ It’s like, ‘Look. This is where you come from, take it or leave it. But this is who you are; these are your roots; these are you rituals; these are the stories we tell.’ ”

If it were totally up to her, what would Portman want her son to inherit from her Judaism?

“I think it’s so personal for every person,” she said, “what [Judaism] means to them. And I think it’s so beautiful to have the name of ‘the people Israel,’ to be, like, fighting with God, you know? That you’re arguing with God, you’re wrestling with it. I think that’s one of the most interesting things in the culture. Everything is a question. And there aren’t necessarily answers. And I think that’s a great way to go into the world.”