December 8, 2019

Natalie Portman Returns to Earth in ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Jon Hamm and Natalie Portman in “Lucy in the Sky” Photos by Hilary B. Gayle/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Once you’ve been to outer space, life on Earth seems small and mundane by comparison. In “Lucy in the Sky,” that unique perspective consumes astronaut Lucy Cola, who finds it increasingly difficult to cope with life in the real world. Natalie Portman stars as the woman whose life begins to unravel after returning from a space shuttle mission. 

“It’s really about this existential crisis; what happens when you have this experience that makes you feel more alive than ever and have more meaning than ever,” Portman said at a press conference for the film. “But part of that experience is realizing how small we are and how meaningless everything that we care about in the universe is.”

The screenplay by Brian C. Brown & Elliott DiGuiseppi and director Noah Hawley was inspired by the story of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, a robotics specialist who flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July 2006. Jealous of Colleen Shipman for stealing the affections of the astronaut she was in love with, Nowak attacked Shipman and was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping, burglary and assault. Her career at NASA and the U.S. Navy came to an abrupt, dishonorable end. 

Rather than dwell on the sensational aspects of the story, though they are depicted, “Lucy in the Sky” focuses on the psychological ramifications of Cola’s experience. The love triangle is still a major plot point, however. Cola has a husband (Dan Stevens), but begins an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm). It becomes apparent that she is more invested in the relationship and wants more out of it than he does. 

Natalie Portman in “Lucy in the Sky;” Photo by courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

That isn’t the only thing raising Cola’s stress level. Her marriage is disintegrating, her beloved grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) is dying and she feels discriminated against at work. First-time feature director Hawley (“Legion,” “Fargo”) “built it in a way where the pressure keeps mounting and mounting until this tightly wound spring just explodes,” Portman said. She added that the cause of the meltdown “is not one thing and that’s true of most human behavior. It’s many things. It’s how her family was when she was growing up. It’s sleep deprivation. It’s returning from space and seeing things differently. It’s feeling gender-based discrimination and unfairness at work. It’s a man who is treating her badly. It’s a result of all of those things.”

Portman, known for her Oscar-winning portrayal of an increasingly unhinged ballerina in “Black Swan,” her Oscar-nominated turn as Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie,” and writer Amos Oz’s mother in her screenwriting and directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” filmed in her native Israel, was not originally set to play Lucy. Reese Witherspoon was attached to star, but had to drop out due to a conflict with “Big Little Lies.” (She remained a producer.) 

Portman was eager to step in, as she admits to an obsession with space and fantasizes about going there. “I’m trying to convince NASA,” she said. In her preparation and research, she visited NASA and spoke to astronauts who had been on missions to the International Space Station. “They were describing how hard it was physically to come back from space. It’s so hard to pick up your feet after being in no-gravity,” she said.

“There is a whole protocol about psychological well-being. There’s quite a lot of vetting that they do of potential astronauts of their emotional well-being,” Portman continued. “Being up there with a small group of people in a confined space for an extended length of time under sometimes very stressful conditions, you have to be pretty stable to even get the opportunity to go. It makes it even more remarkable that someone could have such an extreme unraveling upon their return.”

Portman, who will next play the titular hero in the gender switching “Thor: Love and Thunder,” scheduled to be released in November 2021, said she seeks an important common denominator in her characters: “A woman as a complex human being with her own very specific intentions, flaws and strengths.” 

She added, “The more [we have] different kinds of representations of women, the more complicated [they are], the more they are agents of their own narratives, [the more] it shows women as an infinite array of possibility.”

“Lucy in the Sky” is in theaters Oct. 4.