Why Natalie Portman Doesn’t Do Method Acting

In ‘May December,’ Natalie Portman plays an actor who goes to unusual lengths to achieve prestige and acclaim.
In ‘May December,’ Natalie Portman plays an actor who goes to unusual lengths to achieve prestige and acclaim.

Summary

The Oscar-winning actor talks about New Year’s resolutions, plant-based eating and making “May December.”

Natalie Portman shed 20 pounds to play a prima ballerina in “Black Swan" and spent 10 months bulking up to swing a magic hammer in “Thor: Love and Thunder." For her latest role, she underwent another dramatic transformation: inhabiting the mind of an emotional manipulator.

In Todd Haynes’s “May December," the Academy Award winner plays Elizabeth, an actor hungry for prestige and acclaim. As she prepares for her next role—playing Gracie (Julianne Moore), who seduced a 13-year-old when she was 36—Elizabeth goes to unusual and exploitative lengths to understand the woman’s motivations.

Unlike Elizabeth, Portman has never done method acting. “I’ve gotten very into roles, but I think it’s honestly a luxury that women can’t afford," she said. “I don’t think that children or partners would be very understanding of, you know, me making everyone call me ‘Jackie Kennedy’ all the time."

Portman, who has been acting since she was 11, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in the United States. She lives in Paris with her two children. Here, she talks about making “May December," her favorite place to be alone and advice from Mike Nichols.

What time do you get up on Mondays, and what’s the first thing you do after waking up?

I wake up at 7 a.m. and make my kids lunch and feed the dogs. I wake up the kids and get them ready for school—not very exciting—make them breakfast, take them to school and come back and walk the dogs.

How do you like your coffee?

I’m a weirdo and usually have green tea and a black coffee.

What’s your exercise routine like?

I walk a lot in Paris—such a nice city to walk in. I also do Gyrotonics usually once or twice a week, which is kind of like circular Pilates.

And your beauty routine?

I wash my face with the Tata Harper wash. I think her products smell really amazing. And I’ve been using the Augustinus Bader moisturizing cream. Now that it’s winter I’ve been trying to do more masks, the Joanna Vargas masks. I’ve been trying to be good about moisturizing my hands a lot too because it’s been very cold and I do lots of dishes and I end up with really chapped hands if I’m not moisturizing constantly.

You’re a big reader and have a book club. How do you carve out time to read?

I read at night a lot because my kids go to sleep pretty early. Usually by 9 p.m. I have the evening to myself.

What releases are you excited about in 2024?

I’m reading a really good book right now called “Martyr!" [by Kaveh Akbar] that’s coming out in January. Xochitl Gonzalez has a new book called “Anita de Monte Laughs Last" I’m really excited about. The new Sloane Crosley book, “Grief Is for People."

What did you take from your own career and experience to play an actress researching a role in “May December"?

There is just a consciousness of all the layers of performance that range from when you actually are playing a role [to] the kind of performance that Elizabeth might need to walk into a barbecue and seem really down-to-earth and friendly and make people comfortable.

Do you have any favorite stories or memories from working with Julianne Moore and Charles Melton, Todd Haynes?

Oh, I love them all. I remember the first time we heard Julianne using her lisp. Todd and I were just over the moon. I remember in that dressing-room scene she says, “Precisely," and we were just constantly saying that to each other. Charles was so extraordinary, such a discovery and revelation as an actor. He was also photographing the entire time, so it was really awesome to get to see him having the awareness of how special a project we all were making.

I read an interview where you said that almost every story about a woman is about her trying to get free. How do you think that narrative is different for women than for men?

No matter the circumstances of a woman’s life, whether she’s very privileged or underprivileged, the uniting factor is the limits placed by society on what women can be, how they can behave, what they’re allowed to say and think and feel and do—so every woman’s story is somehow trying to break free of [that].

“Closer" and “Garden State" are both turning 20 this year. What is it like to look back on those performances?

That’s wild. “Closer," working with Mike Nichols was maybe one of the most important experiences of my life. He was a very, very important mentor to me, much to my deep luck. To get to work with him and Patrick Marber’s writing and extraordinary actors, Jude [Law] and Clive [Owen] and Julia [Roberts], it impacted my life a lot.

“Garden State" was filmed while I was a senior in college. It was a really hard time for me personally, and it was a very fast shoot. It was something nobody really believed in or thought I should do. Everyone was like, “Why are you making this film?" I stuck my neck out and was like, “No, I think this is really good." It was one of the first experiences of me learning to trust my own taste.

What’s in the pipeline for your production company, MountainA?

We have our series called “Lady in the Lake" from Apple TV+ that will be out in 2024 that Alma Har’el directed and wrote [and which stars] Moses Ingram. And we have a bunch of stuff in film and television and animation that can’t be announced yet.

Do you have any hobbies or habits that might surprise your fans?

I watercolor a lot. I like to make little books for my kids.

What’s your most prized possession?

I don’t have a prized possession. I have prized humans and prized dogs I love. I’m into living beings.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

My resolution is to really, actually learn French properly. I’ve lived in Paris for a year now, and I speak it well enough to get around, but I need proper French. That’s my focus this year.

What do you like to splurge on?

I get massage a lot, like once a month.

Is there anywhere you like to pinch pennies?

I do it for ecological purposes, but I only buy secondhand for myself. I find it more fun too—you find more original clothes and shoes and everything when it’s a pre-loved item. A byproduct is that it’s less expensive.

Do you have any recommendations for someone interested in exploring a plant-based diet?

A great way to start is by eating plant-based once a day. The other thing I would say is look at different cultural cuisines. In Paris, my favorite places to go are Thai or Indian or Italian or Japanese. There are certain cuisines that favor a more plant-based diet.

What have you been watching lately?

I’ve been catching up on all the movies of the season. I saw “Nyad" and “Maestro" and “Dream Scenario" and “All of Us Strangers." It’s like a deluge at the end of the year.

Where do you like to go to be alone?

There’s a really beautiful museum here called the Albert-Kahn Museum and they have an amazing garden. It’s never crowded and it’s really magical.

What’s one piece of advice you’ve gotten that’s guided you?

Something Mike Nichols said to me is that the most important thing for who you are is not what you say yes to, but what you say no to.

Write to Lane Florsheim at lane.florsheim@wsj.com

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