Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman is among the group of actors who never attended a traditional drama school. Rather, she learned the craft through over two decades’ worth of hands-on experience, and she’s passed along several of the lessons and techniques that have served her so well during past interviews.
The “Thor” actress told Business Insider her best career advice is: “If you have the choice, do something that’s meaningful to you and brings you joy. That’s the best way to spend your time. Then, if you can make it meaningful for yourself, like even things that aren’t on their face, meaningful—like I’ve done jobs that didn’t feel particularly meaningful—but you can find some friendship or some relationship within that, that can bring you meaning, you can make it more of a growing experience for yourself and less relating to what other people imposes on you or what the environment imposes on you.”
A job of empathy and imagination
Portman believes an actor’s job is empathy. The final lesson of her Masterclass explores Active Empathy, in which she explains, “Your job is to imagine someone else’s life. That is what we do. We say, ‘I wonder what that person feels and thinks.’ And that’s the experience in a movie theater. We’re sharing this social experience with other people for two hours, caring about someone else’s life. It’s the act of empathy.” She asserts acting is a joyful and creative process that’s not to be feared, but embraced, and it’s an exercise in imagination.
Observe others closely
Portman sees her time on-set not simply as an opportunity to act, but an opportunity to learn from others. “Ninety percent of how you learn is watching great people. When you are surrounded by good actors, it lifts your performance,” she says. Portman also pays close attention to the people in her daily life. “I think it’s always really helpful to just incorporate anything that’s happening in life into your work, obviously in a way that makes sense. But I think acknowledging it and sort of threading it into what you’re doing is always helpful.”
Thorough preparation to create complex characters
In the biographical drama “Jackie,” Portman took on the role of Jackie Kennedy, despite feeling that she could “fail wildly.” She relied heavily on something that has served her so well over the years—digging deeply into preparation. To portray an individual who’s so well-known, Portman’s to-do list was very long. “I need to learn the voice, I need to learn the accent, I need to learn the gesture and read all these books about the person,” Portman recalled during a SAG-AFTRA Foundation interview. “From all of that research, it lives inside of you and … you do all that work before, and then you get to set, and it’s like in your bones, you know. You don’t have to sit there and think, ‘Oh, what is this moment?’ It resides within you because you’ve done all this reading and practice, and it’s all prepared.”
For “Jackie,” Portman collaborated with dialect coach Tanya Blumstein to master the first lady’s speech patterns. Natalie explains how she learned to pay close attention not only to the words her character was saying, but to the breathing pattern of the real Jackie. Noting when to take breaths in character allowed Portman to “read what is sort of happening underneath what the person is saying.” Natalie also creates timelines for her characters, and learns about their relationships with other people and even the relationships of her character has with specific props at different points of the story.
The “Star Wars” actress usually is not asked to audition for roles before being hired these days, but she explains, “There’s a downside to that, too because people tend to think at this point that they know what I can or can’t do. So there are times when people don’t want to consider me for a part, and I beg to get to audition to show them that I can do something that they don’t think I can do. And they’re like, ‘We’ve seen your stuff—no.’ So auditioning, I think the bright side of a really difficult process is … it’s an opportunity to show people what you can do. And show them a side that they might not normally think of you as.”
The “Black Swan” star remembers to keep her fame in check and maintains a good perspective on the job as an actress. “Pretty much everyone’s role on a film is indispensable—hundreds of people. And they are people who never get interviewed. And they make the movie,” she says.
Portman received a valuable piece of advice at the age of 21 when working with Nicole Kidman on “Cold Mountain.” “She said to me, ‘You never know how a movie is going to turn out, which is completely true, but you can ensure that your process is interesting if you’re working with an interesting director.” It was such great advice because it’s like that’s the part that you always keep with you, and that’s the part that’s really meaningful. Even if the movie is wildly successful, the part that you remember is the actual process of making it and the meaningful experience that you have with other human beings that you work with.” Specific qualities Portman looks for in a director include “an interesting vision and perspective and leadership, and I also hope for someone who is open to collaboration and knows how to take your best ideas and leave your bad ideas without being mean about it.”
Keep perspective in life
Portman shared a life lesson she’s learned over the years: “When you get older, you realize it’s a lot less about your place in the world but your place in you. It’s not how everyone views you, but how you view yourself.”
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