What a difference six months makes.
Last summer, Natalie Portman was promoting “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a Hebrew-language film that marked the 35-year-old Jerusalem-born actress’sfeature debut as a director and writer. The movie, adapted from Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir of growing up during the early years of Israeli statehood, was a 10-year labor of love, but the film received generally lukewarm reviews.
Not so for Portman’s latest project, the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic “Jackie,” in which she portrays the grieving first lady in the days immediately after her husband’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. The film, which uses a collagelike technique of time-hopping vignettes to render a complex, even contradictory portrait, is collecting raves, and Portman is widely considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for best actress.
In a recent phone interview, Portman insisted that she has little in common with Kennedy. “I’m not public in the same scale,” she said, “and also not in an icon sort of way.” This, despite their mutual affinity for foreign languages – the Harvard-educated Portman speaks five; Kennedy spoke three – a shared love of learning and a similarly birdlike physique.
One of the hardest things about the role, Portman said, was mastering Jackie’s vocal mannerisms, a hybrid of continental affectation and upper-crusty American English that Portman mostly nails, once you get used to it.
“When you hear the real thing the first time, you’re like, ‘Nooo, it’s impossible,’ ” she said. “I’ve never thought of myself as particularly skilled with accents, voices, mimicry or anything like that. It’s scary to put that on, in a film, when it’s not yours.”
At the same time, Portman said that finding Jackie’s voice, which she describes as not one way of speaking, but many, was ultimately the key to unlocking the character.
“It was helpful in the long run, because it has so many different qualities to it that reveal a road map of Jackie’s history,” she said. “You’ve got the patrician debutante and the prep-school side that informs it. You’ve got this lost-fortune/Long Island/New York/Bouvier/’Grey Gardens’ aspect to it. You’ve got the Marilyn influence, with that breathy voice, evoking what is perceived as a ‘feminine’ way to speak in public.”
The part, in other words, required Portman to deliver a portrait with many faces, which relates to the film’s theme of public image vs. private persona. In Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay, “Jackie” is framed as almost random flashbacks, set within the context of an interview with an unnamed journalist, played by Billy Crudup. Over the course of those flashbacks and the interview, Jackie reveals herself to be by turns sarcastic, seductive, strong, supercilious, scared and, perhaps above all, concerned about crafting a legacy – not just her husband’s, but her own.
The challenge of controlling public perception is why Portman stays off social media and largely out of the limelight’s fiercest glare.
“I can relate to having an idea of what people who might not know you think about you, and how you try and be perceived – how you try and be careful when you’re talking in order to create a way for people to think about you,” she said. “In general now, because of social media, even a lot of private individuals – people who are not public figures – are experiencing that, too. You can experience what people think about you, what people write about you, even if you’re a nobody.”
Oppenheim, a journalist and TV producer who wrote “Jackie” during a leave of absence from NBC News six years ago, characterizes his screenplay as a mix of rigorous historical research and informed conjecture.
“There is a great deal that we can say with some certainty,” he said, “and that is depicted in the film. When we depart from things that we know absolutely to be true, we rely upon the body of historical evidence to make educated guesses about where Jackie’s frame of mind might have been. Whenever I talk about this film, I say ‘might have been.’ I say ‘probably,’ because, let’s face it, whenever you’re trying to depict any human being, it’s impossible to know where their head and heart are at any given moment.”
The Kennedy we see may not, at times, jibe with the one who has become enshrined in “Camelot” lore. According to Portman, that’s not just because of Oppenheim’s kaleidoscopic plot, but also because of director Pablo Larraín, who gave her a long leash, encouraging frequent improvisation.
“There was a scene with a mover,” Portman recalled, “where he drops something. And I started yelling at him. Ultimately, it didn’t end up in the movie, but Pablo would allow you to play things like that, that don’t necessarily align with our idea of Jackie.”
Every scene, Portman said, was designed and lighted so that Larraín could shoot in multiple directions, using a lightweight camera mounted on his shoulder. “I would move throughout the room, or the house, and the camera would be with me. We would just kind of dance together.”
In a stark departure from traditional linear narrative, the movie’s scenes aren’t chronological. “Imagine there are no scene numbers,” Larraín told Portman, “and that any scene can happen anywhere.”
“So often you’re trying to create this emotional through-line that connects, from scene to scene, and that creates an arc,” she said. “But this is a lot more jagged. It really jerks you in and out. Jackie is composed one minute, and confused, terrified, angry or spiritually in crisis the next. It was anything, at any moment.”
As Oppenheim puts it: “The idea of trying to be definitive is a fool’s errand.”
Portman frames it another way. “History,” she said, “is simply the best fairy tale that someone comes up with.”
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“Jackie” (R, 100 minutes).