Natalie & Me
Devant moi marchait Nathalie
Elle avait un joli nom, mon guide
-“Nathalie,” Gilbert Bécaud
Twenty years ago all I wanted was Natalie Portman’s Professional hair — -that glossy almost-jet Louise Brooks Jr. bob that at certain angles resembled an Egyptian hair pyramid. I cut my own head of brown wavy average, sheared off some bangs, et voila! No change. It seemed impossible to look like that and, years later, I discovered it was. Natalie had hair just like mine — -her Professional ‘do was a ruse, a perfectly styled lie.
With the arrival of The Professional’s 20th anniversary, I was all ready to write about how disappointing Natalie has been since her first film. My boyfriend and I watched Luc Besson’s pre-teen Nikita closely and then we lay in bed in the dark and I ranted. Natalie peaked professionally pre-puberty, I said ten different ways. From his side of the bed came resounding silence. Then he replied.
“This is not about her, it’s about you.”
I have lived with Natalie Portman in my head for 20 years. Before she came along, Winona Ryder took up my brain. She made the right kind of dark female-driven alterna-dramas — -Heathers, Mermaids — -but she was older. And she was famous — -Johnny-Depp’s-girlfriend famous. Natalie Portman was different. When her moody thriller about a 12-year-old hitman’s protégé came along, we were almost the same age and we almost looked alike. She wasn’t famous like Noni; she lived with her parents like me. But she was a more perfect than me; the ideal me. Natalie P was my celebrity proxy.
We had wavy hair we hated and doctors for dads — -hers a fertility specialist, mine a geriatric psychiatrist. We both studied ballet up to 12 and science through university. The two of us spoke French and had a connection to the country — -I spent summers there with my family, she was named after a Gilbert Bécaud song by her “Francophile” father. We had dual citizenship and listened to pre-hipster indie music and were both considered pristine princesses despite all evidence to the contrary. She liked dirty rap, I had a dirty mouth. She was a little “awkward” (that laugh) and so was I.
We both pushed our intelligence further than it could go. She was always doing New York Times’ crosswords and skipping premieres to study. I was always doing my homework on time and reading books I couldn’t understand. She studied psychology at Harvard and I studied biology at the University of Toronto. She wrote a dense letter to the Harvard Crimson about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I wrote in the University of Toronto’s Varsity about Black Hawk Down and The Thin Red Line. “I’d rather be smart than a movie star,” she said. But we both ended up in the Hollywood trenches.
As I grew up, so did she. Some parts of her life I remember so vividly that they replaced memories of my own. The teen birthday she spent with Britney Spears wearing a Nestle Quik T-shirt she stole from her friend’s brother. The road trip she took with her boyfriend in which they had to sleep in their car. The frat party she attended where a girl asked to kiss her. (“No.”)
And the same way I criticized my own imperfections, I criticized hers. For trying too hard to be smart, but not being smart enough. For pretending she would ever choose academia over celebrity. For acting badly in bad films. For not being able to think on her feet. For being prudish, vain, hypocritical. For not being talented enough, not even close. For not being everything we could be.
When I first saw Natalie, I recognized everything I could be: perfectly beautiful, perfectly talented, perfectly celebrated. At fourteen, I watched movies all the time, just like my dad and just like my grandmother. On the beach in the summer with the Mediterranean at my feet, I closed my eyes and went to the movies — -even in paradise I couldn’t get them out of my head. I took drama classes and made my own film. But I had no talent. When I dropped acting, beauty remained. When I dropped that, Natalie did, a familiar idol, a paragon of my past desires. I no longer wanted those things but I criticized myself for not having them anyway, clinging to a familiar idol. For not being vegan or swimming every day or being beautiful enough to model for Dior. For not being well-read enough to adapt an Amos Oz novel or a Jonathan Safran Foer book. For not winning an Oscar and getting married and having a baby all within the same year. For not actually wanting all of those things.
Some bits of her life unfurled in the distance, not quite complete. Her relationship with Devendra Banhart. Her bus trip through India. Her marriage in Big Sur. As I grew older, I kept up with her the way you keep up with an old lover, filling in the blanks in my head like psychological fan fiction. For long stretches I would not think of her at all, but then something would bring her back to me. In the sands of the Middle Eastern desert, where I met my boyfriend, one of the first things he said to me was, “You smile like Natalie Portman.”
Natalie Portman is at her most professional in The Professional precisely because she’s not a professional. She’s just being. I say this leaning slightly on the truism that kids are naturally better actors than adults. Of course, Matilda is the only role I’ve seen her play without having any preconceived notion of her. As her first performance, it is the only one in which Natalie Portman is free of the Natalie Portman I have created in my head.
Two years later she no longer had that edge. As Marty in Beautiful Girls, Natalie may as well have been holding her script in her hand. Every time she showed up on screen — -another mature tween with a crush on a troubled older man — -she appeared to be reading, not performing. It was as though acting suddenly embarrassed her. She was not being anymore; she was pretending to be.
Though Natalie only played precocious pre-teens in two films, the type stuck, largely because conservative America deemed her mature off-screen. She rejected Adrian Lyne’s Lolita as “sleaze” (despite her first two features’ pedophilic overtones) and The Ice Storm as “too dark.” She took roles in insipid fare like Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Lies, where her turn as a trailer trash teen mom was about as convincing as Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle.
I cursed Natalie Portman for not taking roles I would and taking the ones I wouldn’t; she was my stand-in and she was letting us down. Her mannish monotone as Padme Amidala in Star Wars verged on camp, while she betrayed a raging hubris by believing she could convincing naiveté in V for Vendetta. She launched a production company to make vulgar comedies for women, yet she was virtually humorless in No Strings Attached and Your Highness. Meanwhile, she did Thor for the science, not the action, which was sort of like reading Playboy for the articles.
She seemed less conspicuous in more subdued character-driven indie dramas. Though she did appear jarringly young among the cast of Closer (her character was intended to possess the “moronic beauty of youth,” but this was a little too moronic) and much of the time, due to her robotic delivery, she seemed to have wandered off the set of Small Wonder. Director Mike Nichols is largely to blame. He worked with Natalie on stage in a 2001 production of The Seagull and became something of a mentor for the young actress and continuously pushed her to age up her voice. Natalie obediently lowered and flattened it out, inadvertently stripping her speech of any character. Little wonder that her character in Black Swan, the role she has most closely embodied as an adult, had her dropping Nichols’ teachings.
Darren Aronofsky had wanted Natalie for his ballet thriller since he saw her in The Professional; the two films acted as peak bookends to her career. She spent six months training, losing twenty pounds to play the absurdly uptight ballerina Nina Sayers. It was for this specifically that she won the Academy Award in 2011, rather than her acting, which was largely superficial. Her win was for discipline, not for talent, though she needn’t have had much in this case. In many ways she, I, was that stunted perfectionist; our plights — -the impossible quest for perfection — -were interchangeable. But it is this very fixation with perfection that, paradoxically, prevents us from achieving it. “Every time you dance, I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself,” Nina’s company director tells her in one of the film’s many meta-moments. “Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”
The one time I met Natalie I played the perfect fan. It was at a Tilly and the Wall concert at the Mod Club in Toronto in the summer of 2006. She was in town shooting her first children’s movie, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. I was with my best friend and my boyfriend and we sat at the back of the club by the bar, on a raised stage with tables and booths. To see the band we perched on the booth backs like birds on a wire.
Neither of them saw Natalie come in, but I did. She appeared when the band was already on stage, mid-tap and mid-clap. She walked in slowly, scanning the room. It was dark but by that time she was recognizable from the Star Wars trilogy and may have been wary of crowds. She had turned 25 two days prior, but she seemed more like a teenager. She arrived with an older woman, probably someone from the Margorium film set (there seemed to be a subtle hierarchy in their interaction). She wore a black T-shirt and her short hair, growing out from her V for Vendetta buzz, was pulled back in a black headband. I had seen that outfit before, in paparazzi shots.
I turned back to the band as she approached our corner — I didn’t want to stare. She had a beer in her hand and I felt the booth shudder as she climbed up and sat next to me. Neither my best friend nor my boyfriend was aware of her presence, but it was all I was aware of. I felt my heart flood with adrenalin as I turned to her and touched her shoulder. “Happy birthday, by the way,” I said (“By the way,” like the tail end of a conversation we had already been having). Natalie opened her mouth, equal parts shock and smile. “Thank you!” she said.
I didn’t introduce myself, I didn’t say anything else, I just sat there sharing a piece of upholstery with my proxy as she swigged her beer and listened to the music, the perfect fan, contained despite being anything but. That she didn’t move, that she didn’t try to see me seeing her, suggested a mutual respect (mine based in celebrity, hers in humanity). I was embarrassed when two guys cut across the room to invite her to a gig, like a truck ploughing through a perfectly harmonious countryside. But Natalie was polite. “I’m only in town for tonight,” she said.
She left before the show was over. I watched her place her half-empty beer bottle on the table and toss a folded card beside it. As I picked it up, I thought of the sad-looking stalker in The Bodyguard who scrounges scraps of Whitney Houston. I slipped the card into my pocket and it wasn’t until we got into a cab that I reached for it again. At that point I realized there was a chewed up piece of white gum inside it, still wet, still minty.
I no longer have the card, but I still watch out for Natalie Portman. She will appear next in Terrence Malick’s Knight of the Cups, reportedly about a writer who succumbs to the temptations of Hollywood. In it she wears her hair naturally: long, wavy, brown and flawed, just like mine.
Soraya Roberts is a Toronto-based writer who has contributed to Salon, Slate, The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed and more. She is polishing her first book and thinks you should read it one day. She likes to be followed @sorayaroberts.