The story follows Portman as Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company who is given the opportunity to audition for the lead in Swan Lake. The company's director (played by Vincent Cassel) is shaking things up and is looking for a new lead dancer who can handle the innocence of the White Swan while also convincingly portraying the dangerous and sensual nature of the Black Swan. Nina's fully capable of handling the White Swan, but she needs to get in touch with something much darker to make the Black Swan come alive on stage...
At the LA press day for Fox Searchlight's Black Swan, Portman discussed her background in dance, how she prepared for the film, and working with director Darren Aronofsky.
Natalie Portman Black Swan Press ConferenceWhy is this a dream role for you?
Natalie Portman: "Well, I had danced when I was younger, until I was about 12. and I guess always sort of idealized it, as most young girls do, as the most sort of beautiful art, this expression without words. I always wanted to do a film relating to dance. So when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character, two characters to go into, it was just an opportunity, and especially with Darren who is a director that I would do anything for – it was just something completely exciting. "
This film is about transformation. How do you approach transforming yourself for something like this?
Natalie Portman: "Well, it was a great challenge and I had really, really amazing support. I mean all the teachers and coaches and the choreographer, obviously, and the director first and foremost were shaping and pushing along the way. But I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time, Mary Helen Bowers, and she started very basically with me. We would do two hours a day for the six months. That was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn't get injured. And then at about six months we started doing five hours a day where we added in swimming. So I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day, and then two months before we added the choreography. So we were probably doing eight hours a day, and the physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out that is a ballet dancer's life. You don't drink. You don't go out with your friends. You don't have much food. You are constantly putting your body through extreme pain and you really get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer. "
How did it feel for the first time to be in those shoes?
Natalie Portman: "[...] I like wearing flat shoes. The thing that I was happy to stop wearing was point shoes. Point shoes are torture devices. I mean, ballerinas get used to it and so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval."
Was there a Chekhovian influence on your character in this film?
Natalie Portman: "I did think about it a lot actually, and probably because of the name. Although I feel like this has a very different ending than The Seagull, obviously. But there's this young girl who needs to name herself instead of be named by a man, because obviously in The Seagull when he tells her that she is a seagull and then she has to name herself later. She has to give herself her own name. There is a lot of that in this, too, where she's being told who she is - our Nina in this film - and she has to announce who she is rather than have that projected upon her."
Can you talk a little about working on the choreography and what that experience was like?
Natalie Portman: "Well, the choreography were different pieces for Black Swan and White Swan. I had an amazing coach, Georgina Parkinson, who very sadly passed away two weeks before we started shooting. She is sort of the premiere...was the premiere 'Swan Lake' coach for Odile/Odette and so she worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements that are sort of ballet acting. It's little gestures that you can do that really differentiate between those two characters."
Barbara Hershey said she mimicked your look. How was it working with her as your mother?
Natalie Portman: "Darren did a really beautiful thing where he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film that he would hand to me on sort of important days of shooting so that I should feel my mother. And Barbara wrote really, really gorgeous letters that were really in character and gave that sense."
Given that you have a degree in psychology, what would be your professional diagnosis of your character?
Natalie Portman: "Well, this was actually a case where something that I did learn in school did translate into something practical which is very, very rare. But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior - the scratching, the bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD, and ballet really lends itself to that because there's such a sense of ritual. The wrapping of the shoes every day and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It's such a process. It's almost religious in nature. It's almost like Jews putting on their Tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads, and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film, you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis."
As you just said, so much of this character's actions have to do with obsession. How do you find your own balance and how do you pull yourself out of that as an actress?
Natalie Portman: "Well, pulling out of it, I'm very much like as soon as I finish a scene I'm back to being me. As soon as I finish shooting, I want to be myself again. I'm not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences. But I just go back to my regular life after."
How do you achieve a balance and keep that balance?
Natalie Portman: "I mean, one of the reasons that I think Darren and I had such sort of telepathy during this is that I feel that he's as disciplined and focused and alert as could possibly be, and that's what I try to be. I'm not a perfectionist but I'm definitely...well, I like discipline. I'm obedient. I'm not a perfectionist."
"I think it's important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone that you work with. That's the goal every day, just keeping focused on that."
There's already Oscar buzz around your role in this movie. How do you feel about that?
Natalie Portman: "The best thing that you can hope for when you make a movie and you put your soul into like all of us did is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. So it's a great, great honor."
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Black Swan hits theaters on December 3, 2010 and is rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.