Natalie Portman

Garden State

Interviewed by Stella Papamichael

“Even now some people ask me when I'm going into space ”

After breaking onto the scene in crime drama Leon, Natalie Portman featured opposite Al Pacino in Michael Mann's Heat and worked with director Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You. She next put her career on hold to attend university, but she was destined to return in grand fashion - as Queen Amidala in George Lucas' trilogy of Star Wars prequels. Between swinging her light sabre, Portman has also appeared in Cold Mountain and now stars opposite Zach Braff in his quirky directorial debut Garden State.

Having wrapped on Star Wars, is it more challenging to play a part that's grounded in reality rather than acting out a fantasy?

Actually it's probably easier because you can relate to it more directly. You have to find more circuitous paths to emotions when it's not similar to something you've personally experienced. But that can happen in reality-based movies too, it doesn't just have to be in science fiction. I've obviously been lucky enough not to experience violence in my family or anything, but the stuff that Sam goes through in this movie is probably more directly relatable to my personal experience.

But Star Wars brings out the kid in you?

Absolutely. Star Wars is the most like being a child that I've ever experienced in acting. It's like taking a refrigerator box and pretending it's your space ship because you're literally working with nothing. One of the interesting things is that we all have our idea of what it will look like but then we see it, it's completely different. It's very imaginative and creative.

Surely your screaming scene in the rain with Zach Braff was also about finding your inner-child?

Yeah, that was an interesting scene. It was done with fake rain but what Zach did to create a rapport between all of us before filming was to come to visit me at my university with Peter [Sarsgaard] for a weekend. We all went out and partied together, which is a great way to start out because it breaks down all the barriers when you get a little liquored up together. We kept that sort of atmosphere on set - not drinking of course! We were all very responsible and professional and focussed on our work! But there was very much a party atmosphere. I think you feel that in the film, that there was this sense of friends being with each other.

How did you find the experience of starring alongside your director?

I didn't feel too nervous about it, probably because he wasn't nervous. He put me and everyone else at ease. He was very confident, very much a leader, and really knew specifically what he wanted to do. But he was very relaxed about it. A lot of directors, even experienced ones, get so stressed out because it's such a difficult job. There's so much to think about, to be in control of, and being a leader is hard because it has to be done with a great amount of humanity. People sometimes have a hard time keeping their egotistical vision intact while being humane to the people they work with. Zach was really wonderful about that, he really made this very collaborative feeling that everyone had a part to play, but he was the leader. So it was really nice to work on.

You're next appearing in Closer as a pole dancer. Is this a conscious shift towards more mature roles?

I try and do different things all the time. I don't think of the character as a stripper or a pole dancer; she has several different jobs throughout the story. That one just happens to be the most salient one for audiences, I suppose. It's not a conscious decision to show a new side - namely my backside! It's more just trying different things. The cast was incredible and the director [Mike Nichols] was the best in the world. And the writing was really strong. It was an amazing experience.

Do you think you might take a leaf out of Zach's book one day and have a go at directing?

Definitely. I definitely admired what he did. You meet him and he's smart and confident and funny and usually I think I could never do something like that, I'm not smart or focussed enough. And then I look at him, and he's definitely extremely talented, but it's not like he has some magical gift of focus. It seems like something attainable, something that I could do too. It did give me confidence to watch him and hope. But I hate talking about that, because I can remember as a 12-year-old saying in an interview that I wanted to be an astronaut and even now people sometimes ask when I'm going into space.

Garden State is released in UK cinemas on 10th December 2004