Natalie Portman has always been an adult at heart.
Think back to her 1994 debut in “The Professional,” where the then-11-year-old shoots guns and flirts with fortysomething hitman Jean Reno. Recall “Beautiful Girls” two years later, when Timothy Hutton finds his ultimate soul mate is Portman‘s wise-beyond-her-years Marty. And even her most recent movie, “Anywhere But Here,” had her playing the grounded adult to a flighty, Hollywood-loving mother (Susan Sarandon).
And just when she’s catching up at the tender age of 18, Portman‘s film roles take her to new levels of adulthood in “Where the Heart Is,” her first starring role. She ages from 17 to 22 over the course of the movie, which required Portman to undergo physical change, and not just the fake belly she has to wear for her pregnancy (but we’ll get to that later).
“Well physically, they gave me some boobs,” Portman says with charm. “They gave me different hairstyles, more mature makeup. When people physically buy that you’re older than you are, it helps a lot in your confidence and acting more mature. And really from 18 to like 22, 23, it’s not that big a change in terms of behavior.”
Maybe not for Portman, who has avoided the teen-movie genre altogether and can name Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen as former co-stars. Despite starting her career at age 11, she opted for public high school rather than tutors, even when she spent her nights on Broadway as the lead in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” And while some of her celebrity peers struggle against drugs and alcohol, Portman recently lamented giving up gummy worms (Portman‘s a strict vegetarian, and that includes gelatin, you see.)
‘Says Stockard Channing of her young co-star, “She’s a very intelligent, very talented, beautiful young woman. But she’s also [just] a 17, 18-year-old young woman. She likes clothes, she likes gossip and music. She’s very normal in that way, and that normalcy is — sort of abnormal considering the huge success she’s had. She’s a very well-balanced person, and that’s very admirable.”
Portman‘s onscreen persona is also normal girl with the added responsibility of motherhood in “Where the Heart Is,” opening April 28, which hands-down wins the award for Most Peculiar Character Names. Portman plays Novalee Nation, a 17-year-old pregnant girl whose no-good boyfriend Willy Jack (Dylan Bruno) abandons her as she makes a pit stop at a Wal-Mart in the middle of Oklahoma. With no possessions save for a Polaroid camera, Novalee lives in the store after it closes, using Wal-Mart’s vast supplies and keeping track of what she owes. When she finally gives birth on the floor, she becomes an instant celebrity.
“I really hadn’t had experience with children ’cause I’m an only child and really didn’t baby-sit very much growing up,” Portman enthuses. “So it was really cool being with the young kids and stuff. It’s so much fun to have babies around and little kids.”
It even got her thinking about motherhood a little bit.
“Oh, yeah, most of my friends, as soon as we get around babies we’re like, ‘We want one!'” Portman says. “And it just seems so much easier when you get to hold it and it’s all cute and cuddly, and not crying in the middle of the night and need to be diapered and all of that.”
Novalee’s situation brings her a new family in the form of do-gooder Sister Husband (Stockard Channing), who takes Novalee and baby girl Americus to live with her. Also on hand for support is spitfire and fellow single mother Lexie (whose five children are named after desserts) and brooding librarian Forney (James Frain), with whom Novalee discovers romance. Which brings us to Portman‘s other new film experience.
After originally turning down “Anywhere But Here” because of a sex scene, which the director later trimmed for her, Portman finally agreed to film her very first bedroom encounter, which was relatively chaste but understandably uncomfortable.
“I keep saying it was the ideal situation,” Portman says diplomatically, “because James [Frain] was a very close friend of mine, so we were very comfortable with each other. But there was nothing romantic going on, so it was kind of ideal. And the cast and crew that were around during the day I was very comfortable with.
‘”But,” she adds, “it’s just strange to be kissing someone not by choice. Not any insult to James, but you know, I’m not in love with him or crushy with him. So it was strange to be told to kiss someone, and while you’re kissing they were, like, screaming things out at us. Like, ‘Turn your head more to the left, face the camera more, turn your body so we can see you!’ That kind of thing. That was just really bizarre. But I think it was appropriate for the film, and that’s why I decided to do it after many years of deciding not to do love scenes.”
Portman won’t have time to fret over her next discomfort, however. While the next person she may have to kiss onscreen will be a grown-up Anakin Skywalker — whoever that may be — this summer when she begins filming “Star Wars: Episode II” in Australia, Portman‘s finishing up her first year at college and burying herself in schoolwork, prepping for finals next month.
“I really don’t have time to do anything except be in school,” the psychology major says. “The only work-related thing I do while I’m in school is publicity like this, which I do on weekends. Other than that, I’m pretty focused on school. I don’t know how you could not be, because it’s a big — I’m sure as you know — a big, big commitment.”
With that, her thoughts turn back to study sessions and dorm food, and the grown-up movie star fades into the background — at least for now.