Toward a Unified Theory of Natalie Portman

François Duhamel / Courtesy of Netflix

In the mother-daughter drama Anywhere But Here, the 1999 Natalie Portman movie where she doesn’t play the Queen of Naboo, teenage Ann (Portman) has a rocky relationship with her flaky, erratic mom Adele (Susan Sarandon). At one point, at Adele’s behest and despite her own lack of interest, Ann goes on an audition for a movie, and delivers a spiteful imitation of her mother as a monologue. It’s a remarkable bit of acting from Portman, who has to simultaneously deliver a credible impression of her co-star, communicate the frustration beneath that impression (which she nonetheless believes her mother won’t see), and convey both her lack of genuine interest in acting and the brief catharsis she feels in savaging her mom—all within the space of a few minutes. Back in 1999, the scene was a signal that Portman had more to offer than the child-star precocity of her earlier roles. Now, it looks more like a prophecy—that Portman would become a sincere and thoughtful meta-actor, one whose early time on the spotlight informs a stardom focused largely on elements of performance.

On the scale of actoriness, that ineffable theater-kid quality that creates young stars and cruel backlashes to them in an endless churn, Portman would, at nearly any phase of her career, rate pretty low – at least compared to figures like Anne Hathaway, Anna Kendrick, or Andrew Garfield (charming and talented actors all, to be clear). Portman has plenty of charisma, but her child-star background doesn’t scream Look at me, and she at no point seems likely to burst into song, even after appearing in a musical (Everyone Says I Love You) and famously stumping for indie-rock band The Shins in Garden State. Given all that, it’s striking to realize how often Portman has played a performer of some sort or another. Her new movie May December, a Todd Haynes film that opens in theaters this weekend before its Netflix bow next month, is her most actor-on-acting role to date: She plays Elizabeth Berry, a Hollywood star (we gather she has a hit streaming series) who arrives in Savannah, Georgia, to study Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), who Elizabeth will be playing in an upcoming movie.

This arrangement comes with built-in discomfort, because Gracie is a tabloid fixture—a Mary Kay Letourneau type, notorious for her seduction of an underage boy. Gracie went to prison for her crime, but maintained a relationship of sorts with young Joe, who impregnated her before her prison sentence. Following her release, the two married. As May December begins, it’s many years later, with Gracie in her 50s and Joe (Charles Melton) in his 30s, and they’re preparing to send their youngest children off to college. In other words, their relationship appears to have remained stable, surviving past its tawdriest headlines (though remnants of her notoriety arrive in the form of the occasional literal dogshit through the mail). Even Elizabeth’s film project isn’t a cheap TV-movie type of thing; it sounds more like something A24 or Neon (or at least, hey, Netflix) might distribute. This doesn’t, however, keep Elizabeth from overstepping some boundaries, something she does so frequently, and often so politely, that the audience may start to wonder if there are more (and less visible) lines to this situation than it seems from the outside.

The tone of Haynes' film feels near impossible: part dark comedy, part melodrama, part intimate psychological study. In that mix (if not its precise execution), it recalls another Portman movie: Black Swan, where she plays a driven ballet dancer self-destructively fixated on proving her worth. It’s also the role that won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, which can be interpreted as a tribute to Portman’s own dedication in the role and/or evidence of how strenuous self-torture, even when it’s made to look horrific—and Black Swan is a horror movie, in addition to the previously mentioned genres—is ultimately rewarded by other actors. Still, Portman herself must be fascinated by these public displays. She followed up Black Swan with two films placing her character in even harsher, less self-directed spotlights: Jackie, where she walks the line between public grief and private suffering as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and Vox Lux, in which she plays a young woman who emerges from the horror of a school shooting to become a volatile, self-destructive, globally beloved pop star.

Bringing insecure and abrasive performers to life in Black Swan and Vox Lux didn’t necessarily seem like a natural fit for Portman, who attracted some icky attention early on playing teenage characters in The Professional or Beautiful Girls who enter adult worlds with unexpected confidence and poise, which she convincingly sells as not remotely artificial (even when, as in Beautiful Girls and later Garden State, they’re screenplay fantasies). In those early films, and many of the movies she made as a young adult, Portman has a warmth and guilelessness that’s not especially confrontational. Black Swan toys with that image, as her Nina is especially a “nice” white swan attempting to will herself, through sheer striving mania, to eclipse her polite-little-girl veneer. Portman's performance in Vox Lux, though, takes things further, all jabbing Staten Island accent and accessorized fidgeting. The uncharacteristically mannered work from Portman drives home the film’s depiction of fame as a destabilizing force, and performing as a desperate cry into the abyss that can turn unexpectedly, even inappropriately, triumphant.

In May December, Portman plays another performer, in seemingly greater control of her gifts. Elizabeth is successful in her field (albeit ambitious enough to pursue what’s clearly seen as an awards-baiting serious turn), and comfortable enough in her own skin that when she visits a high school class to talk about her craft, she blithely refuses to soften her thoughts on filming sex scenes. Instead, she appears to revel in her oversharing, either assuming that everyone will be too star-struck to notice her sexualized descriptions or getting off on getting away with it.

This is one of many moments in May December that skirts camp, though of course Haynes is too conscious a filmmaker to make something truly campy by the traditional definition. Portman’s Elizabeth becomes a haunted-mirror reflection of Gracie, acting like an empathetic observer while imitating her improprieties, albeit never going as far over the line as Gracie, who the movie does not let off the hook. The feelings Elizabeth’s visit stirs in Joe are valid, regardless of how they’re drawn out. The movie twists through several halls’ worth of mirrors: Joe, for example, is played by Charles Melton, a 32-year-old actor who has spent much of the past decade pretending to be much younger on the sexy teen soap Riverdale. Here he’s slightly aged up, in order to convincingly embody an adult man who's arrested around the age of Gracie’s violation.

The whole movie is terrific—Melton deserves to become the first Riverdale kid to get an Oscar nomination—but it feels particularly revealing of Portman’s own ambivalence about the sometimes-sinister craft of acting. Privately (and/or when she thinks no one is watching), Elizabeth practices an imitation of Gracie, placing herself in the other woman’s shoes for purposes that become murkier than the puff-piece sound bites she offers early on. With Gracie’s family, clearly overstaying her welcome, Elizabeth performs an actor’s off-camera humility; the audience, familiar with the sensitivity Portman has brought to so many past roles, will instinctively believe that this is at least somewhat truthful. As such, it may take some time to register that as a portrait of an actor wriggling free of interview niceties, her work here is almost like a more self-lacerating version of the image-busting raps Portman has performed on Saturday Night Live. Even in the confrontational Vox Lux, Portman doesn’t quite cross over into ranting against the media’s treatment of famous idols; what she sometimes appears to be communicating is a deeper-seated mistrust of anyone who feels compelled to fake it for a living, herself included.

Maybe those feelings have been there all along; it would certainly be understandable, given Portman’s formative experiences as an actor. Though Anywhere But Here was shot well before the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, it’s easy to project some additional frustration onto that aforementioned audition scene, given that Portman’s work in the biggest movie of that year was repeatedly dismissed as stiff and uncomfortable. This was especially unfair because Phantom Menace, too, has Portman playing a character inhabiting another role: We see Queen Amidala, the regal and thoroughly bedecked teenage queen of a peaceful planet; and later we see Padme, the thoughtful and wary queen in disguise as her own handmaiden. (In scenes where Padme and the Queen share the screen, Keira Knightley is playing the queen’s royal double, further evidence that the role is asking for a certain self-conscious formality, not naturalism.) Both guises involve a form of acting, whether it’s attending to Naboo's rituals with a certain bearing, or using a humbler identity to convey her actual feelings (and especially her doubts).

Even as Padme sheds the disguise, the character continues to navigate public life in the next two prequels, subjected to impossible choices and criticism from allies and enemies alike. In retrospect, this is a natural role for a former child actor coming into her own, faced with discomfiting adult attention alternating with vitriol. Act naturally, and the creeps fall in love with you; act with a more heightened affect, and they’ll call you laughably fake. Elizabeth in May December seems to relish both of these prospects on some level, and Portman doesn’t necessarily look down on her for it. She’s simply uncommonly willing to place her own persona and profession under a microscope—or stare at it in the mirror.

Originally Appeared on GQ