Actress tells EW about the challenges of directing her first feature, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’
In directing A Tale of Love and Darkness, it’s clear Natalie Portman isn’t afraid of broaching sensitive topics.
While not an inherently political film, Portman’s feature directorial debut, adapted from Amos Oz’s memoir of the same name, finds itself prone to controversy simply by taking place during the conflict-ridden early days of the State of Israel, as one woman’s relationship with her family withers while a new world power rises around her. The threat of ruffling a few feathers never deterred Portman across the film’s eight-year gestation process, though one thing nearly prevented her from taking a seat in the director’s chair at all: the fear of sexism in Hollywood.
But, as the Oscar-winner recently told EW, her passion for the story — along with some inspiration from fellow female filmmaker Lena Dunham — led her to write and direct the project, in which she also stars as Oz’s ill-fated mother.
A Tale of Love and Darkness opens Friday in theaters. Check out EW’s full interview with Portman below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think Amos Oz thought you were right for this project? Do you remember what made him say yes, she’s the one for this film?
NATALIE PORTMAN: I’m still kind of mystified by the fact that he trusted me, because I know how important this story is to him. It’s his own personal life story, and of course his own book… I do remember, at the first meeting, he said to his wife, right next to me, “Can you believe how young she is? That’s how young my mother was.” I think [that’s] the perspective of the film: an older man looking back and seeing his mother as a young woman. It’s wild when you get to the age where the mother you remember could now be your daughter, and [my] compassionate outlook and the empathy for her [was why he chose me].
What was so rich about the story that kept you coming back to it? What did you latch on to, creatively, as a director?
There are so many different layers. There’s the layer of the language, which is so beautiful. [The film takes place during] this wild moment in history where a language that hadn’t been spoken in thousands of years and suddenly gets revived… The relationship between mother and a child is so beautifully told and so movingly told, and it morphs over time because you see the way he looks at her as a child, and then you see the way he looks at her through his memory, as an older man. He has this ability to see her like she’s his daughter, almost, because he has that perspective.
Then, there’s the historical moment, which is something I’ve imagined so much because of my own family stories, of hearing about my grandparents as refugees from Eastern Europe to what was then Palestine, in the late ’30s. [They had] these expectations of the land of milk and honey, but arrived to this hot, dusty desert, which was violent and harsh. [They were] orphans of this great 20th century tragedy, and then came into another difficult reality.
Was it intimidating at all to approach a story you knew, simply because of the time and setting it takes place in, could have been interpreted as a political by some people?
I wasn’t worried about it while I was making it, because you can’t have those kinds of fears while you’re making anything, but, of course you say “Israel” and it’s political. It’s innately controversial, whatever you say, in any direction. It’s definitely tense, but I think that’s also ripe for making an emotional story because it obviously touches people very strongly. It touches a nerve in pretty much everyone in one direction or the other. You realize it has this strange hold on people and invokes passion.
I suppose, in that sense, the film really is about how the foundation of a child’s life is laid by the mother, for better or worse. Why do you think that aspect of the story lends itself well, though, to being told amid the backdrop of the early days of the State of Israel?
It’s that connection between expectation and reality; the things you dream about and then the way things really turn out are definitely paralleled in the mother’s story. She obviously has a really hard time dealing with it, and then of course the state, which was founded on the dream of a safe haven for Jews and creating this sort of utopian socialist community, [but] then, of course, it didn’t turn out the way it was dreamt to be. But, as Amos says, that’s the way dreams are. Dreams are not reality and that’s something we have to reconcile.
I know it was important to you to present the film in Hebrew, but what significance do you think that has to other people as they watch the film? What do you hope they feel or take away from your creative choice to do that?
There’s so much magic in the Hebrew language that I hope people are introduced to, or if they know the language or are familiar with it, they can appreciate it in a different way. It’s really magical to think, even in biblical times, they were making connections. [Amos] talks a lot about connections between words, and there’s a part in [the film] that talks about the word for man, which is “adam,” like the first man in the Bible, which is then related to earth, “adamah,” which is then related to blood, which is “dam,” and is related to red, which is “adom,” which is related to silence. To think that, 5,000 years ago, people were thinking about red silence, it gives you a magical feeling. Maybe that’s me being super nerdy, but I think that’s hopefully what the specificity of a language can do. The culture and history is related to that language.
We’ve seen many actresses turn to directing throughout their careers, and I remember seeing so many articles and reviews calling directorial works from actresses like Angelina Jolie or Meg Ryan “vanity projects.” We never really see those things being said about Ben Affleck or Clint Eastwood when they want to make a movie. Would you say it’s accurate that actresses who direct films are treated with more skepticism by the industry?It’s always hard to say, because anyone is entitled not to like something. I do think the “vanity project” concept is definitely used more against women. I found myself very affected by seeing reviews like that as a kid, growing up, when Barbra Streisand directed The Mirror Has Two Faces. I remember, as a 12-year-old, reading reviews saying it was a “vanity project” and talking about how she lights herself and stuff, and it made me reluctant to try taking on multiple roles on this film. To be a writer, director, and actress, I was like, “Oh my God, they’re going to kill me for this!”
I remember seeing Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s film, and when the credits rolled I started crying because it was written by Lena Dunham, starring Lena Dunham, produced by Lena Dunham, and directed by Lena Dunham. This young woman has no fear of [saying] “I did it, I did all of this.” And it was so good. It inspired me to not be afraid of that [criticism], and I do think the “vanity project” thing can go in the bossy pile of words that are used more unfairly against women than men.
What can be done to change that perception?
More women need to be making films in general. I just worked with a Danish actress on Annihilation, Tuva Novotny – she’s actually Swedish, but lives in Denmark – and she was saying, in Denmark, they have a government fund for films; by law, they have to give at least 50 percent to women directors, and if there were as conscious decisions made [here], I think once it just becomes commonplace, people will just say [it’s] a good or bad film, they’re not saying “female” or “male,” and it just becomes life.