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September 11, 2016 at 11:09 PM EDT

Natalie Portman’s filmography is packed with 20 years worth of dynamic characters, but very few of them are based on real-life figures. But now she’s taking on the role of Jacqueline Kennedy for Jackie, which has its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night — and the actress tells EW that channeling the American icon wasn’t a task she took lightly.

“She’s so well-known in terms of what she looks like and what she sounds like and how she moves, so to get that is definitely daunting,” she says of the preparation she did for the film, which follows the titular, grief-stricken widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, as she forges ahead under intense public scrutiny in the days following her husband’s 1963 assassination.

Though Portman admits the thought of living up to history’s perception of Kennedy was intimidating at first, her dedication to nailing the former First Lady’s physicality paid off; the Oscar-winning performer received some of the best reviews of her career from critics at the Venice Film Festival last week, where the film had its world premiere ahead of winning the Best Screenplay award at the event’s annual awards ceremony on Saturday.

 

The 35-year-old doesn’t credit herself alone for giving what could be one of the defining performances of her career; she says Pablo Larraín, director of such films as No, Neruda, and The Club, inspired a candid energy in Portman that allowed her to add a distinct edge to her interpretation of a woman whose identity many Americans already feel familiar with.

“[The set] was really playful and improvisatory, and I think it allows us to see many different sides of her,” Portman says of the project. “[We see] the toughness of who she was, dealing with what she had to go through while keeping herself together for the sake of the country and her family, and also the vulnerability and the intelligence of how she really crafted [JFK’s] legacy.”

Catch a first look at Portman in action as Kennedy in the clip above. Jackie screens through Sunday, Sept. 18 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Stéphanie Branchu

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