The screening of Natalie Portman and director Brady Corbet’s new film Vox Lux at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Friday night opened with a somber message from the filmmaker, sending his thoughts to the victims of the Thousand Oaks shooting, in which 12 people were killed two days prior. “If you’re feeling vulnerable and want to see this movie another time, don’t worry about it, but thank you for being here,” Corbet told the audience.
In the Q&A with Portman and Corbet following the film, the latter said he made Vox Lux after making the historical drama The Childhood of a Leader and tried to approach it as a sort of historical film about the 21st century. The film follows Celeste, played in her youth by Raffey Cassidy and later as an adult by Portman, as she survives a school shooting as a teenager and becomes a pop star after writing a song about the shooting with her sister. Corbet said he wanted to make a movie about how the 21st century (the film takes place from 1999 to 2017) is about the “pageantry of evil,” and unfortunately, its themes are all too relevant.
Read below for highlights from the Q&A with Portman and Corbet, in which Portman talked about doing squats in stilettos a year after giving birth, working with Jude Law a fourth time, and Sia’s amazing soundtrack for the film.
Portman on playing Celeste
“The biggest part of the character was the writing,” Portman said. “Brady wrote such a specific character that felt so rounded, and just like a real human being with very dark sides. Sometimes she’s really authentic, and sometimes she’s totally fake. Sometimes she’s cruel, and sometimes she’s gentle. Sometimes she’s performing, and sometimes she’s being. It was really remarkable reading it. So I feel like that really provided a great rubric. And then watching all the different documentaries that pop stars have made, and working on the choreography with my dance coach, Raquel, going from having a baby to being able to do squats in stilettos.”
On filming the final performance number near her hometown
“Logistically we had a day and a half to shoot it,” the actress recalled. “Brady shot this entire movie in 22 days; I shot it in 10 days. They opened a studio right around the corner from the house where I grew up, right around the corner from my school where I grew up, so it was legitimately like a homecoming kind of feeling. I stayed at this hotel where I went to every bar mitzvah growing up. The guy at the door was like, ‘I remember you from you were in your bat mitzvah dress.’ It was a real kind of return-to-my-roots feeling, very easy to go into my [Long Island] accent.”
On not missing her daughter’s birthday during the shoot
“It’s really to Brady’s credit, despite the short shoot, we weren’t going overtime. One of the days was my daughter’s first birthday, and he and Jude [Law, her costar] were like, ‘You’re going home now. You’re leaving. You’re going home to your baby.’ And I was like, ‘No, I need to stay. I need to be professional.’ They were like, ‘You’re going. This happens once.’ And they kind of kicked me off set. They were so normal and life-affirming about, you’re working, but it’s possible to do your work in the work hours of the day, you don’t have to go crazy overtime. Brady being incredibly organized and specific with his vision and understanding the time constraints and choosing to shoot things in ways. You’ll notice a lot of things [in the film] are done in one shot, they’re virtuosic shots, but also are practical. You can shoot one scene and do it 10 different ways, and really get to explore and play, and you’re able to do it in the time constraint.… It’s a good example when people can be auteurs and be like a human being with hearts at the same time. It’s important.”
On working with Jude Law for a fourth time
“Jude is one of the greatest actors, he’s just so phenomenal,” Portman said. “He’s one of the kindest, most wonderful people I know, and a real major talent. It was really lucky because this is the fourth film I’ve been in with him. We worked together the first time on Cold Mountain, almost 20 years ago, and Closer, and then we both were in My Blueberry Nights but we didn’t have scenes together. I’ve known him over the course of 20 years. We’ve never been like buddies, or like hanging out, but I’ve worked with him many times. So it was lucky going into this that we had that history and comfort level we could play off of.”
On Raffey Cassidy playing her character’s younger self, and later her daughter
“Raffey’s remarkable,” Portman said of her young costar. “We didn’t rehearse, we just started working. She’s incredible. The first time I saw her work as young Celeste was when I saw the finished film, and to see how she could modify her performance so subtly and really be believable as two completely different characters. I really thought Brady was nuts. I was like, ‘Are you sure? You’re gonna have me stand to next to the character that played me in the beginning?’ But I trusted it because Brady was very convinced about it. And I think it’s so powerful in the film. I think we so often see our kids as versions of ourselves, and how we relate to them with all the self-hatred and self-love alternately, or sometimes all at once. I think it’s just so powerful to have embodied that the entire time she’s with her daughter, she’s also with her younger self.”
Corbet and Portman on the Sia soundtrack
“I reached out to [Sia] very early on,” Corbet recalled. “I realized it was going to be very problematic to have nine original pop songs… realized we needed one partner, and the list was extremely short of artists that actually write their own pop songs that are also really good. I thought it would be too easy to make a mockery of these songs if they weren’t good. The movie wouldn’t be compelling, we wouldn’t really be wrestling with anything if all of it was just total crap. Even though the costumes are so garish, it’s rooted in something, these songs, they’re really exciting pop songs.… There’s like hits on that soundtrack. I reached out to [Sia] and she really kindly opened up her library to us of stuff that she had written a long long time ago that had been produced around the time that parts of the movie take place. It was basically a process of mixing and matching lyrics and choruses and verses to make the soundtrack. And then everything had to be re-recorded, remade, re-produced.… We had a soundtrack for a movie that didn’t exist for like two years.”
Portman added, “It was incredible when I received the script to have the Sia songs with it. I remember getting the email with these attachments of the songs, and she sings them on the demos herself, so of course they’re just gorgeous, beautiful songs and really great pop songs. So I knew that it was realistic, because if you read a script and it says, ‘And then she writes the next pop song’ and you don’t see the song, you’re like, ‘Okay, good luck getting that.’ But it was clear from the beginning that it had this incredible music. And getting to record it was really fun.”