It’s been 12 years since Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, whose nuanced work has breathed new life into iconic figures like Jacqueline Kennedy and Anne Boleyn across a 24-year career, told the world to “suck my d—” over a hardcore, bass-driven beat during her infamous Saturday Night Live rap sketch. The gag landed as an amusingly uncharacteristic moment for the then-24-year-old, who still maintains a serene public persona after rising through the ranks of child stardom into the most respected corners of Hollywood. But her latest project — actor-director Brady Corbet’s awards hopeful drama Vox Lux — paints a nightmarish portrait of a ferocious pop star on the brink of collapse, in which another breed of monstrous rage bubbling under Portman’s signature grace rears its (heavily sequined) head.
But instead of snarls and smack-talk, Portman instead lends her voice to an otherworldly set of euphoric, EDM-inspired pop songs penned by Australian singer-songwriter Sia (whom Portman previously joined on The Tonight Show for a rendition of The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko”) for her first major recorded musical venture since the 2006 short. To perfect her complicated take on Celeste — a pop culture fixture and school shooting survivor who rose to prominence in a world obsessed with the spectacle of violence — Portman not only had to hone the technical skills of a contemporary musician (which meant laying down vocals in a recording studio and learning choreography alongside Drake and Beyoncé’s backup dancers), but also shed the same blood, sweat, and tears required to create an appropriately escapist fantasy for a world oversaturated with rapid-fire headlines blending death, despair, and the gloss of pop culture into one convoluted mass.
Ahead of the film’s limited theatrical bow this Friday, Dec. 7, EW caught up with Portman to discuss her 10-day excursion into mainstream music, singing Sia’s songs, roughing it with Beyoncé’s backup dancers, and transforming into a fervent pop star on the edge. Read on for the full discussion on Portman’s radical transformation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Celeste’s attitude is your SNL rap. It has similar swag! Did the essence of “Rap Natalie” creep into Celeste?
NATALIE PORTMAN: [Laughs] I think there’s a definite facade of toughness that influenced both! But, obviously, this character is much more developed than the rap character. But there’s certainly a front that both of them put on.
For Celeste, what is that front?
There’s a desire to be seen as authentic, down-to-earth, and tough that’s also an armor against so many people saying things about her for better or worse. [She’s] taking on an identity of how she wants to be perceived.
You’re taking on identities like you’ve never done before, too, because this is your first time doing recorded music since the SNL rap.
Yes, absolutely! It was really exciting because Chris Braide, one of Sia’s producers, did all of the recording, so it was a great window into that art of production, which is such a big part of pop music and is an art unto itself.
Was it the plan from the beginning to use your actual voice on the Sia songs?
Yeah, it was. And Brady never asked me to sing or hear my voice first. I was like, “Do you want to know if I can do this?” And he was like, “Oh it doesn’t matter, you’ll get to the studio and you’ll understand!” [Laughs]. They work so much magic on the vocals to make them sound like pop songs. I saw how central the producer’s role is.
Yeah… I can tell there’s some autotune! Do you think the autotune adds character, almost like another layer to the falsity of Celeste’s image?
Oh yeah. You see that her image is really produced, down to the art of it. How much is real, how much is a show? That goes throughout everything from her behavior to her actual talents.
Does Celeste have talent or is she a product?
It’s both. It’s a talent to be able to do all of those things and sustain her…. intense way of life. Of course, what [musicians] do onstage is so demanding and impressive, so to sustain that energy and still be able to sing, dance, and be charismatic onstage night after night, there’s a talent there. But clearly, there are major contributions from her manager, publicist, sister, all of her image-makers, and of course the producers who mix her music.
Singing wasn’t the only talent you honed for this; your husband Benjamin Millepied choreographed the concert scene.
Yes! It was fun getting to work with him again. He did incredible stuff with all the other dancers, too. They’re some of the most amazing dancers I’ve ever seen, and they were all coming off of big tours and music videos. Of course, they learned in two days what took me months to learn… and they did way more than I did [Laughs].
Which artists had they worked with?
A few were coming off of Drake and then going right to Beyoncé. They were on that level.
Oh my God, so like: Drake, Beyonce, and… Natalie Portman concerts on their resume!
[Laughs] Not quite there yet! This was a gig in between the biggies [for them].
You did so much research and watched a lot of music documentaries to prepare for this. What were some connective threads you picked up on across the artists in those documentaries you worked into Celeste?
The most helpful thing was getting an idea of what their lifestyle was like, [being] on a plane or a bus every day going from city to city…. and how the people on the road with you become a de facto family, and also the complication and pain of when those people become reliant on you for making a living. That scene when Celeste’s sister is comforting her and giving her a pep talk to get back on her feet and go perform, you’re like, is she genuinely caring for her sister or is it someone who needs her sister to go on stage to be a functional performer so they can all earn their living. It’s a painful reality, but it’s common when your family becomes entangled in your business.
There’s such a contrast between the beginning when Celeste and her sister perform together on stage at the memorial and then the concert at the end when her sister is watching her from the audience. There’s so much pain in both scenes but in different ways.
I also love that Brady double-cast Raffey as young Celeste and Albertine, because in that last moment…. you’re seeing a daughter watching her mother — who’s kind of a deadbeat mom — be her most joyful self on stage, but then you’re also watching this innocent girl watching her future self as a monster.
Well, Brady said at AFI that this film is about the pageantry of evil, and that can mean so many things in 2018. Why do you think what the film says about that spectacle of pain and violence works so well inside the story of a pop star?
So much of it has to do with attention. The journalist’s [Christopher Abbott] line, he asks Celeste, “What do you think is similar between a pop star and a terrorist?” holds it for me, because she answers: “I don’t see any similarities except that if you stop paying attention to us, we’d both cease to exist.” The attention gives them the power. So, when news is treated like a commodity…. it all turns into the same thing; pop culture and violence are put on the same level [and] are treated the same way. [The film is not only asking] what happens when we give something our attention, but what is our attention worth? What power does our attention have? And also when there’s so much news…. does it dilute the meaning? [Light spoilers ahead] Brady said it was challenging to write this movie because [the reveal about Celeste not writing her own music] is usually a big reveal in any other pop movie…. and here it’s like, does anyone even care?
Yeah, Celeste even says something to that effect.
It’s true! Can we shock anyone anymore? The president had a scandal with a porn star. Nobody cares. [It’s about] the dilution of meaning and power because of this way of selling news. It’s such a clever way to…. tell this story and reflect the moment we live in.