Natalie Portman is an Israeli-American Jewish actress.
She was born Natalie Hershlag on June 9, 1981, in Jerusalem, Israel and her first language was Hebrew, which she still speaks fluently. To protect her privacy as a minor, she adopted the name Portman, her grandmother’s maiden name, as her stage name.
Portman's maternal ancestors were Jewish immigrants from Austria and Russia, and her paternal ancestors were Jews who moved to Israel from Poland and Romania. Her mother, Shelley, is a homemaker from Cincinnati, Ohio, who works as Natalie's agent, and her father, Avner, is a fertility specialist from Israel. When she was three, her family moved to the United States for her father’s residency in Maryland. At seven, her father received a fellowship and the family moved to Connecticut. In 1990, they settled in Long Island, New York, where Portman later attended and graduated from Syosset High School in 1999.
When she was 10, Portman went to a pizza parlor and was approached by a scout from Revlon who asked her to become a child model for the company, but she turned down the offer to focus on acting. Her parents wouldn't let her work during school, so she spent summers at theater camps gaining experience in roles such as Dream Laurey in Oklahoma! and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In 1994, at age 13, Portman made her film debut in Léon (The Professional), a violent tale of a lonely hit man who befriends a desperate young girl that was filmed in New York and France. Director Luc Besson had to negotiate with Portman’s parents who wanted to make sure that she did not do anything that was inappropriate for her age or might her career and personal life. That concern led her to turn down roles in movies such as Lolita, due to her feeling that young actors should not be exposed to sex at such a young age, and the role of Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, because of the age difference between her and Leonardo DiCaprio.
By age 14, Portman was busy working on a series of films, including Heat, Beautiful Girls, Everyone Says I Love You, and Mars Attacks!
While filming in France, Portman read the Diary of Anne Frank and visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which had a tremendous impact on her and led her to eventually reject a supporting role in The Horse Whisperer and decide instead to make her Broadway debut as Anne Frank in The Dairy of Anne Frank. She told Parade, “Anne Frank’s faith in humanity, even when she was starving and sick, had a huge impact on me.” It also reminded her of her family’s history: when her grandfather moved to Palestine from Poland in the 1930s, he expected his family to follow, but his parents were sent to Auschwitz.
After the play, Portman made what amounted to a ten-year commitment to star as Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels (Episodes I, II and III). Not surprisingly, starring in one of the most anticipated movies in history instantly catapulted Portman into the limelight. She told the Calgary Sun (5/1999) “The thing I feared most has begun to happen. People are becoming too interested in me as a person and not me as an actress. I have purposely tried to keep my personal life out of the public domain, but it’s getting harder with each passing week.” In another interview, she focused on more of the positive impact of the role: “Professionally, participation in a success increases your commercial value. From now on, I am a product that allows a movie to be more easily sold. It's in particular thanks lm this summer: it found its financing when I accepted the role. Personally, the success of Star Wars modified the nature of my public, of my fans. Now, I interest more kids of 10-12 years than men of ripe age and, frankly, I prefer that” (La Libre Belgique 2/2000).
Portman majored in psychology and graduated from Harvard in 2005. She acted during her breaks, appearing in Cold Mountain and Garden State. When the Harvard Crimson ran an op-ed article labeling Israel “racist,” Portman wrote a rebuttal that said, “Israelis and Arabs are historically cousins. Until we accept the fact that we are constituents of the same family, we will blunder in believing that a loss for one ‘side’ is not a loss for all humankind.”
In 2006, Portman starred as Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. Commenting on the movie's political relevance and her character who joins an underground anti-government group, she said that Evey is “often bad and does things that you don’t like” and that “being from Israel was a reason I wanted to do this because terrorism and violence are such a daily part of my conversations since I was little.” She said the film “doesn't make clear good or bad statements. It respects the audience enough to take away their own opinion.”
In 2010, Portman starred as ballerina Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, also starring Mila Kunis. In January 2011, she won the Best Actress Golden Globe and on February 27, 2011, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
She went on to star in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached (2011) and featured as Jane Foster in the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero films Thor (2011), and Thor: The Dark World (2013), which established her among the world’s highest-paid actresses. She has since portrayed Jacqueline Kennedy in the biopic Jackie (2016), earning her third Academy Award nomination, and a biologist in the science fiction film Annihilation (2018). Portman also reprised her role of Foster in the Disney+ animated series What If...? and will play Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022).
Portman’s directorial ventures include the short film Eve (2008) and the biographical drama A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015) based on the novel by Amos Oz. In March 2021, Portman and her producing partner, Sophie Mas, founded the production company MountainA, and signed a first-look television deal with Apple TV+.
In addition to her film career, Portman served as the Ambassador of Hope with The Foundation for International Community Assistance, an organization that provides small loans to women in Third World countries so they can start their own businesses. She is also an advocate for animal rights and has been a vegetarian since childhood and a vegan since 2009. In 2010, Portman became one of the faces of Dior and appeared in several of the company’s advertising campaigns.
During the 2018 Women's March in Los Angeles, she spoke about the “sexual terrorism” she experienced that began when she was 13 after the release of Léon: The Professional. She told the crowd; “I understood very quickly, even as a thirteen-year-old, if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe. And that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort.” She drew attention to the #MeToo movement, stating her first ever piece of fan mail was a rape fantasy between her and a male fan, and that her local radio station created a countdown until her 18th birthday (when she would be of legal age to consent to have sex).
In 2017, Portman was announced as the Genesis Prize recipient for 2018, which includes $2,000,000 in prize money. The following April, Portman announced that she did not plan to attend the award ceremony due to “recent events in Israel” that left her feeling uncomfortable attending public events there. The ceremony was canceled. Portman later clarified that she was not boycotting Israel, but did not want to “appear as endorsing” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was set to give a speech at the ceremony.
In 2006, Portman commented that she felt more Jewish in Israel and that she would like to raise her children Jewish: “A priority for me is definitely that I’d like to raise my kids Jewish, but the ultimate thing is to have someone who is a good person and who is a partner.”
Portman met her husband, French ballet dancer and Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, in late 2009. The couple have two children.
Parade, (November 28, 2004).
“Natalie Portman,” Wikipedia.
Katie Kilkenny and Patrick Shanley,
Natalie Portman Decides Against Israel Honor, Cancels Trip, Hollywood Reporter (April 19, 2018).
Photo: Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazo, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.