By Heather Corcoran and Cotton Delo
Natalie Portman shuns the spotlight. Since bursting onto the scene in the controversial shoot-out film “Leon (The Professional)” she has shied away from the party crowd and stayed out of the tabloids. Instead, the Jerusalem-born beauty opted for Harvard, earning a degree in psychology.
The 26-year-old actress may be best known as the object of desire for geeks around the world, starring as Queen Padme Amidala in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, a film with a cultish following. But this year the actress shakes up her prim image and adds to her well-rounded portfolio with a variety of projects.
After making a name for herself in cerebral dramas, Natalie Portman lends her talents to the holiday romp “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” co-starring Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman, in theaters this Friday.
In a plot that begs comparisons with “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”, eccentric 243-year-old shopkeep Mr. Magorium (Hoffman) announces he will hand over the reigns of his wondrous toy store – stocked with magical items like Whodathoughts and Whatchamacallits – to his insecure manager Molly Mahoney (Portman). But following his departure in the wake of questions over his bookkeeping, the playful toys turn quiet and gray, and Molly must team up with a skeptical accountant (Bateman) and a 9-year-old boy to revive them.
In the G-rated film, Portman loosens up, tackling her first children’s movie. She takes a more adult turn opposite Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s short film, “Hotel Chevalier.” With the very R-rated role, she reinforces her intellectual indie credentials: the film is a prologue to Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited,” which opened this year’s New York Film Festival, and “Chevalier” itself premiered at the Apple store in Soho. The role, though small, marks a departure for Portman, featuring her first nude scene – something the actress said she would never do.
In early 2008, Portman takes on a role that promises blockbuster returns. In the lush historical drama “The Other Boleyn Girl,” she stars as Anne Boleyn, the wife of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Following the popular novel by Philippa Gregory, the film chronicles the life of Anne’s sister, Mary (played by the sultry Scarlett Johansson), a mistress of the king.
Portman’s career began after moving to America at age 4, where she began studying dance with dreams of Broadway. At 12, she was discovered by a model scout in a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor, but she chose acting instead. Just one year later she made her feature film debut in “Leon,” in which the 13-year-old played the ingénue to Jean Reno’s lonely assassin in Luc Bresson’s violent mob thriller.
By 1997, after a series of small roles – in “Heat” and the forgettable “Mars Attacks!” – Portman made it to Broadway, starring in the title role in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The performance led to other film offers, including a turn opposite Susan Sarandon in “Anywhere but Here.” Displaying the precocious self-assuredness that made her stand out as a young star, Portman originally turned down the role because it called for a sex scene. Both the director and Sarandon were so eager to have Portman onboard that the script was rewritten; Portman earned a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress for her performance in the role.
But despite being thrust into the limelight at a young age, Portman managed to have a seemingly normal Long Island childhood, graduating from Syosset High School in 1999. In the nearly 10 years since, Portman has starred in a variety of projects: from a cameo in the comedy “Zoolander” to a role in a Public Theater production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” to 2004’s serious dramas “Garden State” and “Closer,” the latter earning Portman a Golden Globe. In 2006 she returned to action with the darkly futuristic “V for Vendetta,” proving herself a captivating star, even with a shaved head.
Portman’s A-list status and ethereal beauty automatically make her a target for paparazzi flashbulbs, but she’s a notorious object of frustration for the celebrity gossip-mongering establishment that sustains itself on the drunken stumblings and panty-flashing of the young and famous. Though she’s been romantically linked to a stable of sought-after leading men, from Gabriel Garcia Bernal to Jake Gyllenhaal, her antics never land her on the cover of a tabloid.
Portman’s serious nature seems to be manifesting in new artistic directions, and she’s taken a page from actors like Ben Affleck and Zach Braff in deciding to venture behind the camera. Showing once again that she’s not just another pretty face, Portman recently signed on to make her directorial debut on the film “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” based on the bestselling memoir of Israeli novelist Amos Oz.