"It’s a nice sort of job, imaging what it’s like to be someone else," says Natalie Portman thoughtfully. It’s a job that she has had since her breakthrough role in Luc Besson’s "Leon" aged just 12 and since then she has carved a solid career playing characters that are smart, mature, and uncannily grown-up for their age. "This job is like practicing empathy – it’s imaging other people’s lives and what they feel and how the world makes them feel. It’s an amazing way to approach the world."
As Sam in her new film "Garden State", she is a vivacious, quirky teenager who also happens to be a compulsive liar. When she meets Andrew, an out-of-work TV actor back home for his mother’s funeral and numbed by years of prescription drugs, not even he can resist. Sitting dressed in an elegant floral shirt, jeans and heels, Portman exudes a womanly confidence that is strikingly different to Sam’s girly enthusiasm and her forthcoming performance as a stripper in Mike Nichols "Closer" should see to it that it will probably be her last as a teenager. It has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination but before she is propelled into the world of super stardom she seems content to work on a project by a first-time writer-director, the man in question being Zach Braff. The actor from US TV hospital comedy "Scrubs" even takes on the lead role.
"It was wonderful because you actually got to meet people much more and with a smaller crew you got to talk to them between takes. You’d sit there and learn about them, what kind of music they might like, why they want to work in film and what their passions are. That was a really great experience."
Of course she has had her fair share of big blockbusters – her role as Queen Padme Amidala in the "Star Wars" films has already secured her cult status in cinema history. Her experiences working on the prequel trilogy was like "being a child", she says. "It’s like taking the old refrigerator box and pretending it’s your space ship because you’re literally working with nothing, pretending that it’s the most outrageous thing."
But besides from the obvious perks of working on expensive productions like comfortable trailers, she remains enthusiastic about smaller films. "I think the greatest thing about having no money to make the film is that you don’t have time to waste. You keep going, there’s no going back to your trailer for two hours while they do a lighting set up. When you go back and have a little nap between scenes, or talk to your agent or whatever you do between scenes, that breaks your momentum. You really feel here that we were working together as a team on this movie."
Portman is full of praise for Braff and his abilities as a director calling him "very confident". "He really knew what he wanted to do. But he was very relaxed with it. A lot of directors, even experienced ones, get so stressed out because it’s such a difficult job. People sometimes have a hard time keeping their vision intact while being humane to the people they work with. Zach was really wonderful about that, he really made this very collaborative feeling that everyone had a part to play."
"Garden State" with its astute twenty-something ponderings about life and love has won it many fans and it has even been compared in lofty terms to modern classics such as "The Graduate" and "Lost Translation". "It’s a film that doesn’t really fit into any genre," she explains. "It was nice to do something like this that was much messier, like life, that doesn’t fit into any category. It has unique experiences and characters."