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Natalie Portman: Science's unlikely heroine?

From Sheena McKenzie, for CNN, and Lidz-Ama Appiah, CNN
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman tells CNN she hopes her role as astrophysicist Jane Foster in "Thor: The Dark World" encourages a new generation of female scientists. Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman tells CNN she hopes her role as astrophysicist Jane Foster in "Thor: The Dark World" encourages a new generation of female scientists.
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Famous female scientists in film
Jane Foster, "Thor: The Dark World," 2013
Jodie Foster, "Contact," 1997
Sigourney Weaver, "Gorillas in the Mist," 1988
Carrie Fisher, "Star Wars IV," 1977
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Natalie Portman says new role in 'Thor: The Dark World' could encourage female scientists
  • Academy Award winner and mother-of-one may turn to French cinema
  • Israeli-born American wants more female directors, fan of Lena Dunham, Sofia Coppola

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

London, England (CNN) -- Who are the greatest feminist film characters? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? G.I. Jane? Catwoman?

What about an astrophysicist? If it was up to Academy Award-winning actor Natalie Portman, our feminine heroines wouldn't be limited to ass-kicking wonder women. They could even be -- wait for it -- nerdy scientists.

Marvel and Portman make science cool

The 32-year-old star of Hollywood blockbuster "Thor: The Dark World," hopes her role as astrophysicist love interest Jane Foster will encourage a new generation of young women to enter the sciences -- much like "Star Wars'" Princess Leia is believed to have done over three decades ago.

WATCH: Marvel and Portman make science cool

"It's really cool that Marvel -- the comic company behind the Thor series -- is working on what they call STEM: science, technology, engineering and math," Portman told CNN in an interview in London, ahead of the premiere this week.

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"Women are underrepresented in those fields so they are trying to encourage girls to study them more, because obviously there's no reason why they shouldn't be."

"And that's really exciting because that's exactly what you want with these kinds of movies. They're big and they're fun and if you can have a little bit of impact on a young girl seeing them and saying 'wait, that's possible too,' then that would be really cool."

While the original "Thor" comic book portrayed the superhero's sweetheart, Jane Foster, as a nurse, the character has been reinvented as a scientist for the big screen.

Could Portman become the new role model for female scientists, much like Jodie Foster as astrophysicist Ellie Arroway in 1997 film "Contact", or Sigourney Weaver as zoologist Dian Fossey in 1988 drama "Gorillas in the Mist", or even sci-fi hero Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" series? She certainly hopes so.

For Portman, feminist characters aren't necessarily the ones who keep up with the boys -- they come in all shapes and sizes.

"The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you're making a 'feminist' story, the woman kicks ass and wins," she told Elle UK in the magazine's November 2013 issue. "That's not feminist, that's macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with."

Read: 'Standup scientist' reveals secret of laughter

You get a lot of girlfriends and muses and shrews. And every once in a while there's a magic moment where there's a really interesting perspective
Natalie Portman

Featuring Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as Thor, the crown prince of Asgard, the second installment of the film tells the story of an otherworldly superhero who has been exiled from his homeland to Earth.

"At the beginning of Thor 2, Jane Foster is really focused on her scientific inquiries. Thor has been missing in action for a couple years, hasn't called, hasn't written," explains Portman.

"She's seen him on TV in New York and he hasn't made contact so she's pretty angry at him. But she's just trying to move on with her life and that's where we find her," added the mother-of-one, who reportedly watched "Physics for Dummies", to prepare for the role.

French feeling

Born in Jerusalem, the only child of her American film agent mother and Israeli fertility specialist father, Portman moved to the U.S. at three years old, eventually settling in New York.

As a youngster she attended theater camp and entered science fairs, until at age 11 she scored her big break as a gun-toting orphan in English-speaking French film "Leon: The Professional".

Decades before Chloe Moretz appeared as a 13-year-old hitgirl in 2010 action film "Kick-Ass", Portman was targeting her own bad guys in the 1994 thriller which launched her career.

Read: Guess Hollywood's highest-paid actresses

Almost 20 years later, Portman, who won an Academy Award in 2011 for her portrayal of a disturbed ballerina in Darren Aronofsky film "Black Swan", may again be returning to French cinema.

It was on the "Black Swan" set that she undertook a year of training with future husband, French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. The pair now have a two-year-old son, Aleph.

"Well I hope I'll be able to work in French cinema, that will depend on what people will hire me for," said the actor who speaks French, Hebrew, and German.

"I think I'd probably need to work on my French a little, but I'd be happy to try. A little Jean Seberg kind of accented French," she added, referring to the 1960s American-born screen siren.

Read: How Angela Ahrendts reinvented Burberry

"You don't see female directors of photography, you don't see female technical crew members.
Natalie Portman

Women in cinema

Portman, who in 2008 served as the youngest member of the 61st Annual Cannes Film Festival jury, added that she would like to see more female filmmakers and pointed to directors Sarah Polley, Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola as inspirations.

"You still really see that the majority of American filmmakers and writers are predominantly male. Which is great, I want men to keep making movies, but I'd love for there to be more female voices as well. And of course it influences the kind of material you read because the stories that a male perspective has, the way women figure into it, is very different," she said.

"You get a lot of girlfriends and muses and shrews. And every once in a while there's a magic moment where there's a really interesting perspective. My hope would be that they widen the access to women, and women are more inspired and encouraged to take on those kinds of roles."

Read: I'm a male feminist. No, seriously.

Portman, who has a degree in psychology from Harvard University, also pointed to the defined gender roles on set: "You don't see female directors of photography, you don't see female technical crew members. Usually they're more on the hair and makeup, and wardrobe side.

"And it's more common to have all of the grips and gaffers and electric and camera, to be entirely male, which is just interesting."

If Portman has her way though, there won't just be more females on film sets -- but in science laboratories as well.

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