Natalie Portman: 'Star Wars' queen
Starting a three-film leadership role
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By Andy Culpepper
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Not so long ago, on a black-and-white television set not all that far away ... there was a daytime show that asked its viewers this question: "How would you like to be 'Queen for a Day?'"
Contestants brought along tales of woe to recite. The audience clapped for these sob stories, giving thumbs-up or -down on wrenching descriptions of sick husbands, lost jobs and shortages in household budgets. The crowd's applause determined which contestant would wear the ermine, cape and crown -- and go home to domestic bliss with an armful of roses and a washer-dryer combo.
Flash forward several decades and the contemporary version of this scenario for most of us might be winning the lottery and all those kiss-off privileges with it: an instant 15 minutes of fame, no more 9-to-5 grind, not having to stand in line for "Star Wars" tickets.
Judging from the faithful waiting at cinemas for the chance to see George Lucas' "Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace," there are more than a few of us who wouldn't mind being queen for a day.
A teen-ager named Natalie Portman may know something of what that's like.
But her story is anything but pitiful. Scary, maybe, but hardly a tale of woe.
Portman plays youthful Queen Amidala, ruler of the peaceful planet Naboo, in the latest -- and first -- installment of the "Star Wars" saga. The 17-year-old (18 on June 9) isn't just queen for a day, but more like for the better part of a decade -- and that's before the movie's released on home video, cable and in all those other ancillary markets.
The former model is to star in all three new "Star Wars" installments, to be released over some eight years. Her character is central to the machinations of Lucas' previously released and re-released "Star Wars" episodes. Amidala becomes the mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia -- played by actors Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in episodes four, five and six.
Let's get back to that tale of woe again. Talk about your loss of anonymity. Portman understands the prospects.
"Right now, I'm really fine. I can go out and and no one really bothers me. If people do recognize me they don't even say anything and I think it's probably because of the way I carry myself," she says. "I'm not a person that's flashy walking down the street. I don't try to attract attention to myself ... I can blend in easily, but I assume it will change somewhat with the release of the film."
Portman was born in Israel and moved with her parents to Long Island. She reportedly was discovered in one of those mythic moments à la Lana Turner at a drugstore soda fountain -- in Portman's case, it was a pizza parlor.
Since fate stepped in and plucked her from an otherwise normal adolescence, Portman has developed quite the solid career, working with some of the best filmmaking talent in the business. Her screen debut came in 1994 when she played an orphan who befriends a hit man in director Luc Besson's "The Professional" (also known by the title "Léon"). Her subsequent resume is enviable: "Beautiful Girls" (1996) with director Ted Demme; "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996) with Woody Allen; "Mars Attacks!" (1996) with Tim Burton; and "Heat" (1995), directed in part by Michael Mann and starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer.
None of those stellar film experiences may have prepared her for her life once this latest "Star Wars" film opens. But Portman remains hopeful.
'A little scary'
"It's a little scary," she admits. "But I think overall, people are respectful of people's privacy and personal life. There's obviously an excitement factor for someone in films, but I think overall people are really good about it."
One thing going for Portman in her role as Queen Amidala: The actress spends much of her on-screen time wearing ornate costumes that alter her appearance considerably. Then, too, there's that hair and makeup. A fashion victim on the planet Naboo is in for quite the ordeal.
In one particularly involved bit of wardrobe work, Portman wears a huge headdress along with white pancake makeup. The effect is startling and does a lot to remove any semblance of adolescence from the scene.
Learning from her forerunners
Her voice is something altogether different. There's a deep-throated huskiness to it, and if it strikes moviegoers as oddly familiar, it's not by accident.
Portman and Lucas turned to a bit of Hollywood's yesteryear for this part of her character.
"George worked with me a lot," she says, "on changing my voice and my movement and the way I carried myself. We worked on this accent that ... kinda goes to old, older generations of actresses who used kind of an unidentifiable accent. 'Is it American or is it British?'"
In the process, it was time to rent old movies. "Yeah, I watched Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn. If you look at them, their voices and the stature is so regal, even in their everyday characters. And that's kinda why I used it to model after."
Also on her viewing list: the original "Star Wars" trilogy of films (1977, 1980, 1983). Portman was born in 1981. "Star Wars, Episode VI, Return of the Jedi" was released when she was 2. So she was hardly familiar with the films or the characters central to their popularity. She still finds the phenomenon somewhat surprising.
"I was very honored and excited to be presented with such a great opportunity," she says, "But I really wasn't aware of how big a deal "Star Wars" was ... and when I saw the films, I really liked them, but I still didn't really understand how many ... were passionate fans of this film."
Grooming herself for leadership
Portman has her own passions, some of which this film allows her to play out. There's that inevitable role-model thing to be asked about, and the actress rather likes the prospect of girls looking up to her character. This teenager has done her homework.
"They've done studies on girls -- on how they're really confident when they're young. And as they go through school, they get less and less confident and less and less ... able to be in a leadership position, less and less willing to be in a leadership position.
"I think it's reflective of the way we portray women. They don't usually give women leadership roles. It's really good for girls to see that."
Her own leadership role as Queen Amidala is just beginning. Portman has signed with Lucas to do all three of his so-called "prequels" to the original "Star Wars" films.
She's scheduled to begin work on Episode Two this summer. Episode Three is slated for release in 2005.
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