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From a Ballerina to a Scientist: Natalie Portman Talks about Thor

After playing a disturbed soul in Darren Aronofsky's The Black Swan and a sex crazed hottie in No Strings Attached, Natalie Portman is back yet again for another sure hit movie based on a popular character from Marvel comics' array of superheroes: Thor.  Portman will be playing the role of Jane Foster, a scientist who's part of a team investigating parallel dimensions.  One strange night together with her friend and colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Project Head Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), they found a mysterious man (Chris Hemsworth) that they don't know comes from a different realm.

Here is an exclusive interview transcript of Portman talking about her experience on doing Thor.

You’ve done big action adventures films before. How did this one compare?
Well it was really amazing to get to work with Ken Branagh on this and that was the biggest draw for me in the beginning. On some of the big action films things like character and story can get a little lost and be overshadowed by all the big bang stuff. But with Ken he was very concerned with the text and with our characters. It wasn’t like ‘oh this is a big film so we don’t have to pay attention to that..’ It was like ‘we’re going to work on this as if it were Shakespeare..’ And the thing is Thor is rooted in Norse mythology. I obviously read the comics before I started working on it, but I also read a lot about Norse mythology and it’s fascinating. I really enjoyed all of that stuff - it’s really interesting.

Were you intrigued when you heard Ken was directing Thor?
Absolutely. One thing that I think Marvel really excels at is choosing really high quality people for their films and making interesting and daring choices. You have Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man and Ken Branagh directing Thor. That’s very cool. They are people that you just would never put together with these movies but they have the balls to do that, and I think it is really the secret to their success

Did you have to discover the whole Thor world before you got involved?
Yeah, it was new to me but I was really interested in the world especially because it was based on this mythology that is very much part of our culture…

So it’s rooted in ancient storytelling?
Absolutely. And Norse mythology is very different than from other mythology. I’ve been looking into it more now and there’s no concept of an afterlife until Christianity came to those parts of the world and so it was heroism for heroisms sake. The most heroic thing was like fighting, even when you know your cause is doomed. It’s heroism even in the face of pure doom. And that kind of heroism is pretty unique and it’s really interesting.

Did you read up on all the comic books before you started?
They showed me the Thor comic books when we started talking about it but really, the first thing that interested me was working with Ken.  I must have watched Much Ado About Nothing like 500 times, I love that film so much (laughs). He’s just so wonderful and has really the best spirit and energy, and focus and it was so exciting to go to work everyday.

I can tell that he didn’t disappoint you…
He was one of the first people I’ve met that I was excited about when I met them, and then when I worked with him, it exceeded my expectations. I can’t say enough about Ken. He’s lovely.

Your character is in the comic books but she seems to have a different job. Please explain..
Yes, she’s in the comics but they changed her a little bit. She’s like a nurse in the originals and now she’s a doctor a PHD candidate for Astro-Physics. So she’s got a different job (laughs).

The beautiful female scientist is often a cliché in some previous movies. Did you want to avoid that?
Yes, you’re right, it can be and I wasn’t interested in that. And actually, to make a serious point, I think the women are portrayed in a really positive way in Thor. One of the first clues that I had that it was going to be a positive representation was when I went into hair and makeup for a test before we started shooting. They were like ‘no, it’s too much hair and makeup, tone it down..’ I was like ‘wow, they are not trying to hot me up! It’s about creating a character..’ It wasn’t ‘let’s get this chick and make her as hot as possible..’ The whole point was to make her a believable character. I was wearing a flannel shirt and sweatpants a lot of the time and there were no body hugging dresses.”

How does the science, and your character, fit into the story?
She is an astro physics doctor with Darcy and her mentor, Professor Erik Selvig who is played by Stellan (Skarsgard) and they are looking for connections between dimensions and of course Thor lands in our midst and he become the key to our scientific endeavours.

How do you approach playing a character like that? is it the same way you would approach any other role?
Yes it is. She is a great mind and we talked a lot about how great scientists are often like great artists, they really have a kind of poetry and ability to imagine things that don’t exist, because they think about things that no one has proven yet. It’s very abstract kind of ideas that they chase after, and so she has this sort of frazzled look (laughs) - she’s kind of a mess, she’s that absent minded professor type. But I don’t think they often show women like that, so that was really exciting to me. And she also has this sort of legacy of her father who was this great professor, who has passed away. She had a quarrel with him and so there’s some unfinished business with her dad that gives her a way in with Thor. She and Thor have this sort of common bond, a difficult father relationship.

And those difficult family relationships are at the heart of the story? Thor is banished by his father, his brother is jealous of him…
Absolutely they are. And Ken is great with all of that stuff. It’s the essence of drama.

Describe the story to somebody who hasn’t yet seen the film…
OK, here goes (laughs). Thor is exiled from Asgard to Earth by his father as a punishment for being impulsive and petulant. Earth is a parallel realm to Asgard and the Asgardians are much more advanced scientifically and physically – they are like a higher species. So Thor arrives on Earth and has to deal with this backward, old-fashioned place and he finds a kindred spirit in my character, Jane, who is on the fringes of this science and believes in these connections between different realms. Actually, there’s an Einstein theory from a long time ago about a bridge that can connect different dimensions – because most physicists believe that there are multiple dimensions, in theory. So Jane and Thor join forces to try and get him back. He also has to get his power back and all of that comes from learning humility and how to really be a man on Earth. But into that mix you have his brother who is secretly battling to replace him. It’s sibling rivalry. And then on Earth there are these corrupt government forces who want to take Jane’s research and Thor’s hammer – so there are plenty of bad guys on Earth, too.

And is it a love story between Jane and Thor?
There is a love story, but it’s very unconsummated. It’s like they fall for each other and then they leave room for the sequel (laughs).

Do you get involved in any action at all?
Not very much, no, there’s Sif, who Jaimie Alexander plays, a female warrior and I get caught in the fray sometimes, but I’m not really fighting or anything.

It’s a huge film for Chris to carry on his shoulders. How did he do?
He’s such a sweet guy. He’s incredible and a really talented actor. Ken told me that from day one how wonderful he is and there’s no better judge than Ken. But, on top of that, he is deeply nice, like just a really good person and unaffected by all of this hoopla. He’s just like a decent guy so it was total pleasure to work with him. He’s fun, very sweet, and very, very talented. He could do everything both physically and emotionally, and playing Thor is a part that is very demanding on both levels. You have to get the tone right and try to make it realistic in a heightened world. It’s a comic book movie but you also want to relate to the guy. Chris just nailed it.

Will your character appear in any of the other Marvel films?
I’m not in The Avengers, but I’m signed up for the next two (Thor) sequels if they are made. I think these inter-related Marvel movies are great fun. The Avengers will be like Ocean’s Eleven with the superhero all-stars! It’s totally fun to see all your favourite superheroes in one movie.
It sounds like you had a good time making this…

It was extraordinarily positive and there’s not a single thing I could complain about, which is great. (laughs) Not that I would normally like to talk to the press about it even if there was, but this a genuinely great experience.

Where did Thor fit in with The Black Swan?
Yes. I had just finished shooting Black Swan two weeks before I started on Thor and I was really, really exhausted. Black Swan was harrowing and really, really draining. I love Darren and working with him was a deeply fulfilling experience but I just showed up for Thor spent. I slept maybe four or five hours a night during that shoot and I had been training for a year before, like five hours a day at least. And when we were filming I would be in point shoes from 5 in the morning until very late at night. I probably should have gone into rehab (laughs). But working with Ken was too good an opportunity to miss. And he is so lovely – he’s very kind, very considerate and he gives you great guidance. He really kept me on track and, in fact, everyone on Thor was super kind. Also, Kat Dennings is one of my great friends and I got to hang out with her – another big bonus.

Had you worked with Kat before?
No but I’ve known Kat for a few years and she makes me laugh more than anyone, we just like giggled a hell of a lot. And I’d worked with Stellan (Skarsgard) on Goya’s Ghosts five years ago. And so spending my time with the 3 of them - Chris, Kat and Stellan - who were all hysterically funny, super kind, super professional and easygoing - it was the dream.

What’s happening with your production company? Are you getting projects off the ground?
Yes, we are. Spencer Susser made this great short called I Love You Sarah Jane a few years ago and has now made Hesher for us. It’s his first feature and it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It’s the first production from my Production Company and I’m very, very excited. It’s really, really fantastic, and I have a small role in that.

I was intrigued by the name of you company – Handsome Charlie Films. That’s a cool name. Where did it come from?
Well, Charlie was my dog (laughter) and I think he’s very handsome. He was a Terrier. And he passed away right before I started the Production Company and he was named after Charlie Chaplin who is my absolute hero. Actually, Charlie was a mutt, but he definitely had some terrier in there. I actually, have a new dog now who is really lovely. His name is Wiz and he’s a Yorkshire Terrier – I like terriers.

What was the thinking behind starting your own production company?
Well it’s a great way to sort of continue my creative energies when I’m not working because I was so used to being at school and studying and not having free time. I was at school until I was 22 and then I’d do acting work in the summers. So I never had any free time and then all of a sudden I graduated and I didn’t know what to do in between acting jobs. I actually started working too much, doing a lot of films. And I thought it would be good to be able to focus my creative energies without acting to prepare for a time when I might not have the ease that I do now. I’m so, so lucky to be able to act in films. But when you start thinking about having a family and stuff, you want more control, you want to be in one place because movies take you all over the place, which is great, but there might come a time when you want to be home more. So that was the thinking behind it.

It’s a very nomadic life being an actor….
Yeah, which is very fine and I’m very lucky, but at a certain point you need to kind of slow down with that. So it’s really exciting and I have an incredible partner, Annette Savage, and we have a lot of really, really interesting stuff in the works. And this is the first one that’s completed.

I saw that you’re also developing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…
Yeah with David O. Russell - he’s totally amazing…

Will you be in that?
Probably, we are figuring it out right now, but probably.

I’m there just based on the title, but give me a little thumbnail…
It’s just a totally insane mash-up! (laughs) And ’s really exciting. So we’re going to have that and there’s another book called Important Artifacts by Leanne Shapton. She wrote this book that was about a break up, but as if all of their possessions were being auctioned off, so it’s like an auction catalogue that tells the story of the relationship and the break-up. And so Greg Mottola is doing that for us. And we have a lot of exciting things coming.

It sounds like you work quite a lot. What do you do when you are not working?
I have been working a lot, but when I’m not working, I read a lot, I write a lot, I like doing nature things, so I’m out in the woods with my dog. (laughs)

What are you reading?
I just finished actually Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and that relates to my whole Thor thing. I went to Greece for the first time, to Athens, and it’s so beautiful. I’d never studied any Greek mythology and so I decided to read up a bit and I started whilst I was there. It was a wonderful trip.

Do you find that when you read a book you’re always thinking about whether it might make a good film?
Sometimes, but I don’t want to spoil my reading experience. And also, when I really love a book I usually don’t want to turn into a movie because I think it’s such an amazing experience. The ones that you want to turn into films are things that are just really great ideas and it might not necessarily be about the language of the book. I think that when something is really gorgeously written, you don’t want to touch it.

Thor comes to theaters on April 29, to be distributed by United International Pictures Philippines from Marvel Studios.

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