EXCLUSIVE: Natalie Portman may just be the busiest person in Cannes. This evening, she steps out onto red carpet for the world premiere of A Tale Of Love And Darkness, her feature directorial debut. Adapted from Israeli author Amos Oz’s bestselling memoir about his childhood growing up against the backdrop of the latter days of Mandate Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel, the project has been Portman’s labor of love for close to a decade. In addition to directing, she adapted the book, stars in the film and produced it with Ram Bergman and David Mandil. Voltage financed the film and is selling it at Cannes.
Portman also arrives on the Croisette attached to a slew of new projects, all announced within days of each other: Mareille Heller’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On The Basis Of Sex; Pablo Larrain’s Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie; Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium and Alex Garland’s Annihilation.
With Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (as producer), Jane Got A Gun (stars in and produces) and new Terence Malick Weightless also in the pipeline 2015 (and 2016) are shaping up as banner years in the impassioned and versatile actress-turned-filmmaker’s career. She spoke with Deadline about what so compelled her to make Oz’s book her directing debut as well as the role it might play in the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, itself a lightning-rod issue for many in Hollywood and beyond.
DEADLINE: This is very much your baby. You wrote it, directed, starred in it, produced. How did your experiences as an actress and now producer inform the decisions you made?
PORTMAN: I’m very lucky to have the experience of an actress going into directing, because you get to watch great directors at work. So you get to see what’s helpful. The choices they make, how they talk to actors, what kinds of things they ask actors to do. The best directors I work with figure out their own mode of communication with each actor individually. Actors all need different things. Some actors need a lot of talking through everything and your ideas and for you to listen to their idea. Some are best left alone and completely to their own instincts. Some actors need positive energy. Some like a little bit more criticism. You have to feel what’s right for each person.
DEADLINE: Mythology is a key notion in both Oz’s work and the dialectic behind the creation of the state of Israel in general in both the book and the film.
PORTMAN: It’s absolutely the core theme. The idea of mythology through storytelling. Storytelling is the way we build our identity as human beings. Which memories do we choose to tell when we tell our life story? Which things do we choose as important, how we do connect them to make a meaningful arc? And we choose those. We choose to say whether the barbeque last week was an important event or a parent’s death is a turning point. What are the meaningful formative moments in your story? It happens for individuals and it happens for nations. And ethnicities choose the meaningful moments. That’s what our holidays are, the meaningful stories that we tell. And, of course, stories become mythology because they’re shaped by the storyteller. So while they’re absolutely crucial to giving identity, we also have to be careful which stories we choose to tell because they then shape our dreams, shape our expectations, shape way we view the world. In this story, the young author Amos, his mother, the stories she shapes to create her world lead her to disappointment with that world.
“I think Amos Oz’s great attribute, what I love about him, is that he looks at nations as humans. When we start remembering its peoples’ experiences, then we can empathize with them.”
DEADLINE: How do you maintain the balance between art and didacticism when tackling a subject like this?
PORTMAN: One of the most beautiful things about film is that we spend two hours caring about another human being’s life. The more specific point of view we hear, the more people we can care about. Ultimately it’s very much a family story, and a boy’s story and his experiences and, of course, there’s a political, historical context to his life because there’s a political historical context to all of our lives. And it obviously comes from a specific point of view because everyone’s context has its own point of view. I think Oz’s great attribute, what I love about him, is that he looks at nations as humans. He wants us to understand different people as humans. When we start remembering its peoples’ experiences, then we can empathize with them. It makes it all a lot more personal.
DEADLINE: There have been both love and darkness in your work. Which have you enjoyed exploring more?
PORTMAN: They’re two sides of the same coin. The way that opposites tend to hold each other in their meaning. They do seem to be these two aspects of our worlds where one doesn’t exist without the other. They allow us to see the contrast between the two. Our biggest challenge is to find the love when we’re surrounded by darkness.
DEADLINE: Do you think the film can play any role, even small, in the wider conflict?
PORTMAN: I wouldn’t want to be presumptuous in thinking it would have an important role. On a small scale, when I get to watch a movie that takes place in Mali or Saudi Arabia, or that takes place in Canada, I’m exposed to people I don’t live with. The beauty of having and supporting and promoting diverse filmmakers making their pieces is you get a look into people’s lives and specific stories and other places. We then realise we can relate to any human being who’s going through anything. That empathy you feel when you care about a character in a book, in a movie, is connective tissue hopefully.
DEADLINE: What do the words Israel and Palestine mean for you, as an idea, a symbol and a reality?
PORTMAN: They’re so loaded with deep, strong feelings for so many people. I think it shows the very true desire of all of the people of the region to have their own sovereignty and their own dignity and freedom and peace. Ultimately it’s what we all hope for. I think it’s the only thing we can really put our energy into at his point. It’s our only step forward.
DEADLINE: It feels like one can’t make a turn these days without hearing about a new Natalie Portman project.
PORTMAN (laughing): I’m so sorry. I’m making up for lost time. It will be busy. We’ll see how all the schedule ends up. I’ve been very lucky to find several projects really exciting to me and filmmakers I am excited to work with.
DEADLINE: Will your producing grow into something more commercial from a business point of view or is it really for your own projects?
PORTMAN: It’s more about being able to create things for myself. It’s complicated when you’re just an actor, you’re subject to waiting for something good and for someone interesting to offer you something interesting. I’ve worked long enough to know there are certain waves and periods you don’t have the opportunities you’d like to so it really was born out of that. I am hoping to create things I’d be interested in, and makes me less passive in the process. I don’t believe my job as producer is to control. I have strong beliefs in the authority and leadership of the director. I really believe in the importance of that hierarchy.