Did you surprise yourself through doing a psychological role such as this? Did you learn anything about yourself?
Natalie Portman: I suppose I learned how much I could do. I didn’t particularly think of myself as someone who seeks pleasure and doesn’t like pain. So, to actually put myself through pain for that long and not just make myself feel good was, I guess, a scary thing to discover but also good to know that I could focus in that way for a role. So, I guess it’s heartening to know that you can deprive yourself in that way. I don’t think I ever expected how hard this was going to be, either. I feel lucky that I didn’t expect it, because it meant I went in with all this enthusiasm and excitement about getting to do ballet and it really propelled me through those difficult moments. I’m not sure that would have been possible had I expected the hardship.
Did you ever take your character home with you?
Natalie Portman: I like to shut off the character as soon as I’ve finished, whether it’s after a take or going home for the day after work. But it was really difficult on this one, probably because I had so much training outside of work to do. I had to go to the gym after work, and then had to wake up at 5am before work and work out beforehand. It was constant throughout the day, so there wasn’t really any time to relax and be myself.
Your character strives for perfection. Is that something you can relate to?
Natalie Portman: I’m very demanding of myself, but I’m not self-punishing. I never feel like I’ve done enough, I always feel like I can do more. But I don’t like being hungry or in pain or tired (laughs). For this character, I went into that self-punishing mode and didn’t sleep and didn’t eat and worked out all day through injuries for three months, I did that for the character. But on my own, I’m a pleasure seeker (laughs).
Which of the two swans do you think resembles you the most?
Natalie Portman: I think everyone has a little bit of both. I don’t think anyone is all white or all black, I think we’ve all got purity and impurity battling inside of us (laughs).
Can you talk us through some of the injuries you received? Wasn’t there a rib one?
Natalie Portman: Well, there were constant things and strained muscles, but the worst thing was the dislocated rib, which happened during a lift – one rib went under another. It felt like a stitch. It happened around the halfway point of filming, so for the second half of the film I couldn’t really take a deep breath. But they just changed the lifts from then on – they did it under my armpits instead of around my ribcage. That was also good to understand what real dancers go through because they’re constantly dancing through very difficult injuries. It often happens when they get promoted, because they work really, really hard to get promoted and then when they do they have bad injuries because they’ve been dancing so hard. But then they don’t want to give up their spot because they don’t want to be replaced, so they’ll dance with a sprained ankle or a torn muscle, or some really extreme thing that would usually have people benched. But they’ll dance beautifully on stage and then limp off into a bucket of ice. It’s pretty shocking.
What was Winona Ryder like to work with? Was she someone you always looked up to?
Natalie Portman: Absolutely. I think I’ve probably watched her more than any other actress. If you think about how many great movies she’s made, I don’t think there’s any actress ever that you can compare. Between Mermaids, Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Reality Bites and Dracula and Age of Innocence, Little Women… it’s crazy when you think about it. Most actresses have one of those movies. She’s an icon, so it was really exciting to get to work with her, she was amazing. She was kind and professional and patient. A few of the days she had to wait around a long time, but she was completely humble and wonderful. And yet she was able to turn on those extreme emotions so quickly. It was just an honour to watch her work and I hope I get another chance.