Natalie Portman On Playing A Female Icon In Jackie

Emma Jones

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Image: Natalie Portman in Jackie

Fragments of memory of that week in November 1963 are etched in America’s consciousness – the gunshots across the open motor cavalcade, the wife cradling her husband’s broken skull, the iconic pink suit spattered with blood, two small children standing with their mother, drenched in black. Yet no filmmaker has tried to piece together who Jackie Kennedy, in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, actually was.

Until that is, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s work Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, which imagines snatches of conversations and interviews Jackie may have had, tying it together with historical details and the typical minutiae of death – funeral arrangements, family arguments (yes, Bobby and Rose Kennedy feature) – all seen through the fragile figure of the former First Lady, wiped of her status by a five minute ceremony on board Air Force One.

Just like Jackie, Portman is surrounded by men in this feature – the director Larrain, producer Darren Aronofsky, writer Noah Oppenheim and even co-star Peter Sarsgaard playing a heartfelt, haunted turn as Bobby Kennedy – but there’s no doubt she is the entire film. Which is as well, because Portman describes the part as the most “dangerous” role she’s ever played.

“It’s so daunting,” she says. “I’ve never been the biggest fan of the genre and I don’t consider myself a great imitator – and also I’ve never played a part before where people already know how someone walked and talked and moved, so the pressure was to be very specific.”

As the Diana of the 1960s, Kennedy worked hard within the limitations of the time to bequeath her name to more than a type of shift dress. She collected former presidential artefacts and restored many parts of the White House for posterity. In a 1962 documentary, Jackie agreed to show off the newly restored building to the major television networks – the first factual programme of its kind designed to appeal to a female audience.

This resource, “gave me her accent and voice, which was a map of her life in particular, part New York, part finishing school -” ended up in headphones in Natalie Portman’s ears, when she was cooking or out jogging, otherwise she watched and studied her mannerisms and movements.

“I knew that Pablo wanted to intercut parts of the real tour with parts of the film, so that was another pressure. Fortunately his approach to Jackie was psychological as well, so I was free to put some imagination into her, especially as much of the film was set in her private moments.”

“A lot of her movements were very learned on the White House tour, and very imitative of television at the time. There’s no doubt she knew how she wanted to set out her image in public.”

Also, adds the actress, “mannerisms are different in public, and she was aware of when she was being filmed. Of course, at the funeral, she was in a state of grief but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t conscious of it. A lot of her movements were very learned on the White House tour, and very imitative of television at the time. There’s no doubt she knew how she wanted to set out her image in public – there are a lot of interviews at the time where she ordered certain parts to be edited or deleted, so there’s no doubt there were things she did not want to show.”

While traditionally an imitation of the great and the good has been the quickest route to an Oscar nomination, Natalie Portman, already the recipient of one Oscar, is wary of the biopic as a whole. Above all, “there’s the challenge to keep the humanity, not the icon – because biopics can fall into patterns which makes it harder to feel something for the person.

“There are so many different feelings at once that she’s going through – she’s a young woman, a mother, a wife, a betrayed wife, a person- there are many things she’s dealing with and it’s not just her loss of innocence. I think Pablo’s approach has been different enough to satisfy me.”

There seems little doubt that Jackie is no run-of-the-mill biography, fleshing out the woman behind the sharp bob and box jackets, but in a pre-media age, leaving the audience in no doubt Jackie Kennedy understood how to present herself. In a moment with a journalist, she introduces the word Camelot into the conversation – a world now synonymous with the illusory brief perfection of Kennedy’s kingdom.

 “I read these transcripts after the assassination. She understood exactly what Kennedy’s policy position was, even though she wasn’t invited for these conversations. She really understood history and that the story you tell is more important than actually what happens.”

“She was so sharp,” the woman who plays her says. “I read these transcripts after the assassination. She understood exactly what Kennedy’s policy position was, even though she wasn’t invited for these conversations. She really understood history and that the story you tell is more important than actually what happens.

“They do it all the time on social media now, but even then, she recognised how important it was to be the author of your own story.”

Jackie is released in the USA on December 2nd 2016, and in Europe and Asia in early 2017.

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