T he Oscar-nominated galactic queen who has been famous for more than half of her short life walks into a quiet Turkish cafe near her home in New York's East Village. Natalie Portman arrives on her own, sans entourage. The maitre d' greets her warmly but unfussily. She listens patiently, hands clasped in a little fist, peach-perfect face upturned, beauty spots on each cheek, as the waiter reads through a list of today's specials, all of which contain meat or fish. She doesn't interrupt to tell him that she's vegetarian.
Eventually he finishes and she says that she'll have the shepherd salad with a side of tzatziki. Tap water will be fine. She's not a vegan, though she has been trying to phase out eggs. It's really hard for travelling, especially if you want to maintain your protein levels. And I sort of made a no-buying-anything-new rule.
I just have a lot of stuff,' she says with a tiny pout. But you know, I have 40 T-shirts, I have 20 pairs of jeans - you get so forced into believing [that you need all this stuff]. Maybe it's a New York thing. It's also surely a her-job thing.
People must send Portman lovely clothes for red-carpet events and the like. Because it's not like you wear them ever again. Also, a lot of them are samples and you have to give them back. It's very Cinderella. So all of a sudden,' she smiles, 'I actually do wear fancy dresses. But dress sense isn't the thing that preoccupies most people when they think of Portman. It's undressing. If you go down to the multiplex today, to see director Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, you're sure of a big surprise. No, the remarkable thing is Hotel Chevalier, Anderson's minute short that appears before the main feature.
It's remarkable because it's so much better than the two-hour film that follows. And because in it Natalie Portman disrobes and acts out a sex scene. Well, it was and it wasn't. Hotel Chevalier is about a young couple, played by Portman and Schwartzman, reuniting for a possibly final tryst. It's a perfect little two-hander, Schwartzman strange, fidgety and sad, Portman enigmatic, elegant and sad.
Cigarettes are smoked brilliantly. And when you see Portman naked and leaning in profile on a dresser, she's posed deliberately, artfully, bony elbows protecting her modesty. Rodin's 'Thinker' with a xylophone of ribs and a gamine haircut. But she's definitely starkers. And yet, and yet Natalie Portman doesn't do nudity. That's what she said, that's what everyone said. The actress was a paragon of principle, a hugely talented brainbox who happened to be both bombshell and bewitcher, who rewrote the rule book for young Hollywood hot shots.
It's happened a few times before, with Garbo and Louise Brooks. Portman was shocked by the response to her first movie, 's Leon, in which she played a year-old girl having a tender but uncomfortable-to-watch relationship with a hitman. The media response and the dodgy letters sent to adolescent Portman didn't sour her towards acting per se, 'but towards acting in stuff that was sexually provocative when I was young'. At this point in our conversation Portman, 26 now but still with the proportions and doll-like features of a child, titters - there's no other word for it - nervously.
As a year-old [it was] just horrifying - you don't think: "Fuck them! Before and after Leon, Portman, an only child, and her super-supportive, super-protective parents dad a fertility doctor, mum a housewife tried to do things right. She'd wriggled free from the Hollywood tractor beam even before she felt its pull - while she continued with her schooling in a well-to-do area of Long Island, on screen she hid her real identity Natalie Hershlag behind Portman, her grandmother's maiden name.
Portman retreated even further into 'real life' by taking a psychology degree at Harvard, the gravity in every sense slowing her shooting-star trajectory. She was, then, a principled young actress, smarter than the average bare-all starlet. So, in Closer, 's sexually charged chamber piece in which four beautiful people Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen fall in and out of love and lust, she asked Nichols, the director, to remove scenes in which her character - a pink-haired stripper - gets her kit off.
In her first real adult role, her instincts were bang on: her performance was stunning enough without disrobing, and she won a Golden Globe and was Oscar nominated. Then, in this year's Goya's Ghosts, an arthouse film made in Spain with director Milos Forman, she insisted on a body- double being used for scenes where her character is naked. They shot that stuff without my knowledge. And it was sort of like a conversation after the fact. Which is why it ended! She doesn't think she has any rational explanation as to why she agreed to go nude for Anderson, other than 'sometimes I just feel like changing rules a bit.
I get into modes where I feel like I wanna experiment with my acting. Another example: while she was in Berlin filming V for Vendetta, the controversial Wachowski Brothers-produced comic-book adaptation in which she played a shaven-headed terrorist, she took time off to make a short with German director Tom Twyker Run Lola Run, Perfume.
Another example: 'I'll go do a big-budget movie that I thought I'd never do. Anyway, 'I get impulses to do stuff and they're not always explicable. And they often turn into my favourite experiences. But now a cloud is passing over Portman's sunny features. And that's the thing that makes me think maybe I shouldn't have done it.
It's not that I regret the actual thing. But it really depresses me that what I think is a wonderful film, that I'm really happy with - and Wes put a lot of time and energy into planning shots and writing the script, it's very minimal, very exact - and then at the end literally half of any article or review about it has been about the nudity. That's not my issue. My issue is that I feel it takes something away from what you're doing. And also that it can be used afterwards for different purposes.
My picture ended up on porn sites,' she says, face aghast. But it's not the way it used to be; it doesn't show at a film festival, you know?
Portman likes to investigate, to be specific, to focus. This autumn she's cover star and guest editor of an issue of American school maths magazine Scholastic Math: '[Maths] made me excited about life, to consider the limitlessness of the mind and what we can do with it. And rather than 'just' be the face of a charity visiting this or that beleaguered country, she works with the Foundation for International Community Assistance Finca , which offers micro-financial investment to women in developing countries.
It's a very under-the-radar - and unshowy - charitable initiative. They ask you to do 4, charity things a year and all of them are worthy. But I don't think you can really make an impact unless you do [just] one thing and really devote yourself. And it's been important to me. Portman was born in Israel her family moved to the US when she was three and in spent six months doing Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She became involved with Finca after reading that Queen Rania of Jordan was a supporter. And also someone I really admire. She's just super-eloquent and smart and compassionate and doing great things. So I hoped to do something with her, and she directed me towards micro-finance.
It's opening up banking services to the poor. And 70 per cent of them are women and children. Then they pay back their loans, so the loans recycle. It is,' she repeats like the kid she was not so long ago , 'pretty amazing. She's hopeful that western society is on the brink of a paradigm shift - that the mark of a mature capitalist culture is not conspicuous consumption and excess, but restraint and moderation. It's basically aimed at business people who just think about infinite possibilities, infinite expansion - but the earth is limited!
It's very short term to think we can just accumulate and make as much as we can. If you wanna think longer-term economically, there are better ways. Alert, inquisitive, Natalie Portman likes to be stimulated. At Harvard she was tutored by - and became research assistant to - law professor Alan Dershowitz famous outside academia for his role in the defence of Claus von Bulow. Ask her why she chose to study psychology and she replies, 'I think it's pretty much the same job as being an actor: trying to imagine how other people think, why and how they do the things they do.
How things that happen in their life affect them personally and all that stuff. It's understanding subjectivity. It's the basis of all storytelling - everyone who experiences an event has a different take on it and tells it from a different point of view. So yeah, the tale is an amazing thing. And she beams, too, when talking about books: 'I really love having a book in my hand. I'm reading The Omnivore's Dilemma - it's tracing industrialised food production.
For fun or research? For fun. And when talking about Norah Jones Portman and the multimillion-selling jazz-ish singer both star in Wong Kar Wai's upcoming My Blueberry Nights and are now best friends : 'Norah is a sweetheart.
It's rare that you meet people through work who you're, like: "Oh my God, I wanna spend every minute with you!