Jackie star Natalie Portman: ‘We have a problem with female leadership – in business, government, and storytelling’

Portman talks about her new role as Jackie Kennedy, the defeat of Hillary Clinton and women being cast as objects of desire

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More than 50 years after his death, John F Kennedy remains one of America’s best-loved presidents. So there is more than a little irony that, on the same day that Jackie – a portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s public and private grief following the 1963 assassination of her husband – is released in the UK (Friday 20 January), Donald Trump will be inaugurated to the White House.

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“We had no idea, while making it, when the movie would come out,” says Natalie Portman, who plays Jackie. “And we didn’t make it with the intention of any political comment – we didn’t even know who the presidential candidates would be. So it’s interesting to see how the context affects people’s interpretation of it.”

It is a rain-soaked afternoon when I meet Portman – pregnant with her second child – in a New York hotel to discuss the role, which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination and is widely tipped to win her an Academy Award nomination later this month, too. But taking on the role of the most famous First Lady of all time was not an immediate “yes” for the actress.

“People know so much about her, particularly how she looked and how she sounded, and I wanted to make sure I would be believable,” she says. “And the material has been so well covered that I wondered what we could say that was new.”  

Massachusetts, 1953

Any fears she may have had about credibility proved to be entirely unfounded. In a perfectly coiffed black bob and an impeccably tailored two-piece suit, Portman is transformed into an impressively accurate Jackie. But the most arresting aspect is the voice, a famously breathy and bizarre mix of accents and intonations that Portman pulls off with aplomb.

“She was brought up between New York and Long Island, then attended Miss Porter’s finishing school and entered that debutante world, and all of that shaped how she spoke,” explains Portman. “There are particular combinations that you don’t often hear, such as someone saying “raaaather” in the Queen’s English and then saying “tawk” in a Long Island twang. The accent is a sort of diagram of her background.”

To prepare, Portman spent a month listening to tapes of Jackie’s interviews and watching old televised clips, including those of her White House tour, parts of which director Pablo Larraín re-created verbatim for the film.

Far from being a traditional biopic, Jackie concentrates on the days following the assassination, and, in particular, the interview Jackie gave to Life magazine shortly after JFK’s funeral.

While her poise and elegance was world renowned, the film also reveals an accompanying steeliness. The widow tightly controls the copy, at times dictating exactly what the reporter will write, and claiming, as she tearfully lights another cigarette, that she definitely does not smoke.   

“She took the reins of her own narrative,” enthuses Portman. “And it was very ahead of her time. Now, we see so many people defining the image they want other people to have of them via their social media, but she was doing it 50 years ago.” It was also more than just her own image she defined. “JFK was in office for such a short time – only a little over two years – but you would never know it from his legacy. And that’s 100 per cent because of the work that Jackie did, which the film explores.”

It was Jackie who coined the term “Camelot” to describe their glittering, hope-filled administration, and she who insisted upon the grandeur of her husband’s funeral, which is all the more remarkable given her age. Jackie was just 31 when she became First Lady, and still only 34 when Kennedy was killed – the same age Portman was while making the film.

“It’s unbelievable to think she was that age with that level of responsibility,” nods Portman. “That she could pull herself together and understand the symbolism of her response, and that she didn’t just drown and allow herself to wallow but picked herself up for the people, is really remarkable.”

Portman, who was born in Israel, but grew up – like Jackie – on Long Island and in New York, has been in the public eye since her first feature role (at 12) in Luc Besson’s Leon, before making Star Wars Episode I while still at high school.

Portman in Black Swan

“I was aware of how people perceived me early on because, at the beginning, I would read everything that was written about me,” she says. “But I was never interested in crafting an image. For me, it’s about trying to be authentic, and trying to give people a sense of who you are, while maintaining some modicum of privacy.”

In 2012, Portman married French ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer on Black Swan, for which she won an Oscar. A year later, the family relocated to France, where Portman discovered a very different approach to notions of public life.

“They are very, very respectful of privacy in France, almost to a fault. When the president is having affairs on his motorbike, they’re like, it’s none of our business. And as an American, we’re like, of course it’s our business!” She lets out a long, loud laugh. “It’s great to live there because the highest compliment anyone can pay is that you’re discreet. Like, ‘Oh, she’s wonderful, she’s very discreet’, you know?”

In Portman’s powerfully intimate performance, Jackie is a multidimensional prospect – self possessed, conscious of her public duty, but also rather more drunk and intransigent than in previous portrayals. “We are so often put in roles as objects of desire, with a male view, as opposed to subjects of desire with complex weaknesses, and moments of strength and focus – and you can be all of those things,” she observes.  

Are things getting better in Hollywood, with such roles for women finally increasing? “No,” says Portman, emphatically. But she doesn’t believe it’s a uniquely Hollywood problem. “We’re having a problem with female leadership – in business, in government, in storytelling.” She mulls over this assertion for a moment. “I think it has to do with being a boss. We’re still having a problem, first with women in that position, and second there are so many obstacles in their way.”

A point that brings us back to the current context. “Obviously I wanted Hillary to win, so this is not the way I wanted things to turn out,” she says, with a sigh. Portman actively campaigned for Clinton, but is resisting gloomy defeatism. “If there’s a silver lining, it’s that I feel very engaged politically and I think a lot of other people do, too,” she says. “It has woken people up, to be engaged citizens in a different way.”

A determined and positive perspective – Jackie Kennedy would no doubt have entirely approved. 

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Jackie is out in UK cinemas from today, Friday 20 January