Natalie Portman isn’t the first actor to play Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis onscreen. She follows Jaclyn Smith, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Roma Downey, Jill Hennessy, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Katie Holmes, and Ginnifer Goodwin, among many others. But in Jackie, an intimate biopic from Chilean director Pablo Larrain that shadows the beloved U.S. First Lady in the wake of her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Portman’s performance breaks through the well-established mythology of the fragile American aristocrat to expose the woman beneath the beloved public persona.
“Everything I knew about her before was very surface,” Portman says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she has recently returned to live with her husband Benjamin Millepied and five-year-old son Aleph after spending a few years in Paris. “The clothes, the hair, the elegance, the dignity, the grace—everything that we praise her for as a pop-culture icon.”
Yet in Jackie, Portman imagines the newly widowed First Lady navigating her world off the national stage. The film shows her chain-smoking and drinking, washing her husband’s blood from her hair, and grappling with her new identity as a widow. “I think that anytime we consider someone public as a private person also, and really consider their humanity, it is a great exercise for an audience,” she says. “We are used to having people in our society who are symbols or things almost, and we forget just how much they are people.”
Portman speaks from experience. The 35-year-old made her debut onscreen when she was just 13, playing a young assassin-in-training in Luc Besson’s artful action film The Professional. The high-profile roles that followed included Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Jane Foster, girlfriend to Thor, in two of Marvel’s super space operas. (She told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that she has no plans to return to the Marvel-verse, saying, “As far as I know, I’m done.”)
In playing Mrs. Kennedy, her own fame was as much of a challenge to surmount as the shadow cast by Kennedy herself. “You need to overcome people’s recognition of you,” she says. “And of course recognition of (Jackie) as well. There is big pressure to get all of the details that you can right. Also, the goal is not to do an impersonation. The goal is to do an embodiment. To get the feeling of who the human being was and not just a caricature.”
In addition to perfecting Kennedy’s regal charm, a quality that Jackie shows the First Lady using as a political salve on a nation’s wounded heart, Portman worked with a dialect coach to perfect Kennedy’s distinctively breathy mid-Atlantic speaking voice. “The accent is very particular, and the voice is very particular, and even the rhythms are very particular,” Portman says.
Of course, Kennedy’s celebrated fashion was crucial to capturing the majesty of the First Lady. Kennedy’s iconic pink pillbox hat and jacket is exploited in the film as much to conjure Jackie’s legacy as to subvert it. The outfit is symbolic of ’60s chic, and yet Jackie lingers on the hours following the assassination, when the familiar look is still stained with the president’s blood. “She insisted on wearing that pink suit all day,” Portman says. “She wouldn’t get out of it. (She wanted) to put on display for everyone the violence of what had happened.”
Portman herself is hailed as a style icon, most closely aligned with Dior. She has fronted campaigns for the French fashion house since 2010. “It’s such an incredible label,” Portman gushes. “I think it’s synonymous with elegance and glamour and this very strong but feminine woman. It’s been an honour to be associated with them and work with them.” Not to mention, she says with a laugh, “to get to wear their beautiful clothes for my red-carpet adventures.”
Portman was draped in Dior when she walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival for her supernatural drama Planetarium, which she co-stars in opposite Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis). She wore a structured pale-pink jacket-style dress, embellished with illustrated sprigs of blossoming buds. The look was formal, feminine, and also happened to double as maternity-wear—the actor was visibly pregnant with her second child when she arrived on the red-carpet in Venice in September.
Despite a lifetime spent on the red carpet, Portman still enjoys having an occasion to dress for. “I think it’s fun to get to play princess,” she says. “To get those opportunities to really feel glamourous and have a moment.”
She’s similarly aloof about the Oscar buzz that immediately started when Jackie premiered in Venice. Many critics have hailed her performance in the film as even stronger than her Oscar-winning work as an unravelling ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s nightmarish Black Swan.
“It’s very, very flattering and helps bring attention to your film,” she says. “But you don’t want to get your meaning of what you do through praise or criticism. You need the experience of it to be independent of that.”
It’s why Portman will see her films with an audience only once. “I don’t like to tie how I feel about a movie to anyone else,” she says. “The experience of making a movie is so special. You can keep it independent from how people react to it.”
When she recalls working on Jackie, it’s not the moments of claustrophobic intimacy or wailing grief she will take with her. Much of the film was shot in France, where, thanks to the country’s progressive enforcement of work-life balance, her hours on set were restricted. Speaking about the shoot, what she recalls most is coming home for dinner with her family every night.
“It was really wonderful,” she recalls. “To have this intense day at work and then disconnect and have this time with your family every day. Of course you take it with you, because it is very emotional. But you are forced by being a parent to snap out of it.”