The new Natalie Portman movie is in theaters today, and it makes Portman a triple threat. Back in classic Hollywood, all actors had to be able to sing, dance and act. Now Portman is bringing it back.
In Vox Lux, she plays pop star Celeste, who had a hit with a memorial song to her school shooting as a teenager. Now a major celebrity with a roller coaster career behind her, Celeste is dealing with a terrorist attack using costumes from her music video, issues with her daughter (Raffey Cassidy) and a major performance in the evening.
We saw Vox Lux at AFI Fest last month, where Portman attended the screening and spoke in a Q&A after the film. Here is a transcript of her Q&A. Vox Lux is now playing.
Q: Was this character a collaboration between you and the director?
NP: Absolutely. I think the biggest part of the character was the writing. Brady [Corbet] wrote such a specific character that felt so rounded and such like a real human being with very dark sides. Sometimes she’s really authentic and sometimes she’s totally fake and sometimes she’s cruel and sometimes she’s gentle and sometimes she’s performing and sometimes she’s being. It was really just remarkable reading it. I feel like that really provided a great blueprint, and then watching all the different documentaries that pop stars made. Almost all of them have made them now. Working on the choreography, going from having a baby to being able to do squats in stilettos. Then doing the recording. That was the preparation.
NP: We actually didn’t. I think that was intentional for Brady because he really wanted them to be different characters because she’s really changed obviously. You see this innocent young woman at the beginning and then catch her after 20 years of hard life I guess. I loved the fact that he chose to skip that period because we all know how to fill it in. We know plenty of the hard times of a pop star, the rocky road until their resurrection. It’s such a familiar tale to us so you don’t have to see it.
Q: What drew you to this character?
NP: I thought there was an incredible opportunity to play a character like that that I’ve never had a chance to play before and then also to work with someone like Brady who I think is incredibly talented and interesting and full of great ideas. And then also I think a lot of the themes are really relevant to the world we live in. I feel like a really accurate portrait of what it’s like to live in this moment in history which feels very, very specific that I hadn’t seen reflected in that way before.
NP: Okay, well, that’s a lot. Physically, it was a lot of preparation. I worked with Raquel. I worked with my husband on the choreography for about a month. I actually prepped the film twice because the night before I think I was actually on my way to the airport the first time and they were like, “Turn home, the financing fell apart.” We were literally about to shoot and the financing fell through and the movie was cancelled. I had prepped everything so when everything got pulled back together again it was a few months later, so I had to kind of start over again, even though it was relatively recent in my memory. I had to start over. So that was kind of nice because it actually gave a longer time to prep and a longer time to sit in my head and my body and all that. So physically, that was dance training, physical training just to have the endurance to do a show like that. Then emotionally, I kept asking Brady should I be kind of off? She’s obviously had this massive breakdown right before. She’s obviously had this drug experience and he was like no. She’s out of it, down and back up and she’s a professional. She’s done this a million times and she can operate even a little bit messed up.
Q: Is she where she wants to be, at the peak of her game?
NP: Yeah, I mean, maybe not the peak but can handle it to the point where her audience isn’t aware that she was having a drug fueled meltdown minutes earlier. So that was really informative in terms of the headspace of just being able to enter, that she could kind of enter a space and leave everything behind her that just happened, that she can go in anew which was an interesting kind of key to the character too. A certain kind of erasure must have to happen. And then logistically, we had a day and a half to shoot it. Brady shot this entire movie in 22 days. I shot in 10 days. They opened a studio right around the corner from my house where I grew up and like right around the corner from my school where I grew up so it was legitimately like a homecoming kind of feeling. And we stayed at this hotel that, I forget what it’s called, but it’s something fantasy sounding like The Babylon Inn or something. It was like where I went to every Bar Mitzvah growing up. The guy at the door was like, “I remember you from when you were in your Bar Mitzvah dress.” I was like, “Oh God.” It was a real return to my roots kind of feeling. Very easy to go into my accent because it’s where I grew up.
Q: 10 days?
NP: And the first day shooting was the drug meltdown. It was like, “And go.”
Q: Do you have more hours in a day than the rest of us?
NP: No, and actually I think it’s really to Brady’s credit that despite the short shoot, the days, we weren’t going overtime. One of the days was my daughter’s first birthday and he and Jude were like, “You’re going home now. You finished your side. You’re leaving. You’re going home to your baby.” I was like, “No, I need to stay. I need to be professional.” They’re like, “You’re going. This happens once.” They kind of kicked me off set. They were so normal and life affirming about you’re working but it’s possible to do your work in the work hours of the day. You don’t have to go crazy overtime and it just had to do with Brady being incredibly organized and specific with his vision and understanding the time constraints and choosing to shoot things in ways. You notice a lot of things are done in one shot that are virtuosic shots, but also are practical. You can shoot one scene and do it 10 different ways and really get to explore and play but you’re able to do it in a time constraint.
Q: Is who you work with more important than what you do?
NP: It was so lucky and when people are generous, I personally find I want to give everything. I want to creatively just open myself and when people are less than generous I shut myself in. I’m sure a lot of people are like that too. It’s a good example when people can be auteurs and be human beings with hearts.
Q: What was it like working with Jude Law again?
NP: Jude is just one of the greatest actors. He’s just so phenomenal. I mean, his voice in this is different than I’ve ever heard. It’s such this amazing resonance. He is, again, also one of the kindest, most wonderful people I know and a real major talent. It was very lucky because this is the fourth film I’ve been in with him. We worked together the first time on Cold Mountain almost 20 years ago and then Closer. And then we both were in My Blueberry Nights. We didn’t have scenes together but we were in the film together, the Wong Kar-Wai film. So I’ve known him over the course of 20 years. We don’t know each other. We’ve never been buddies or hanging out or anything, but I’ve worked with him many times. So it was lucky going into this that we have a history and a comfort level we can play off of. Day one I already felt at ease.
Q: Since he was an actor, did Brady bring something else to directing?
NP: First of all, it’s a great opportunity to talk about a man who’s in the room but not yet up here, so I can say whatever I want. He can’t respond, but I’ll be real. He’s really understanding of actors because of that. I think he really understands the freedom that you want and need and he created a situation, first of all, where you feel very safe and taken care of, that you have someone considerate looking out for you, which already creates a safe environment. But then on top of it, these long takes, we were able to do these scenes that are written quite lengthily. That diner scene was I think a 10 or 12 page scene. We could do that in its entirety. When you can do it in its entirety, you really are able to first modulate throughout the scene where you’re going, what turns you take. And you also are able to keep track of doing completely different things and letting starting points that are different go different places, end different places so it’s a real gift because doing a fragment of a scene is hard. It’s a whole different scale. So it was really, really incredible. So that diner scene, for example, he had two cameras so that we could do the scene in its entirety and if we were spontaneous with each other, you could get the reaction too so you didn’t have to repeat interesting moments that happened or something. You could just let them exist. So it was really fun. Despite having such a short amount of time, I felt like I could do 12 completely different takes for every scene because we were shooting that way. I hadn’t had that freedom on anything.
Q: Then how was working with Raffey as your daughter?
NP: Raffey’s remarkable. We didn’t rehearse together. We just started working. She’s incredible. The first time I saw her as young Celeste was when I saw the finished film. So to see how she could modify her performance so subtly and really believe it was two completely characters, I really thought Brady was nuts for making this decision. Are you sure? You’re going to make me stand next to the character that played me in the beginning and try to make people believe we’re the same character? I did ask you in our early conversations, “Why are you doing this?” But I trusted it because Brady was very convinced about it. I think it’s so powerful to me in the film. I think we so often see our kids as versions of ourselves and how we relate to them with all the self-hatred and self-love alternately, or sometimes all at once. I think it’s so powerful to have it embodied, the entire time she’s with her daughter, she’s also with her younger self. Both as what that means just for everyone as a parent but also for the film to see both of these versions of this woman together. I think it works because it’s like a metaphor but it also works literally. She does such a great job acting, Raffey, that you do always believe her in both characters and as different people. But she holds within her both characters so there’s a doubling of meaning all the time.
Q: She has contacts as young Celeste.
NP: I remember when we started filming, I hadn’t been there for the first part and everyone was like, “Oh, Raffey, your eyes.” Because her natural eyes are blue the second half.
Q: How did you feel coming on and having that music there?
NP: Well, it was incredible when I received the script to have the Sia song with it. I remember getting an e-mail with these attachments of the songs, and she sings them on the demos herself. So of course they’re gorgeous. Just beautiful, beautiful songs and really great pop songs so I knew that it was realistic, because if you read a script and then it says, “And then she writes a hit pop song” and we don’t see the song, you’re like okay, good luck getting that. It was clear from the beginning that it had this incredible music. And getting to record it was really fun because I got to work with Chris Braide who’s incredible and the loveliest person. And just see what they can do. They’re the real artists. You see they can do so much magic to make things sound like what we’re used to hearing.