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Natalie Portman is growing through her roles

The 28-year-old actress is choosing parts with an eye on how they'll affect her life. 'I want to be a woman on screen because I want to be a woman in my life. I don't want to be a little girl,' she says.

October 15, 2009|Rebecca Ascher-Walsh REPORTING FROM NEW YORK

Natalie Portman perches on a stool at the counter of a vegan restaurant in downtown Manhattan, nibbling on a soy-cheese sandwich and minding her own business. The same cannot be said of her fellow patrons, two of whom grin smugly, imagining they go undetected snapping pictures of her -- still in full makeup from a photo shoot and wrapped in a trench coat -- with their cellphones. Hanging by the counter behind Portman is framed testimony of how often this occurs: A paparazzi shot of the 28-year-old pixie, who is holding a bottle of the restaurant's juice while her dog mistakes her leg for a fire hydrant.

Portman's ability to elegantly ignore this kind of attention -- first garnered for her debut in "The Professional" at the age of 12 and reaching mania during the second "Star Wars" trilogy -- is about to be sorely tested. This year, she has a spate of films that any actress her age would be delighted to accumulate over a lifetime. First up on Friday is "New York, I Love You," a series of intertwining short films, one of which Portman wrote and directed, in which a father shepherds a child through the park and is mistaken for a nanny. She also stars in a segment directed by Mira Nair, playing an Orthodox Jew who connects with an Indian jewelry dealer as they exchange cultural stories.

Don Roos' drama "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," which showed at the Toronto International Film Festival, will follow, and on Dec. 4, she will be seen opposite Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in Jim Sheridan's "Brothers."

And that's just the beginning. Last spring, she filmed the indie "Hesher," which she also produced, then spent the summer in Belfast on her first comedy, the royal fantasy "Your Highness," before returning to New York for four months of filming Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan." Finally, she'll usher in the spring on the Santa Fe, N.M., set of "Thor."

After that, "I will take a nap -- for like, two months," she says with a laugh. "Right now, I'm working probably more than is good for me, but sometimes it's good to exceed your boundaries and stretch yourself."

Despite the disparateness of the projects, they are unified in showing off Portman's newfound comfort as a full-fledged adult.

"Just as what you are feeling in your life affects your acting, what you act in definitely affects what you are feeling in your life," she says with typical thoughtfulness.

"And whether you want it to or not, and even if you don't know it, it bleeds into your life. I made 'Heat' when I was 14 and played a girl who died," she continues. "A year later, I got into a fight with my mother and cut myself. I had never done it before and I never did it after that, but I think having my wrists bloody in a movie definitely affected my psyche."

A decade out of the turbulence of adolescence, she's now choosing roles in which she can show off her emotional strengths or, as director Sheridan says, that "she's the kind of woman you'd want flying your plane." In "Brothers," she's a young mother grieving for the beloved husband she believes has died in Iraq, while in "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," she's a mother mourning the loss of her days-old infant. And in "New York," both in the segment she directed and the one in which she is directed by Mira Nair, she explores the universality of love and commitment.

"At this point," says Portman of the parts that appeal to her, "I want to be a woman on-screen because I want to be a woman in my life. I don't want to be a little girl."

Adds Sheridan, "I thought she was a revelation in 'Closer,' " a movie that earned Portman an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. "But she's been the Lolita and the sexy ingenue. Now she's grown up, and it's understandable she wants to harness that."

Casting her as a mother required little faith on the director's part, who says, "She's a very strong person, and it's immediately apparent. The weirdest thing is if you'd look at her, you'd think she was a technical actor, but she's absolutely emotional. The only help I gave her were technical things like, 'Your eyes should be up higher.' There aren't many people in the world like Meryl Streep who can truly inhabit different people, but she can. I think there's a lot going on with Natalie we haven't seen."

Portman would seem to agree. She recently switched from vegetarianism to veganism after reading Jonathan Safran Foer's upcoming nonfiction work, "Eating Animals," and she's planning on becoming more vocal on the subject of animal rights.

"There are certain things you can have different opinions on, but then other things, like torturing animals, [are] just wrong," she says. She's discussing how to raise international awareness for the importance of girls' education with FINCA, a nonprofit microfinance organization for which she has volunteered for six years.

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