Natalie Portman Speaks About Playing “Jackie” After JFK’s Assassination

Natalie Portman in "Jackie."
Natalie Portman in "Jackie."
Natalie Portman in “Jackie.”

By Danny Peary


Jackie fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile you can see Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s psychological portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy—as channeled by Oscar-contender Natalie Portman–in New York City, where it opens Friday in three theaters. This comes after this unique biopic and its star received a lot of buzz at the Venice, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals. From the Press Notes: “Jacqueline Kennedy was just 34 when her husband was elected President of the United States. Elegant, stylish, and inscrutable, she instantly became a global icon, one of the most famous women in the world, her taste in fashion, décor and the arts widely admired. Then on November 22, 1963, while on a campaign trip to Dallas, John F. Kennedy is assassinated—Jackie’s pink suit is showered in her husband’s blood. As she boards Air Force One back to Washington, Jackie’s world—including her faith—is completely shattered. Traumatized and reeling with grief, over the course of the next week, she must confront the unimaginable, consoling her two young children, vacating the home she painstakingly restored, and planning her husband’s funeral. Jackie quickly realizes that the next seven days will determine how history will define her husband’s legacy—and how she herself will be remembered.” The trailer: I took part in the following roundtable with Natalie Portman, whose admiration for Jackie O is palpable. I note my questions.

Q: To play Jacqueline Kennedy, did you feel you had to step up or did it come naturally to you?

Natalie Portman: It was not natural. I definitely had to step up to get into her shoes. It was an amazing challenge and opportunity to take her on because when people are iconic we see them as a thing, as a symbol, as a facade, and to really consider her as a human being is such a tremendous exercise and something we haven’t done with her. Largely because she really kept herself private. She gave a certain part of herself to the public and said “the rest is for me.” She was so careful about that–and she did such an amazing job doing it.

Natalie Portman in "Jackie."
Natalie Portman in “Jackie.”

Q: From an artistic standpoint, how do you portray this historical person without slipping into caricature?

NP: It was super dangerous. I was really scared of it because mimicking has never been my thing. I never thought that was a talent of mine. First and foremost, you need the audience to buy that you are the person you are on screen and what made it such a challenge with Jackie is that she is so famous that people know her voice and how she talked and the way she moved. I was like, “I’m setting myself up for disaster but it’s kind of interesting because I’m an actor, not a surgeon, so if I fail nobody is going to die!” That’s what I had to tell myself: “No one is going to die!” When I started talking in her voice on set everybody was like, “Uh, oh.” But in the tapes that exist of her, that’s what it was, so you have to go with it. Luckily our director, Pablo Larraín, always brought it back to the emotion and inner feelings to it give it a nice balance and keep it from getting campy. It turned out to be really beautiful to experience.

Q: Did you have any trepidation that you’d compare yourself to other actresses who have played her?

NP: It was lucky I hadn’t seen any of the other portrayals. I did not seek them out because if there was something I liked that they did then I might have tried to copy it. I wanted to stay away from that. I hadn’t seen them so it wasn’t something I had in my head. But when I first got the script, I wondered, “Why do we need to tell this story that has already been told a lot?” However, when I read it and talked to Pablo about his approach I thought, “OK, this film tells the story in a completely different and unconventional way.”

Q: Did you look at a lot of footage of Jackie?

NP: I watched the televised White House tour obsessively as the beginning of my exploration with my incredible dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein. Because we were doing an exact replica I really wanted to get even the pauses, the hesitations, the breaths, the mess ups. I wanted all of that to be the same as she was on television. It was a two-hour special, so we could hear all the sounds she made and get her rhythm. We listened to that and that was the really formative thing for the accent I did.

Q: Did you look at Grey Gardens?

NP: I did watch Grey Gardens again, which helped give me permission to go a little eccentric. She was from a family that was wealthy but lost everything and there’s a certain tension that goes on with that. I also studied the interviews she did with Arthur Schlesinger [in early 1964 for an eight-part series for Life magazine]. They were really helpful. He was a friend, so even though it was an interview you get a sense of how she talked in private with someone she knew versus how she was in front of the public when on television.

Q: She was nervous.

NP: She was nervous and also tried to present a sort of coy, feminine demeanor. When it was private, she was different. She was super sharp. She knew every person that came in and out of Jack Kennedy’s life, all of the politicians and understood what they were talking about. She really paid attention to everything to the point that we were asking Pablo, “Is this really possible? Did she really say this in interviews without referring to notes?” Her brain was amazing. She was a real scholar of history, and that was actually a big connection between her and JFK. He had her translate books about Indochine from French to English, and they would sit and talk about geeky history trivia together. She was also super witty—she was sardonic and had that sharp tongue, which of course is not the image she projected when she doing those interviews.

DP: In the film I see her within her marriage as being a sad, lonely, dutiful woman who had no outlet for her intellect or much else. Did you see her that way?

NP: We’re seeing her at the saddest moment in her life, so I’m not necessarily sure that would characterize how she was in general. She is having an identity crisis. For a woman of that time, your identity is Mrs. Your Husband’s Last Name. She is Mrs. Kennedy. And when he’s killed, Who are you? What are you? To have a crisis in faith and a crisis in identity, and to have to leave your home and mourn a person you loved very much, and stay strong for your children, and also make the country feel like it’s not going to be like World War III—that’s a lot to experience at once. It is an overwhelming moment for this woman that, hopefully, brings out her character. She has many aspects to her.

DP: I’m wondering if after years of being the wife of a senator and president, his death allows her to again be the dynamic woman she was before the marriage.

NP: In regard to her identity as a woman changing after the assassination, she would probably look back to Who was I before I married? She even says that to [White House Social Secretary] Nancy Tuckerman [Greta Gerwig], because she’s the character in the movie who knew her when they were in school together. It’s like, “Nancy, remind me of who I am, remind me who I was before I became this thing.” Her life prior to marrying JFK was really interesting. She was a journalist. She was catching photos on the street of fashionable girls, that sort of thing–it wasn’t as probing as the kind of journalism she was later on the other side of, but it definitely gave her a lot of insight. She and her sister Lee went on a trip to Europe when Jackie was 20 and Lee was around 18, and they made this book together for which Jackie drew all the pictures and Lee wrote all the stories. They sent it to their parents and published it when they were in their fifties. My parents gave me that book and it was an amazing gift. It’s beautiful and funny and gives great insight into two single girls traveling alone in Europe and how much the art and history influenced them. Jackie spoke French fluently. She spent a year in France and it’s well known she was influenced by French fashion and culture. As First Lady she was completely influenced by what she experienced in France. She saw how important it was to have all these objects in the White House that reflect our country’s identity, and art and history were a big part of that. She asked, “Why is Abraham Lincoln’s desk in a garage sale in the middle of nowhere?” So she tracked down all of these pieces of furniture and art and said this is our legacy and that we need objects to tell us who we are and what are values are. She also spearheaded the effort to preserve important historical buildings [including the Executive Office Building and those in Lafayette Square, a residential area across the street from the White House]. Also she helped create a commission for the arts in Washington and was the first to invite important artists to the White House and say that the artistic identity of this country is important. That came from her time in France as a student, when she really got that understanding of how much art is important to government. Pablo emphasized a lot her love of beauty. He always had me say: “I love beauty.” She was so aesthetic, she loved clothes and fabrics, and apparently she was always getting in trouble with Kennedy because she was spending a million dollars a year on clothes. He said the American people are gonna lose their minds, you gotta chill out. When someone who loves beauty that much has the ugliest thing in the world happen to them, how does that affect her?

Q: The film weighs in heavily on the Camelot era. Did you know much about that before taking on the role?

NP: I had always heard about the mythology and saw the Life magazine cover depicting that, but I never knew Jackie Kennedy came up with it. I thought someone else said they’re like America’s royals, Camelot. Also, when you hear the record she always plays, you’re like, “That Camelot?” I thought it was a reference to King Arthur’s kingdom, not the musical.

Q: Did you think about how her story would play out in this digital age?

NP: It’s interesting that she was so unknowingly ahead of her time. She wasn’t trying to be feminist. She was actually defining herself as her husband’s wife and guardian of his legacy and everything she was doing was out of her wifely duty in her mind. Yet at the same time she crafted her own narrative and was the agent and author of her own story, and that is what everyone is doing today. People are showing what they want to show on Instagram and she did that fifty years ago. This is what you guys are going to think about me, here’s the story that will be remembered. Her story is incredibly modern and intelligent and shows a real understanding of history. The story that lasts and gets told is the best story, not real fact. For instance, I was not really aware of the incitement that lead up to the assassination because that hasn’t been part of the story. Being from Israel I had heard so much about the Rabin assassination there. There had been posters and slogans about killing him and they were doing the same thing with Kennedy, which I was really not aware of. And we reference it in the movie when Jackie says to Ladybird Johnson early in the movie, “There were posters calling for him to be killed.” Of course, we heard disgusting rhetoric during this year’s election talking about those things. We can see how vile and repetitive these patterns of incitement are and the real tragedy that can ensue. There are probably a lot of parallels you can draw.

DP: I’ve never seen a character walk so much in and out of rooms, as Jackie does in this movie.

NP: The walking–that’s really interesting. We did do a lot of that. It’s part of one of the really interesting things that Pablo brought to his concept. We filmed on a stage in Paris. They actually built the White House in Paris, which is quite amazing. And almost every day, we filmed moving scenes. What happened was they would build up a room and then tear it down and build something else. And so before the rooms were torn down we did these moving scenes. Some of them were of her just walking through her house on her last day there, some of them were about her packing or directing packing. It was a beautiful and tragic and awful thing to consider that at the moment you lose someone you love very much you also have to leave your house. That’s a crazy thing.

DP: Did she walk the way you do in the film? Did you study that?

NP: We got to see her walking during the White House tour special. She was very formal and stiff, so I definitely went for that.

DP: In all the years I never was aware she suffered survivor’s guilt after her husband died as he did.

NP: Yeah. That’s from real sources. Clint Hill, the guard who was with them, wrote a biography about her and wrote about that.

DP: Another surprise was that she wanted to actually speak to Lee Harvey Oswald after his arrest.

NP: I feel like it is a natural instinct to say, “I want to meet the person who did this and maybe that can help you understand why.” Because what happened was so confusing and unimaginable it does make sense in that moment that she would want to talk to that person.

DP: We already knew a lot about Jackie and now this film gives a different perspective. What is the one thing you hope resonates with viewers?

NP: We still haven’t given Jackie her due if you consider how she went through something so tragic in service to the country, and then pulled herself together again in service to the country. That was just astonishing.