Natalie Portman Talks Her ‘May December’ ‘Dream Role’ and Warning Child Actors About Working in Hollywood: ‘It Was ‘Luck That I Was Not Harmed’

Awards Circuit Podcast: Also on this 200th episode, Peter Sarsgaard ('Memory') and the Roundtable shares what they're thankful for

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Natalie Portman attends Netflix's "May December" Los Angeles Photo Call at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on November 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
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Natalie Portman calls Todd Haynes’ new film, “May December,” a “dream role.”

“May December” stars Portman as actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman), who is set to portray Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) in a movie. Gracie is a Georgia woman who became a notorious tabloid figure when she engaged in a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy, Joe. (Yes, this is loosely based on the story of teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had an affair with and married her teenage student, Vili Fualaau.)

Twenty years have passed, and Gracie is trying to move on from the scandal. But to prepare for her upcoming role, Elizabeth visits Gracie and Joe (Charles Melton), who is now 36. The couple is still together, married with children, but Elizabeth’s arrival exposes the fractures beneath their carefully constructed surface.

“There are so many refractions that all mirrors the work Todd put into it,” Portman says. “How you see the characters with Samy [Burch]’s writing, where it switches as soon as you think you know something about them. You’re never sure or comfortable about who you’re supposed to be feeling. It was just a gift to get to do.”

On this landmark 200th episode of the award-winning Variety Awards Circuit Podcast, Portman discusses her performance in the Netflix dark comedy. She also shares her viewpoint on the state of the industry and the upward tick of women producing their projects. Listen below.

When assembling a Mount Rushmore of Natalie Portman’s most outstanding performances, you’re likely to include her Oscar-winning turn as a disturbed ballerina in “Black Swan” (2010) and her transformation into the former first lady in “Jackie” (2016). The other two slots are up for general cinematic debate. Under the direction of auteur Haynes, Portman’s latest effort in “May December” may stand proudly alongside her other roles.

Read the highlights from Variety’s interview with the Oscar-winning actress below.

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Coming off the Hollywood strikes, what’s your opinion about the industry’s status, where the lines are blurred between television, film, movie theaters?

I have no idea and feel I’m as lost as everyone else. It seems to be changing all the time. They’re like, “Movies are dead,” but “No, movies are thriving,” and “No, streaming is just like TV.” We spent all this time changing our industry to have the same thing we had before. And meanwhile, I see my kids; they’re all just watching YouTube. [It makes you think that] maybe none of this is relevant. I want to make what I love and care about and try to keep supporting that. When you complete those things, they find their audiences and find their people, the people who are passionate about it.

As a former child actress who is now a mother, would you encourage your children to get into this industry? Or do you see enough change that it feels safe for them if they choose to get into it?

I would not encourage young people to go into this. I don’t mean ever; I mean as children. I feel it was almost an accident of luck that I was not harmed, also combined with very overprotective, wonderful parents. You don’t like it when you’re a kid, and you’re grateful for it when you’re an adult. I’ve heard too many bad stories to think that any children should be part of it. Having said that, I know all the conversations that we’ve been having these past few years. It’s made people more aware and careful. But ultimately, I don’t believe that kids should work. I think kids should play and go to school.

The movie is a dark comedy, which people who haven’t seen the film are surprised to see it labeled that way. Did you see the humor while reading the script, or did you see it more in the editing room?

I feel like I saw it more in the edit. I saw the absurdity and how ridiculous people are and human behavior. I mean… “everyone’s crazy” is the summary of every story. I saw that, but I think Todd’s vision for it is like the music he chose. It was so unexpected and nothing I ever imagined while reading it. That creates a very unsettling tone with humor, but I wouldn’t say it is funny. It’s more this tone if you’re in a strange, unsettling world.

Where does your Academy Award sit in your house? Is it on display?

No, no, no. It’s in a safe. There was a moment when my husband wanted to embarrass me. In the “Black Swan” era, he put all the trophies on the mantel, and I was just like, “I need to hide this immediately.” It’s amazing to be recognized, but can never be the motivation because that’s corrupting.

You star in and produce your movie. How do you feel about this upward trend of women taking on both those roles in the business nowadays?

It’s the best, and seeing my peers do it inspires me. Reese [Witherspoon] is one of the biggest role models and inspiration. It’s incredible seeing Margot Robbie and Emma Stone also doing it; I think there are many people this year who’ve been helping create.

There are a lot of great things happening this awards season, but there is also darkness and sadness happening around the world regarding the rise of antisemitism and the war in Palestine. Do you have a message or thoughts you’d like to share during this time?

Well…it’s a really, really difficult time. And we need art more than ever. I feel like that’s where we need to find our light.

Also on this episode, actor Peter Sarsgaard, the Volpi Cup winner and star of Michel Franco’s “Memory,” talks about his new film.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly