Sunday, May 16, 1999

'Phantom Menace' queen poised for stardom



BY MARGARET A. McGURK
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[portman]
Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala
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        NEW YORK — Take away the movies, the magazine covers, the rabid fans, and Natalie Portman still looks like a princess.

        Brainy, well-bred and graceful, she is unfailingly polite, generous with praise, and guarded about her personal life as she meets waves of journalists to talk about the movie that, a month shy of her 18th birthday, will make her one of the most famous actresses in the world.

        The Israeli-born daughter of a Cincinnati native plays the exotically garbed Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, opening Wednesday, and two more Star Wars movies due over the next six years.

        Her tiny frame folds neatly into a crossed-legged pose on a straight-backed chair in the hotel room where a table full of writers waits to question her about The Phantom Menace, her education and her future, which may or may not include acting.

        A slight tilt to her eyes lends a hint of the exotic to her extraordinary face, which is even lovelier in person than on film. Barely more more than 5 feet tall and willow thin, she looks as frail as a china doll — an impression that disappears when she begins to speak.

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        She mentions studying for advanced-placement tests as she prepares to graduate from her Long Island high school. She's excited about the movie, but she's more excited about becoming a Harvard freshman.

        “I would hate to go through life not knowing more than I do now,” she says. “I think (college) makes you a more complete person in general.”

        She'll continue to work on films during summer vacations, but says, “I'd rather not miss out on learning just to do a few movies.”

        Even though she has made only a few films, she routinely draws comparisons to Audrey Hepburn.

        Star Wars creator George Lucas said he was convinced early on she was the only right choice for the new movie. “Natalie is very intelligent and has a lot of presence and is a very strong person, yet at the same time is very young,” he says. “And I needed somebody to play a 14-year-old girl who gets elected basically to rule a planet and make that believable.”

College her next role
        The Phantom Menace is expected to elevate Ms. Portman to automatic A-list status among her contemporaries. Few actresses of her age would consider interrupting such success for school.

        No such reservations entered her mind. “It's always been understood in my house that I would” go to college, she says.

        Her father is a physician; her mother is an artist and a Walnut Hills High School graduate.

        Also, she notes that by the time she finishes college she will have 10 years of acting experience under her belt. “I might be ready to move on at that point to a different career.”

        Her grandmother still lives in Cincinnati. “I love it, it's so nice there,” Ms. Portman says, though she admits it has been a long time since she has visited the Midwest. “We're so bad with that. She usually comes to visit us, 'cause she loves coming to New York.”

        Oddly enough, until she was chosen to play Amidala, Ms. Portman had never seen the Star Wars trilogy. She loved the originals, but hesitated about taking the job offered three years ago by series creator George Lucas. She understood the magnitude of fame the role would bring, and she wasn't sure she wanted it.

        Moreover, she didn't know if she wanted to commit to playing the same character until she was 24 years old. “When you're 14, when you don't know what you want to do with your life, when you don't know what you want to do with the rest of the day, it's a huge decision to make.”

        She says she has no regrets now about saying yes, even though she found the work more punishing than she expected. There were 16-hour work days, harsh weather in Tunisia, lonely weekends in London away from friends and family.

        “This was the first film where I was treated like an adult,” she says. “You always beg for that as a teen-ager while you're growing up, but then when you get it, it's a shock.”

        She professes great admiration for her film character, a youthful leader of a planetary republic. “She has this kind of unembarrassed idealism. ...I really love the fact that this queen is a young woman. ...Young girls don't have that kind of role model in their life, in real life or reflected on film,” she said.

        “Girls are losing a lot of confidence in themselves as the years go on. They become much more worried about their looks than their intelligence, their personality, their kindness, their souls ... To see someone who's so wonderful because she's smart and in control and really knows what's going on and she's a good person and she's compassionate — it's a good image for girls to have.”

"I want to act'
        Queen Amidala appears in a succession of complex costumes and wigs as ornate as anything seen in Elizabethan England or Imperial China. One headpiece was so peculiar she and the crew called it “the armadillo.”

        “They're the most beautiful costumes I've ever seen on film. It really helped me with the character,” Ms. Portman said of the outfits, which took 21/2 hours to don each day, including makeup. “And to have so many people attending to me all day with the hair and the clothes and the makeup — it really makes you feel like a queen.”

        Still, she was pleased that Anywhere But Here, her next movie after The Phantom Menace, called for ordinary modern clothes.

        Next, she says, “I'd love to do a great teen movie,” along the lines of John Hughes' Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club. “Those are the movies I grew up on.”

        As a child she studied music and dance and dreamed of performing on Broadway. One day, she was in a dance contest at a pizza parlor, when a scout for Revlon noticed her.

        “This guy came up and asked me if I was interested in modeling for some children's fragrance or something, and I said, no, I want to act.”

        That led to an introduction to an agent, auditions and her star-making role, at the age of 12 in Luc Besson's The Professional.

        Not long thereafter followed the fans, like the kind who set up Web sites devoted to singing her praises. She has not seen them — “I don't know how to use any kind of technology” — but she appreciates the intention.

        “It's always nice to have people appreciate the work you do,” she says, though clearly she is cautious about falling victim to inflated ego. “How many interesting things can you have done if you're 17?”

        At the moment, coping with inordinate amounts of attention is a serious issue as The Phantom Menace publicity drive kicks into overdrive.

        “It didn't really occur to me that it was going to happen until it started a few months ago. It's crazy,” she says. “I just hope no one gets sick of us. I think people already are groaning about hearing so much about this movie.”

        E-mail Margaret McGurk at mmcgurk@enquirer.com.

- 'Phantom Menace' queen poised for stardom
Lucas: Fans drove hype
Neeson still in films, extols 'Phantom'



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