Takes Off the Mask With V For Vendetta
by Brad Balfour
Familiar with science fiction-themed films, actress Natalie Portman uses her character Evey in V For Vendetta to test both her acting skills and her political judgment while making a profound and timely statement. V For Vendetta details the story of a revolutionary who challenges the dominance of a Hitler-like dictator who rigs a disaster to prompt the fear that stirs the population to make him the Supreme Leader. As Evey, Portman becomes entangled in V’s campaign against the government, and finally, becomes his instrument for effecting his revolution.
Based on the groundbreaking graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd the story has been updated from Margaret Thatcher’s England of the ’80s to a near-future that could serve as a metaphor for George Bush’s government.
Clearly possessed of equal doses of beauty and intelligence, the Israeli born Portman has gone from one revolutionary scenario — the comic book like The Star Wars saga — to this intelligent and provocative bit of cinema based on a comic book.
But that’s not all for Portman. She stars in the politically charged indie Free Zone, which is about to be released, and she will appear in films directed by the likes of Olivier Assayas (Paris je t’aime), Milos Forman (Goya’s Ghost) and Zach Helm (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.)
How was it acting opposite Hugo [Weaving] who played V, a character behind a mask the entire time he was on screen?
Hugo is an incredible, amazing actor so even though he had that barrier of not being able to use his face–which we’re so used to using as film actors with the camera right there–he was able to use his physicality and his voice to really create his character. Hugo is such an actor that just by his physical and vocal expressions you could tell exactly who he was; I think as an audience you can feel that.
Did that pose any new challenges for you as an actor?
There’s also an incredible engagement that takes place because you’re always wondering what’s going on behind it. You’re asking yourself, “Is he crying now? Is he smiling?” You’re trying to get into his mind in a way to the point where you almost become V. That’s even more exciting than normally. It earns its action scenes. It has a compelling story, so you actually care about what’s going on in the action scenes. It’s not gratuitous, and the action scenes are a great reward to that story because they’re pretty stylized and are stuff that you’ve never seen before. It’s like a sweet taste.
What was it like sharing your scenes with a man in a mask?
Even though he had the obstacle of not being able to use his face as a tool, his vocal and physical expressiveness was so specific that I had this amazing performance opposite me and whatever I was doing as an actress, [wondering] what is going on with him behind the mask? Is he smiling right now? Is he crying? Is he angry? [I had to ask what is] the character is going through, too, so I could use that.
So, you didn’t try it on at all?
I may have but with his sweat in that [laughs]? I think the make-up artist’s main job was to wipe the beads of sweat off the mask’s beard.
Your character seems to have a love-hate relationship with V. Was that your take on it?
One of the most exciting things about the characters’ relationship is that it is always changing, which is what real relationships are like. In different contexts, we play different roles in relationships. Sometimes, we’re the protector; sometimes we’re the tormentor. There are different moments when they are lovers, they are father-daughter, they’re enemies, they’re mentor-student, and so they go through all of these stages, and they build up and at many points are all things at once.
What were you thinking about as they cut it off your hair?
I was very focused on being where the character is at that moment, which is in a very traumatic place with this violence being committed against her. We only had one shot to do it because you can’t go back and re-shave the head. We had several cameras on, and we had rehearsed the head shaving with volunteer guys from the crew. But, for me personally it was a choice I was happy to make.
There’s an article I read about Iran in Time magazine about how consumerism was used to quell the masses. Young people – because they’re allowed to have Mercedes and Gucci bags – are not raising their voices against the lack of freedom of press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly that we enjoy. So, there is that aspect of reading this comfortable material might make you more likely to conform.
How did you feel that you were to shave your head?
For me, personally, I was excited to have the opportunity to throw vanity away for a little and go around with no hair. But obviously, I was in character at the moment it happened, so for her it is a very traumatic experience. She is not choosing it. It’s being forced upon her as a pretty violent act.
That was the biggest stress of the whole scene – that we only had one chance. In movies we’re so spoiled. If you mess up, you can always do it again and this was not the case. I just tried to stay focused and do my best job with the chance we had.
Was there any trepidation?
No, it was always something I’ve wanted to do. Making a dramatic change that isn’t reversible is always a worthy experience, and that sort of gave me the courage to do it. And obviously for the character, it’s a very traumatic experience because of how it’s forced upon her, and in such a violent way, it’s committed upon her.
Is that the most pressure you’ve ever been under?
I would say so [laughs]. It’s hard to get more shorn than that.
Did you have apprehension about the taking on the British accent?
You definitely want to do the most believable job possible. I worked with a great dialogue coach, Barbara Burker, who worked with me a month before, and was every day with me on-set. So, it got into my mind to the point where I didn’t have to think about it. So that it sort of came naturally.
There are a lot of British words and phrases that have dual meanings. Did you have any difficulties with those nuances?
It was definitely a challenge to take on the accent. Because I wanted to, first of all, not be focusing on it too much when I was working that, [so that] it actually broke into the character. I worked with the dialect coach for a month in Israel while I was there, and then she was there with me the whole time so that I could be comfortable enough that I could throw it away.
Although the movie was shot in Germany, you’ve spent time in England. Would you ever consider living there?
I don’t know about living there, because my friends and family are in New York and that’s the most important thing about where I choose to live. But I do end up working in London a lot and really love it there. It’s like the best film-going city I’ve ever been to. With all of the theaters showing repertoire stuff on the weekends, it’s a fun place to be on a weekend.
You have dual citizenship – here and in Israel – so you must have some interesting views on terrorism.
This film asks questions more than anything because of the way that all of the characters are represented. The hero is not a classic movie hero, but more the classic Greek hero with a tragic flaw who is out for revenge. There are many points in the movie where he is a pretty bad guy and you’re not with him. I think that complexity and the complexity of how Evey makes her transformation to become violent is complicated, as well. In some ways you figure she is meeting her destiny, but in other ways, she is finding her integrity. And in other ways she is being manipulated. So, all of those things together give you a complex view of what it takes to make a person believe that they can use violence as a means of expressing their political beliefs.
As to my personal experience, having been born in Israel and dealing with issues of terrorism and violence my whole life – it’s not like a new concept for me like it is for many people in western democracies now. I think that all of the questions that I wonder about relating to violence ultimately break down to how we categorize violence and put judgment values on different kinds of violence. We say that some kinds of violence are acceptable and legitimate, and some kinds are unacceptable and illegitimate.
We say that state violence is legitimized, and individual killing is not. We say that unintentional killing is better than intentional killing. We say that killing a civilian is worse than killing a soldier, even if the soldier is 18 and has to serve in the military in their country. We say that committing suicide when you’re committing violence is bad but giving your life for your country is heroic. These sort of categories, the lines between them are very thin. Sometimes [putting the acts] into categories trivializes the effects of violence, which are equally horrific everywhere. I don’t think it necessarily legitimizes any sort of violence, but it raises questions that might make us judge all types of violence in a harsher light, I hope.
What drew you to this role in the first place?
I was really excited at the idea of sort of getting into the mind of someone who would use violence. Going through that transformation from someone who started out as a non-violent person, just trying to keep safe in a totalitarian society and becoming someone who believes that violence is an acceptable means to rebel against an oppressive government, because, for me, I’m so into non-violence. But then I always wonder what would drive people who seem like normal, good, smart people to believe that they can commit acts of violence. So, I ask myself these questions and I think, okay, what would make me violent? If someone threatened my family?
Now, I can see from there how that can be extended. What if you think of your whole family is your religious group? What if you think your whole family is your country? What if the threat you perceive is just a perceived threat and not a real threat? You can see how that very human instinct can be expanded into a much larger thing.
When you got this job, did you read the graphic novel as well as the script?
When I was offered the part, I was given the graphic novel, and that was a great resource to have because it’s practically a storyboard for the movie. It’s kind of amazing.
Did you talk with creator/writer Alan Moore [who has disavowed the film] or were you just happy to go with what was on the page?
I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I think all of us – while I can only speak for myself, but I have the feeling that all of us – made this with the greatest respect for the graphic novel. If he didn’t want to be involved in the project, you got to respect that; I’m not going to force him to do that. The greatest gift that he and David [Lloyd, the artist] gave us is the graphic novel. There’s so much in there to draw from.
Were you sad about parts that didn’t make it into the film?
I think that some of the sub-plots were excised so that it could have a smoother narrative. Obviously, the parts that weren’t in the script we luckily had in the graphic novel to give us a more of an imagination of the details of that world that you just can’t put into a film because you don’t want the audience to be sitting there going through pain for having to sit there so long.
This film questions what is a freedom fighter and a terrorist, as well as when violence against the state is allowable and necessary. You did a lot of research before undertaking the role, specifically about Menachem Begin. What did you learn from that research?
That book in particular was very helpful with details of what one’s thought process may be like in an imprisonment situation that would eventually lead you to a place where violence was an acceptable means to convey your political beliefs.
There was also a book I read called Cloud Atlas that was pretty formative to my ideas about violence because it has this story of the Moriori tribe in it. They were this non-violent New Zealand tribe that thought that if you committed violent acts your soul will be tainted, and you would become an outcast in their society. When the Europeans came, they became violent, and now the Moriori no longer exist [laughs]. The problem with non-violence is that if you have violent neighbors, you cease to exist which is sort of like violence to yourself. That helped me to understand violence, because that self-defensive violence is one that I can understand as a human being, but that can be extended to such a large thing. If you think that you would defend your family from a threat, or you’re a president, and your country’s your family, what if the threat is perceived rather than real? All of these things posed questions that you could talk about for a lifetime, and never really come to solid conclusions.
Did everyone have a healthy debate on politics throughout the making of the film?
I think you also can’t be too “what is this about” all the time. You have to focus on the story and the characters and not a larger meaning because once you make it specific you can draw internal conclusions from that.
When you met with those guys – producer Joel Silver, the writers, the Wachowski brothers, and director James McTeigue – what did they ask of you?
I read the scene at the kitchen sink and the scene where I realize that I have to stay in the Shadow Gallery. They made me fly to San Francisco to Israel during school, which was very friendly of them [laughs], so I went in like “arrrgh…” But they were so great. I know James from before; we worked together on [Star Wars] Episode II, so it was great seeing him again. Larry was an amazing person to get to know. He’s so smart, interesting, and passionate about filmmaking. So, we had a great talk about the material, and I tried to make them think I was sweet and cute [laughs]… And yeah, they said, “Put your hair back like this,” and I was like [in high-pitched voice] “Okay!” [laughs]
What were the classes in Israel like?
I went for a semester of grad school last year and I brushed up on my Hebrew, and some Arabic. I took classes on Islam, and the history of Israel, and the anthropology of violence, which was very informative for this film.
I enjoyed your performance in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s Free Zone [which screened at Cannes last year, and at Lincoln Center] that’s a film just as politically charged as V For Vendetta.
I guess I’m politically aware, but I get sick of the news after a while because I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I like to go back to personal joys too.
Have your political opinions changed since making the film?
I don’t know about political [opinions], but my thinking about violence deepened. They’re questions that that don’t have answers but that you can get more a complicated understanding of.
I think the luck of having the story take place in an imaginative future is that it respects the audience to make their own connections to real historical and current events. People see so many different things in it. Joel tells a story about this South Korean reporter who was convinced it was about North Korea. So, you see how the contexts that people come from, they bring to the story.
You’ve now worked in two stories [V and Star Wars] where you’re on the rebel side: what insights do you have about rebels?
What rebels are all about? I guess the main thing I thought about was what it would take for me to become violent. I thought about it, and I thought, to defend my family, and you realize how that can be extended on such a large scale if you think your religion’s your family, or that your whole country’s your family. If the threat is just perceived or if it’s real and how that can turn into wars. I think all of us have had the feeling of why can’t they just talk it out? [laughs] It’s naïve certainly, but it’s in imagining how violence starts that the whole thing starts.
Speaking of the violence at the end, ultimately, she has to make a decision that changes everything? Does that say something about how violence is a necessary part of growth? Is that something you thought helped motivate her decision in order for the revolution to really take hold?
I think that her decision and the audience’s judgment of it are totally separate. She obviously finds it necessary to commit that act, and I think the great thing about this movie is that it leaves that question up to the audience. Obviously, we feel that the cause is just, but the means used are open to interpretation, and obviously throughout history violence has been pretty effective means of creating revolution, but it’s also obviously not been the only way, or anyone’s ideal way.
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 14, 2006.
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