The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Natalie Portman

b. June 9, 1981

by Mara W. Cohen Ioannides
Last updated June 23, 2021

Actress Natalie Portman at the Toronto International Film Festival, September 16, 2009. Photograph by Josh Jensen.

In Brief

Natalie Portman was born in Israel and raised in the United States. She began acting as a child before she even studied the art, having her first professional acting job at the age of twelve, thereafter acting in plays and films. She attended Harvard University, majoring in psychology because she thought it would benefit her acting. Portman’s fame grew when she starred as Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. She was awarded the Genesis Prize in 2018 but notably refused to attend the awards ceremony because of her disapproval of actions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government. Portman is also a prominent activist, focusing especially on women’s empowerment and veganism.

Personal Life

Natalie Portman was born Neta-Lee Hershlag in 1981 in Jerusalem, Israel, to gynecologist father Avner Hershlag and American homemaker mother Shelley Stevens, who later became Portman’s agent. Her paternal grandparents were Eastern European survivors of the Second World War who immigrated to Israel.

When Portman was three, the family of three moved to Washington, D.C. Her father did a medical residency in Maryland and Portman attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Three years later they moved to Connecticut, where her father continued his medical training. When she was about twelve, the family moved to Long Island, New York, where Portman studied at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County, a Jewish elementary school. She skipped eighth grade and attended public high school, graduating in 1999 with honors from Syosset High School in Syosset, New York.

When she was four, Portman began taking dancing classes. During her early teen years, she spent summers doing theater. When she was ten, she was approached by a Revlon agent about modeling for them. While she was not interested in modeling, the offer did inspire her to get an acting agent.

In 1993, at the age of twelve, Portman had her first professional job as the understudy in the off-Broadway musical Ruthless, though she had never taken acting lessons. Leon: The Professional (1994), her first film, brought her acclaim. Reviewers of the film sexualized her rather than focusing on her acting, leading her to focus subsequently on serious roles and to hide her body. She wanted to be known for her acting, not her physical appearance.

When her career began to grow, she took her paternal grandmother’s maiden name, Portman, and started using the name Natalie to protect her family’s privacy. In 1997, Portman starred in the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank; she related to Anne Frank’s family’s experience because her paternal great-grandparents died in the Holocaust.

Portman applied to Harvard University upon the advice of her paternal grandfather Zvi Yehuda Hershlag, an economics professor in Israel, and was accepted. She majored in psychology because she believed it would help her in her acting and graduated in 2003. The degree was very important to her, more so than her acting career. In 2018, Natalie felt compelled to return her bachelor’s degree to Harvard because she saw the degree as a sign of intelligence, and she felt she had made some particularly unintelligent choices as an adult that included the refusal to accept the Genesis Award. She has also taken graduate courses at Hebrew University.

In 2012 Natalie married Benjamin Millepied, a French dancer and choreographer, whom she met while filming Black Swan. They lived in Paris, France, until 2016, when they moved to Los Angeles. Portman is fluent in English and Hebrew and can converse in Arabic, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.

Acting Career

Portman is careful to take only parts she feels are meaningful and that present her and her beliefs in a positive way. She very much wants to ensure that women are presented in film in positive ways. Until she went to college, she felt acting was a frivolous pursuit, until she realized that doing what you love is not frivolous.

Portman’s life changed when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, making her an international star. To prepare for the role of Padmé Amidala, she studied Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, and Katharine Hepburn; she then watched the original Star Wars trilogy because she knew nothing about the story. The prequel trilogy to Star Wars was filmed during Portman’s summer vacations from Harvard, so that her studies would not be interrupted. Star Wars was followed by a return to theater in The Seagull (2001). After playing a stripper in Closer (2004), she starred in V for Vendetta (2005) and as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008). In 2010 she used her years of ballet classes for her role in Black Swan. Then, she played a scientist in the Marvel films Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013). As of the end of 2019, she has starred in over 40 films.

In 2008, Portman directed her first two films: Eve and New York, I Love You. The former she wrote as well. Eve, about a Jewish family that immigrates to Israel in the 1940s, was a passion piece for her. New York, I Love You is an anthology of eleven love stories set in New York City.  In 2010, she directed Wholphin: Issue 10 and in 2015 A Tale of Love and Darkness. The last took over a decade to come to fruition, but she was the only one Amos Oz would permit to turn his autobiography into a movie. Directing doesn’t come naturally to the actress, in part, she believes, because of the cultural norm of women needing to be given direction, not to be the one giving the direction. At the end of 2010, she founded HandsomeCharlie Films, a film production company, which to date has produced eleven films, including No Strings Attached and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Her executive producer debut was with The Other Woman in 2011. She decided to start the production company to support directors she particularly likes and do projects she is interested in.

Activism

Portman began her activism in high school when she toured with the group “World Patrol Kids,” which teaches people about environmentalism by inspiring children to become activists.

In 2004, Portman became the first Ambassador of Hope for the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), an organization that organizes microloans for women in impoverished areas. She sees this as a way to give women control of their financial and reproductive futures. She then became co-chair, with Queen Rania of Jordan, of FINCA’s Village Banking Campaign. She is also an ambassador with Free the Children, later renamed WE Charity, which works to empower youth to change the world by freeing child slaves and enacting child labor laws.

Portman’s experiences of being sexualized as a female actor, rather than being admired for her acting prowess, have led her to be outspoken about women’s rights. Her work to empower women has led to her speaking to both the United States Congress and the British Parliament. She encourages girls to gain control of their lives by taking control of their desires and needs. She is also a supporter of Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a movement against sexual harassment of both men and women in the workplace. In 2013, Portman and Marvel sponsored the Ultimate Mentor Challenge, in which high school girls were matched with STEM-related mentors. The girls who presented the best project thesis had the opportunity to meet with her.

Portman is also a spokesperson for veganism. She became a vegetarian when she was eight, because she felt a kinship to animals. She later gave up fish, and then cheese because of the rennet, a meat by-product, used in the curing process. She believes that eating animal byproducts is an exploitation of female animals who produce milk and eggs. She has gained the support of 70 rabbis because of veganism’s concern for the environment and compassion for animals.

Portman has campaigned for John Kerry and Barak Obama for President of the United States and supported other Democratic leaders. She sees this as part of her role as an advocate for the underrepresented. Portman is aligned with the Democratic party because of their mutual support for women’s reproductive rights, family leave, and universal health care.

In 2017, Portman was awarded the 2018 Genesis Prize, a $1 million prize awarded to “individuals for professional accomplishments, commitment to Jewish values, and contribution to improving the world.” Because of her feelings about actions by the Israeli government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she refused to attend the ceremony where she was to receive the award. She later regretted that decision, as she came to realize being on the same stage as someone does not mean she supports their politics.

At the 2020 Oscars, Portman wore a dress embroidered with the names of women directors who had not been considered for Academy Awards; this was part of a protest to the Academy Awards board by members who felt female actors and directors were being neglected. Portman’s participation in the protest aroused controversy when actress and activist Rose McGowan accused her of not working with women directors. Portman defended herself by saying she had worked on short films with women directors and on incomplete films with women directors. Additionally, she has helped female directors get hired when they were forced out of projects they began.

Portman takes her position as a role model seriously, trying to be a positive influence on her fans by taking roles that show women as powerful. She will not perform nude scenes that are gratuitous or inserted in films after she has read the script. This, in her eyes, is to protect the craft of acting. For Natalie, all her activist roles are interconnected. She sees how society treats the earth and women as connected.

Awards

Academy Award for Best Actress, 2010 and 2011

Alliance of Women Film Journalists, 2010

British Academy Film Award, 2010

Critics Choice Movie Award, 2010, 2016

Environmental Media Award, 2017

Genesis Prize Foundation. 2018

Golden Globe Award, 2004, 2010

International Cinephile Association, 2005

Russian National Film Awards, 2011, 2012

Screen Actors Guild Award, 2010

Bibliography

Culpepper, Andy. “Natalie Portman: ‘Star Wars’ queen: Starting a three-film leadership role.” CNN, May 18, 1999, http://edition.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/Movies/9905/18/natalie.portman/.

HandsomeCharlie Films – Trademark Details, November 23, 2010. https://trademarks.justia.com/773/03/handsomecharlie-77303274.html

Jutze. “NATALIE PORTMAN – an unofficial biography.” NataliePortman.com, n.d.,

https://www.natalieportman.com/biography/the-natalie-portman-story/.

Liberman, Avi. “Natalie Portman returns Harvard Degree.” The Times of Israel, April 22, 2018, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/natalie-portman-returns-harvard-degree/.

McLean, Craig. “More than meets the eye.” The Observer, November 25, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/nov/25/1.

“Natalie Portman: Actor.” Openly Secular, n.d., https://openlysecular.org/freethinker/natalie-portman/.

“Natalie Portman: Biography.” IMDb, n.d., https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000204/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm/.

“Natalie Portman: Lauren Bacall Didn't Like Me and ‘Called Me Out',” Us Weekly, August 19, 2016, https://sports.yahoo.com/news/natalie-portman-lauren-bacall-didnt-235606110.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAJ0WOriXwzJVuT7fiICQDgcE6H10eYd0pD6OY7cjBb4XkpuNEJ1bC_BSyqqMOr-He5_Txca7Ref4Ht50DCABZ_qmsicU90g7PvLXZzAf-lpmZeUgDMSRguiOq3X3Ll6uSw-DEJx-A16vu6G4ZMC7G-UHhmrpb6LPf2yAcNidyaIq.

“Natalie Portman says not boycotting Israel, but Netanyahu for ‘atrocities.’” Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Natalie-Portman-says-not-boycotting-Israel-but-Netanyahu-for-atrocities-551351

Oppenheim, Maya. “Natalie Portman addresses her experience of ‘sexual terrorism’ at age of 13 at Women’s March.” The Independent, January 21, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/natalie-portman-womens-day-march-sexual-terrorism-13-leon-a8170631.html.

Pevreall, Katie. “Vegan Natalie Portman Wins ‘Nobel Prize’ For Animal Rights Activism.” Livekindly, November 8, 2017, Https://Www.Livekindly.Co/Natalie-Portman-Nobel-Prize/.

Portman, Natalie. “Conversation with Natalie Portman.” Interview by Marianne Schnall, Feminist.com, n.d., https://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/interviews/natalieportman.html.

Portman, Natalie. “Exclusive: Natalie Portman on Why Your Vote Matters So Much This November,” Glamour, October 11, 2016, https://www.glamour.com/story/exclusive-natalie-portman-on-why-your-vot….

Portman, Natalie. “Full Transcript: Natalie Portman Harvard Commencement Speech 2015.” The. Singju Post, April 6, 2019, https://singjupost.com/full-transcript-natalie-portman-harvard-commencement-speech-2015/.

Portman, Natalie. “Natalie Portman – The Shy Superstar Molly Mahoney.” Interview by Ethan White, Scholastic, n.d., http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3748415.

Portman, Natalie, “Natalie Portman’s Newest Role? Producer!” Interview by Nicole Sperling, Entertainment, May 2, 2009, https://ew.com/article/2009/05/02/natalie-portman/

Portman, Natalie. “That Obscure Subject of Desire.” Medium, January 23,2018, https://medium.com/@natalieportman/that-obscure-subject-of-desire-f2e2bd09db8c.

Portman, Natalie. “Natalie Portman on Directing Her First Film, Nearly 10 Years in the Making,” W, August 18, 2016, https://www.wmagazine.com/story/natalie-portman-on-directing-her-first-film-interview/.

Portman, Natalie. “Natalie Portman on How the Time’s Up Initiative Will Work, From the Golden Globes and Beyond.” Vulture, January 5, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/01/natalie-portman-times-up-golden-globes.html.

“Print Exclusive: Natalie Portman on Equality and Fighting Back.” Net-A-Porter, Spring 2018, Https://Www.Net-A-Porter.Com/Us/En/Porter/Article-5e683aefba22b78/Reporter/News/Natalie-Portman.

Sharf, Zack. “Natalie Portman Reacts to Criticism over not working with Women Directors: ‘I will keep trying.’” IndieWire, February 12, 2020. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/02/natalie-portman-women-directors-controversy-response-1202211112/

Starostinetskaya, Anna. “Natalie Portman Urges 16,000 Youth Activists That Veganism is a Female Issue.” VegNews, 26 April 2019. https://vegnews.com/2019/4/natalie-portman-urges-16000-youth-activists-that-veganism-is-a-feminist-issue.

Vincent, Alice. “Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and the other big spenders donating to #TimesUp.” The Telegraph, January 2, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2018/01/02/meryl-streep-steven-spielberg-big-spenders-donating-timesup/.

Weinberg, Lindsay. “Natalie Portman Connects Her Advocacy for Women and Animals: ‘It's All Related.’” The Hollywood Reporter October 26, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/natalie-portman-connects-her-advocacy-women-animals-1154610.

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How to cite this page

Cohen Ioannides, Mara W.. "Natalie Portman." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 1, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/portman-natalie>.