Natalie Portman becomes 'Jackie' in unorthodox new biopic

Natalie Portman may want to clear some space on the mantel for Oscar No. 2.

The selective star, who has mostly laid low since winning best actress for Black Swan in 2011, is back in awards contention for her haunting, ethereal portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie, which made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film FestivalThursday. The historical drama (in theaters Dec. 2) takes an unconventional look at the week following President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, recreating iconic moments such as the grieving First Lady leaving the U.S. Capitol with their kids and solemnly treading downPennsylvania Avenue during his funeral procession.

But the ambitious biopic also gives a devastating glimpse of Jackie in her private moments, as she sobbingly wipes her husband's blood off her face moments after his assassination and shrewdly protects his legacy in a Life magazine interview a week later. The film wrestles with loftier questions about history and what we leave behind when we're gone, while slowly attempting to unravel the enigma behind the fiercely private woman.

"She had an incredible amount of mystery to her, which is what is so attractive and exciting to other people," director Pablo Larraín told USA TODAY at the premiere, held at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. "Natalie has that element. She's not only an incredible performer, and can move and speak and resemble her, but she's someone you never really know what’s going on with her."

Before reading the script, "I had a pretty superficial perception of her: the clothes, the hair, the style, the elegance," Portman said in an audience Q&A after the film. "I never really considered what she had gone through emotionally or the legacy that she built for her family."

Preparing for the role, the actress studied the first lady's 1962 televised tour of the White House, which is meticulously recreated in the film. She also read and listened to historian Arthur Schlesinger's 1964 interviews with Jackie.


"That was helpful for us in thinking what she might’ve spoken like in public and what she might’ve spoken like in private," Portman says. "There's huge chunks that she edited out of those interviews, so that felt like it gave us a lot of license to do whatever we imagined. There are these mysterious gaps of, 'What did she say that she then regretted? Why did she regret it? Why did she take it out?' "

While shot mostly in a tight closeup on Jackie, the movie features brief appearances from Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and JFK (Caspar Phillipson, an almost-spooky doppelgänger for the 35th president). All are tasked with the Kennedys' famous accents, which Portman breathily mimics to a tee.

"The voice is very particular," Portman recalled with a laugh. "I remember at the beginning, everyone was kind of like, 'Uh oh, what’s going on here? It’s a little over-the-top or campy.' We were just like, 'Watch the White House tour tapes! It’s really extreme.' "


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