Finding Jackie

Natalie Portman on playing the First Lady in public and in private.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

A David Maysles and Albert Maysles film helped Natalie Portman play Jackie: "I did watch Grey Gardens again …"
A David Maysles and Albert Maysles film helped Natalie Portman play Jackie: "I did watch Grey Gardens again …"

Natalie Portman, in her portrayal of Jackie Kennedy under Pablo Larraín's direction, with a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, is a magnificent presence in flux who moves into and out of different realities. A priest (John Hurt), a journalist (Billy Crudup), her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), her social secretary (Greta Gerwig), the empty corridors of the White House and the record of Camelot - Jackie uses them as shards of a broken mirror to find some spectre of herself that can not only lead into the future, but will create the myth President John F Kennedy shall be remembered by.

President John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) Jackie (Natalie Portman) Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)
President John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) Jackie (Natalie Portman) Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)

Portman explores the layers of mourning. Public and private grief collide in images of beauty and horror. The love for a man who "didn't even spend his last night in Fort Worth" with her, the brutality and aftermath of the actual killing, right next to her, thoughts about the children, the funeral, Lincoln, legacy, responsibility and loneliness - her world is turned upside down and the nation into a state of shock.

Capturing the distinct accent of First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy turned out to be a challenge for the actress.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you mainly look at footage of her [Jackie] for the accent? Did you maybe look at Grey Gardens again?

Natalie Portman: I did! I watched the White House tour obsessively, sort of as my beginning of my exploration with my dialect coach, Tanya Blumstein, who is incredible. Because we were doing an exact replica, I really wanted to get it. You know, even where the hesitations or the pauses or the breaths or the mess-ups [are] like I wanted all of that to be the same. So we listened to that and that I think was the real formative thing for the accent. I mean, it's a two-hour special, so you can get really all of the sounds that she made and her rhythm.

The Schlesinger tapes were also really helpful. Her interviews with [Arthur] Schlesinger. You have the transcripts and the tapes that accompany them. So that was helpful because he was a friend. So even though it was an interview, you get a sense of how she talked in private with someone she knew versus how she was when she was doing a TV show.

Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy
Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy

AKT: Because she was nervous there, obviously?

NP: Yeah, she's nervous and also I think she is trying to present a more, sort of coy, feminine demeanor. And when she's private, she is much more … first of all, super sharp. She knew every person that came in and out of Jack's life. All of the politicians and what they were talking about. She was really paying attention to everything. To the point where we were like … Pablo [Larraín] was like "Is this possible? Do you think that she really said this in interviews? And she wasn't referring to notes?"

Because it's so amazing, her brain. And she also is super kind of witty, sardonic. She has that, like, sharp tongue. Which, of course, is not the image when she is doing these interviews.

And I did watch Grey Gardens again, which helped give me like that it's okay to go a little eccentric. Like, she's from a family that were sort of these like wealthy but had lost everything. So they grew up being used to having everything but didn't really have any money. And there's a certain tension that goes along with that.

Press day - Jackie US poster
Press day - Jackie US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The [Camelot] montage is such a beautiful moment because it connects with the playfulness you were talking about. At the same time mourning.

NP: Yeah.

AKT: And playing dress-up.

NP: Right … Pablo emphasised a lot her love of beauty. He always had me say in scenes - it didn't really end up in the movie - "I love beauty! I love beauty!" He had me say it like all the time! And I think it's really important, someone who was so aesthetic, she loved clothes and fabrics.

Apparently, she was always getting in trouble with Kennedy because she was spending a million dollars a year on clothes, getting all the couture. And he was like - the American people are going to lose their mind. You need to chill out. And when someone who loves beauty that much and then the ugliest thing in the world happens to them, how does that affect them?

Read what director Pablo Larraín had to say on Camelot in Jackie.

Coming up - Peter Sarsgaard on composer Mica Levi and playing Bobby Kennedy.

Jackie will open in cinemas in the US on December 2 and the UK on January 20, 2017.

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