Some actresses use movie stardom as a stepping stone to mainstream roles as innocent ingénues and light comedy pixies, but that has never been Natalie Portman’s game plan. She was nominated for Oscars for stabbing love’s heart to pieces in the happily-never-after drama “Closer” and for delivering a bravura performance as blood-soaked Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie.” And she took home the gold statuette for going insane in a tutu for the ballet spine-chiller “Black Swan.”
Then she decided to try something a little more challenging.
She has certainly found it in “Annihilation,” an audacious science fiction story unlike anything in her career — or anyone else’s. Almost exclusively centered on a five-woman exploring party entering deadly territory, it’s likely the most female-focused space opera ever made.
The film casts her as a biologist and combat veteran confronting mutated life-forms, firing assault rifles at alien beings and playing catch me if you can with a doppelgänger who mirrors her every movement. All while trying to unlock the mystery virus that has sent her husband (Oscar Isaac) into hospital coma care. And to keep her increasingly shaky grip on sanity.
Guiding that character through a mission that transcends the usual man vs. monster adventure was irresistible, Portman said in a recent phone interview.
“I think I tend toward sort of psychologically based explorations, whether they’re in terms of fantasy or sci-fi or just straight drama,” she said. “It was a unique opportunity to get to play such an interesting character at a point in her life when she is in a crisis with who she is and exploring her own weakness.”
Especially because “Annihilation” was being directed by Alex Garland, whose jaw-dropping “Ex Machina” made a story about artificial intelligence really about men trying to control the women around them.
“I’m such a fan of Alex’s work both as a writer and a director,” Portman said.
What she didn’t realize when she signed on was that he had the artistic ability to create an alien environment distinct from any we’ve seen before.
“Alex is incredibly visual. Sometimes when he explains an idea for you, he draws it for you. He draws really well. It’s impressive, a lucky and unusual talent to have from our director.”
Garland’s renderings guided the production team through filling the film’s dangerous paradise with vast wreaths of eerie wildflowers. “It was really dressed,” she said of the set. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a production team work so much on exteriors.”
His drawings also prepared the actors for on-screen encounters with surreal creatures that wouldn’t be digitally added to the scene until months afterward.
“Of course, you don’t see the real thing when you’re doing it,” she said. “Even when you see the previsualizations and everything, it’s not quite what you’ve seen before. They’re sort of first-of-their kind monsters. So you do have to associate them with your own deepest fears as opposed to something you see.”
Scary at first
The tone of fearful wonder that Garland wanted reflected the sense that “a lot of things, if you saw them for the first time, would seem very strange. But we get used to it. We see trees every day. But if you came from another planet, a tree is a very strange thing. And that was kind of a wonderful way to go through the world.”
The film’s bizarre interbreeds of familiar animal and plant life “was something beautiful, something really wonderful that Alex brought to it. ... There were these mutations that were so beautiful” in ways she recognized from her personal perspective.
“Some of the most beautiful things in my life are mutations,” she said. “They’re mutated objects or emotions. You know that there is something that can be grotesque or might be beautiful because of that alteration. And sometimes it’s both. That was a really special thing that he brought up.”
Noting that some of the past year’s most acclaimed hit films have featured complex female leads, Portman said she’s waiting for a time when putting women in major roles becomes routine.
“It’s still at a stage where there’s still not enough representation in film of women and particularly of women of color,” she said, echoing her subtle swipe at the all-male director nominees as a presenter at the Golden Globes. “I hope it gets better and better. That’s what we’re all trying to do with our work, and hopefully we can get other people to do with their work, as well.”
A diverse cast
Her co-stars include Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny. Working in an international, multiracial cast “with all these incredible women was really exciting,” she said. “It was completely unusual and it’s unfortunately a very rare experience.”
While it was “definitely challenging” moving through the summer heat in military gear, carrying guns and heavy backpacks, “we all became really close and are still really good friends.”
The film is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, who later made it the beginning of a trilogy. That opens the possibility that Portman may be gearing up for a sequel.
“I’m sure,” she said, “depending on how much people enjoy the movie!”