Like many actresses, Natalie Portman is still unpacking decades of work tainted by sexism and sexual harassment amid the deluge of allegations emerging from Hollywood.
“When I heard everything coming out, I was like, wow, I’m so lucky that I haven’t had this. And then, on reflection, I was like, okay, definitely never been assaulted, definitely not, but I’ve had discrimination or harassment on almost everything I’ve ever worked on in some way,” she said during Sunday’s candid talk at Vulture Festival L.A. The more she reexamined her experiences, other incidents come into sharp relief. “I went from thinking I don’t have a story to thinking, Oh wait, I have 100 stories. And I think a lot of people are having these reckonings with themselves, of things that we just took for granted as like, this is part of the process.”
For example, she says a producer once invited her to fly with him and his company on a private plane to a place she was also going. “I showed up and it was just the two of us, and one bed was made on the plane. Nothing happened, I was not assaulted. I said: ‘This doesn’t make me feel comfortable,’ and that was respected. But that was super not okay, you know? That was really unacceptable and manipulative and could have been — I was scared, you know? But just the fact of any woman, if you’re walking down the street alone at night, you feel scared, and I’m not sure guys know what that [feels like].”
Portman also admitted she turned down work that could lead to her being overly objectified when she was younger. “There was definitely a period where I was reluctant to do any kind of kissing scenes, sexual scenes. Because [for] my first roles, the reaction people would [give] in reviews [was to] call me a Lolita and things like that, and I got so scared by it,” she said. “And I think that’s also got to be part of our conversation now: When you’re defensive as a woman against being looked at that way, that you’re like, ‘I don’t want to’ — what do we close off of ourselves or diminish in ourselves because we want to protect ourselves?”
Portman noted the overwhelmingly male-dominated film sets she’s experienced throughout her career. “Usually you walk into a movie as the only woman, and you’re often the only woman on set. It’s very rare to have female crew members apart from hair, makeup, and wardrobe — the very stereotypical departments for women to be in — and I think women experience this in a lot of industries,” she said. “If you do get the opportunity to work, you’re often the only woman in the room. I hear this from friends of mine who are lawyers, business people, writers on shows.”
She wondered if such isolation from other women on set might be deliberate. “The surprising thing is it almost feels strategic to keep you away from other women, because you don’t have the opportunity to share stories. All these accusations are like, ‘Oh yeah, everyone was isolated from each other,’ people didn’t share. They didn’t realize that there were hundreds of people with similar stories.” She added: “It prevents mentorship of women by other women because you’re just not exposed to it. You have to work hard to find and actually connect to people doing the same thing because we’re often that one seat at the table.”
Even for an A-lister like Portman, the table’s not always welcoming. The Oscar winner said she’s often solicited for notes on projects which then go unincorporated after she offers them. She praised her previous male directors Pablo Larraín (Jackie), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), and Mike Nichols (Closer, The Seagull) for valuing her opinion, but said, on the other hand, she once had a director snap at her, “’You’re exhausting.’”
“I was like, ‘I’m exhausting for telling you my opinion about my job?’ And it was completely different with male actors next to me in the same room,” she added. “To the point where one of the male actors I was working with stood up for me in that meeting, because he said, ‘You know, you’re completely not listening to her and you’re completely listening to me and we’re saying almost the same thing.’”