You might think Natalie Portman is far too amiable a person to play notorious British queen Anne Boleyn.
You'd be wrong.
"I'm a scheming bitch," Portman announces with a straight face while drinking decaf peppermint tea. The statement causes her co-star Scarlett Johansson to break into throaty laughter before correcting Portman's self-assessment.
"You're not that kind of a person," declares Johansson, 23. "You're healthily ambitious."
Johansson would know. She and Portman, 26, play sparring sisters in "The Other Boleyn Girl," jousting for the affections of a mercurial king and all the riches that lofty position brings with it. Portman is Anne Boleyn, the conniving, clever enchantress who convinces Henry VIII (Eric Bana) to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry her. And Johansson is Anne's sister Mary, a pliable charmer who has an affair with Henry and bears him two children before Anne whisks him away for herself.
The film, opening Feb. 29, is based on Philippa Gregory's best-selling fictionalization of the sordid saga of Henry VIII's second wife, who ultimately was beheaded for her inability to produce a male heir to the crown. Expectations for the film are high because the book essentially kick-started the current passion for royal-centric historical fiction.
For Johansson, it's a departure from the Woody Allen oeuvre she has been focusing on the past few years and a chance to rebound from the flop that was last year's "Nanny Diaries." And for Portman, it's her first big-ticket release since the action and violence of 2005's "V For Vendetta."
Portman and Johansson had known each other casually before shooting "Boleyn," their first on-screen collaboration. Portman had signed on first and expressed her desire to engage in a little sibling rivalry with Johansson.
"We had some mutual friends," Johansson says. "I've always been a fan. Her choices, the work that she has done -- it's true. I've always been a huge fan, but I never assumed there would be an opportunity where we could work together in such an intimate way. And then I heard she wanted me to do it."
Playing Portman's sidekick is an experience Johansson calls "unique" and "inspiring."
"I've learned a lot about generosity," she says. "And how you can manipulate one another's performance with a give and a take."
Accentuating the positive
The two young women served as each other's anchors.
"There's a lot going on. We're working with a first-time film director (Justin Chadwick)," Portman says. "There was a lot of whirlwind, a lot of stuff rushing past you. It was important to have this partner, where you're a team, working together, trying to pull the best out of each other."
And trying to do it in corsets, while speaking in British accents. The movie is heavy on dialogue, so Portman worked with a dialect coach for a month before shooting to nail her British lilt. Plus, the coach was on set for the whole shoot to help out.
"That was a big challenge. One of the biggest challenges, personally," Portman says. "It totally takes me out of a movie when I hear British actors doing a bad American accent. It's a scary thing. I can't improvise with an accent at all."
For Johansson, speaking the Queen's English was "something you want to nail down early so it's not something you think about when you're working. I've spent a lot of time in London and having family there, that was helpful for me. It's definitely a hurdle."