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."
That was just one reason, Johansson says, that the two women "clung to one another."
"I feel like I got so much of my energy from Scarlett," Portman says. "When I was like, 'What am I doing? Where am I?' I'd look at her and be like, 'OK. She's my sister.' "
The two seem to have a genuine rapport off screen. During a photo shoot, the actresses bond over hair and clothes. Portman, clad in a fuzzy sweater dress and "very comfy" black flats from her vegan collection for Té Casan, worries about shedding fuzzies on Johansson's black skirt and tan top. "Don't worry about it. You're like a kitten," Johansson says.
The two compare notes about Portman's streaky, lighter hair color, which she's not crazy about because she feels more like herself when she's darker. "I like it," Johansson tells her. They discuss the outfits they plan to wear to subsequent events. "You can wear gold and I'll wear pewter," Johansson tells Portman, who breaks into an impromptu British accent to respond with a giggly, "Perfect!"
Although Portman is older, Johansson seems more assertive. The two laugh when asked whether they really do get along that well in real life.
"I'm going to give her the muscle after this. We have a physically abusive relationship," Johansson says. "I'm twisting her arm."
Retorts Portman: "I'm holding a gun to her."
In the film, deceit and manipulation are their weapons of choice. The women fight for the king's affections. They bicker and back-stab. And when the cameras stopped rolling, the actresses tried to compensate for all that viciousness they inflicted on each other on screen.
"We're so good to each other," Portman says. "In between takes, I felt like I had to counteract the nastiness in the movie."
Chortles Johansson of their shoot: " 'I brought you something! There's veggie sandwiches out there, if you're interested. I put one in the corner for you.' It was literally like that."
What of Mary did Johansson see in herself? "Her will to survive."
Could Portman relate to wanting something as badly as Anne desired that elusive British throne, which, in the end, proved to be her very ugly undoing?
"Ummm, uh, yeah. Probably. I've never been in that situation where I'd step on whoever it took to get what I want," Portman says. "I've been ambitious. But not in an aggressive way."
Causes, campaigns off screen
Both actresses strive to live quiet lives, but Johansson recently made headlines when she spoke out about an Us Weekly cover insinuating that she'd had plastic surgery.
"It was awful. I was willing to be -- examine me! I will go in front of any person," Johansson says. "I really haven't (had surgery)."
Portman, a Harvard graduate, calls New York home, and here, she's mostly left alone. "I'm not tabloid fodder," she says. "In New York, there's a lot of (paparazzi). I bump into them and then they're like, 'Oh, I'll take your picture.' "
She'll happily pose for the cameras to promote her cause, the Foundation for International Community Assistance, which provides micro-loans to people in developing countries; Portman is its ambassador of hope and co-chairs its Village Banking program. The actress doesn't take her role lightly, reeling off statistics and anecdotes with impressive fluency.
"I think my next trip will be to Kurdistan. I was last in Uganda with them. It was my second time there. This last trip was hard because it's an amazing thing, but there's so much left to be done."
Johansson, meanwhile, is dating actor Ryan Reynolds but has been busy cheerleading for the other man in her life, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama. She has been campaigning for him in Minnesota and plans to continue stumping for him.
"It has been really inspiring, not only to talk about someone I feel very passionate about but just seeing all these young people going out and rallying," she says. "To make cold calls and after a whole day of being rejected, rejected, rejected, to finally get one caller who didn't know the primary was today. And have them go at the end, 'Where's my precinct location?' It's a real sense of accomplishment."
Books, shoes and tunes
For fun, Johansson is plowing through Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. "It should be mandatory reading. It's very interesting -- and scary," she says. "Natalie, I have to give you this book."
Portman, in turn, promises to deliver a pair of shoes that are part of the non-leather collection she designed for Té Casan.
"I gotta get you some," Portman says. A vegan who doesn't wear leather, she previously stuck mostly to sneakers, Target's shoes or Stella McCartney's non-leather creations and now is especially fond of her suddenly vast selection of footwear. "I'll bring some tomorrow."
"I saw them in Vogue. I didn't know you made flats, too," Johansson says. "It's nice to have creative friends."
Johansson, meanwhile, has an album of Tom Waits covers out in May. With her distinctive husky voice, Johansson relished getting into the studio and isn't worried whether the album tops the charts.
"How it does is ineffective for me. You can't reverse the process," Johansson says. "The people I care about are very excited about it. Who knows? I don't have any kind of expectation. I love to sing."
Says Portman: "I want your album. I have to get an advance copy."
The actresses muse about an odd question thrown at them during the earlier press junket.
"Someone asked us who'd win a dance-off," Johansson says.
So who would? "We're partners. We'll take anybody on," Johansson says, jutting out her neck for extra emphasis.
"Oh totally!" Portman says, giggling.
Spoken like true sisters.