Natalie Portman's recent, expletive-filled "Saturday Night Live" rap may look tame after folks see her lead a revolution in "V for Vendetta."
After more than a decade in supporting roles, she breaks out in a commanding role in this depiction of a woman who resorts to violence to avenge her parents' deaths and overturn a British totalitarian regime.
Expectations are strong for the film, which is produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski in their first effort since their groundbreaking "Matrix" series closed up shop. "V" opens Friday.
Once again, they're presenting a grim view of government as an entity exerting far too much control over its citizens. In this futuristic society, the leaders approve all news reports, songs and art, and exert a curfew over the citizens while monitoring their every conversation.
For the filmmakers, Portman was an easy choice for the pivotal role of Evey, who goes from living a quiet life to entering the revolution.
"She's an amazing actress. … You need to believe the journey that character goes on, and I think Natalie lets you really believe it," said director James McTeigue. "She's your guide through the narrative. … It's really about her presence and her intelligence."
Finding the Appeal of Violence
Portman has gone from the matriarch in the "Star Wars" series to playing an awkward young woman in "Garden State," but chose a story that resonated with her youth for her first major leading role.
As she explained it, she was born in Israel and has spent a lot of time trying to understand how violence is used in our society. The chance to explore the issue further in this movie was an immediate draw.
"I was really excited at the idea of getting into the mind of someone who would use violence and who goes through that transformation," the 24-year-old told a group of journalists in New York. "I'm so into nonviolence, but then I always wonder, what would drive people who seem like normal, good, smart people to believe that they can commit acts of violence?"
In "V for Vendetta," the politics are fictional but were inspired by former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's regime when the original graphic novel was penned in the 1980s.
The story is fictional, but it may remind some viewers of current events and raises questions about how violence can be used by both governments and those countering what they consider to be injustice.
"What would make me violent? I think if someone threatened my family," Portman said. "I can see from there how that can be extended. What if you think your whole family is your religious group? What if you think your whole family is your country?"
The director insists the film is not taking shots at any current political situations as a statement about power that's gone awry.
"I didn't set out to make it about any one particular government or regime," said McTeigue, who lives in New York City. "It's an allegorical film, but there are certain things I've obviously put in there that you can take."
"It is very upsetting, and I think it is meant to be upsetting," said Portman, who struggled to keep her composure while filming the role in England and Germany.
"I have to leave it as soon as they say, 'Cut. It's over.' I have to start laughing and joking or else it really, really affects me," she said.
Her character changes from an average career girl into a revolutionary after she is captured by a man terrorizing London. It's a slow transformation as she is charmed by this anonymous guy called V who wears a smirking clay mask.
"Hugo Weaving is such an amazing actor. … His vocal and physical expressivenesses were so specific that I had this amazing performance opposite me and whatever I was feeling as an actress, like, 'What's going on behind that mask? Is he smiling right now? Is he crying? Is he angry?' The character is going through too, so I could use it," Portman said.
Spreading Her Luck
To hear Portman talk politics, one might think she's about to be the next Hollywood glamour girl to trade the red carpet for an international aid work campaign.
While she initially shied away from questions about politics during a news conference for "V for Vendetta," Portman ended up giving reporters a lesson on free speech in Iran and spouting facts about global poverty.
"More than two-thirds of the world's populations are under [live on less than] $3 a day, and the vast majority are women and children -- it's more than 4 billion people," she said.
She said that she'd been supporting the Foundation for International Community Assistance, which provides loans to women in Third World countries who have limited access to banks, for several years.
"You should try and help spread your luck," Portman said. "I'm not into self-sacrifice and deprivation. I think people should enjoy the luck and comfort we have, but try and share it with others."
If her current film influences peoples' ideas about current politics, she's happy with that as well. "We had a reporter from South Korea who was like, 'This is about North Korea. Are they going to show this in North Korea?'" Portman said. "And then there are people who interpret it as being exactly about today."
The project could solidify her stature as a leading lady and prove the ability of the Wachowskis to build a career beyond Neo and the Matrix. For now, director McTeigue is shrugging off such pressures and trying to keep cool.
"The Wachowski shadow looms large because they've made three of some of the most iconic films ever," McTeigue said. "Do I regret jumping into bed with the Wachowskis? Absolutely not. They're incredible filmmakers. It was a joy to have them as producers, but I'll be fine. This is my film. It doesn't look like 'The Matrix.'"