In high-quality, two-decade career, Natalie Portman started with a breakout performance at age 12 in “The Professional,” has been part of the “Star Wars” and “Thor” movies, and won an Oscar for “Black Swan.”
Now she makes her directorial debut with the beautiful, heartfelt and sincere “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which opens Friday. Based on Amos Oz’s 2002 autobiographical novel, it couldn’t be more different from anything else on her resume.
Speaking by phone with the S.F. Examiner, Portman— who was born in Israel and learned to speak Hebrew as a child — said she chose her debut carefully.
“I knew I would need to do something that was personal and meaningful to me, and something that would sustain my interest for a very long time,” she says. “When I read the book, I was able to visualize a film in my head.”
Though she read the book — which is set in the 1940s, around the time of Israel’s statehood — in English, Portman decided that the film be spoken in Hebrew and shot in Israel, with a largely Israeli cast and crew.
“I’m definitely a foreigner there, but I feel at home,” she says. “I went back at least once a year from the time I left, when I was 3. It’s a very warm country. People treat you like family.”
Taking on the job of director for the first time, Portman says she relied heavily on her collaborators, one of which was author Oz, whom she calls “a great hero of mine.”
Another was Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, known for his work on “The Double Life of Veronique” and “Black Hawk Down.”
“It was his first time in Israel, and he found so much beauty and had so many incredible suggestions,” says Portman. “He gave it a very specific look, that was appropriate to the emotions. I felt that he was a great guide and mentor for me, but also that he really respected me and listened to me about what I wanted.”
Directing herself was fairly tricky, Portman says. To pay attention to things like focus and light, she wound up relying on a monitor, as well as extra eyes belonging to Idziak and other crew members.
She gives one of her finest performances. “I had to be kinder to myself, so I wouldn’t cringe every time,” she says. “Instead of watching it and thinking everything is horrible, I had to occasionally be able to say, ‘that was good… let’s move on.'”
IF YOU GO
A Tale of Love and Darkness
Starring Natalie Portman, Gilad Kahana, Amir Tessler, Ohad Knoller
Written and directed by Natalie Portman
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes