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Natalie Portman Pirouettes into Dior’s Spotlight

The actress has Oscar buzz swirling for her star turn in “Black Swan” and a Dior beauty contract under her belt.

NEW YORK — With Oscar buzz swirling for her star turn in “Black Swan,” a Dior beauty contract under her belt and a film production company poised to release two films this spring, this is Natalie Portman’s moment.

The gamine actress couldn’t be happier with audience reaction to her role in the Darren Aronofsky film. “Your biggest dream, when you make a film, is that people respond to it, and once they see it have these crazy reactions to it and different interpretations and bring their own thing to it,” Portman said during an interview with WWD at the end of long day of promoting her new role as a face for Dior’s Miss Dior Cherie, the first project of what is expected to be a lengthy relationship with the fashion house.

Earlier, on a soundstage at Chelsea Piers’ Pier 59, she had participated in a question-and-answer session before a group of 120 journalists from more than eight countries. What emerged was a portrait of a highly accomplished 29-year-old woman who puts a high value on a strong sense of self and ethics.

“I think true elegance is just comfort in oneself,” said Portman. “When there is no posturing or posing, just when you are being who you are and not posing.”

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Those feelings spilled over into her attitude about her “Black Swan” role. “Obviously, people will go to great lengths when they’re competitive,” she said. “For me personally, I think it maybe was more of an issue when I was in my early 20s. Now it is not. Everyone has their own unique place in the world. Competition is invented. For women in general, it’s certainly a persistent theme, because in ‘Black Swan,’ it sort of represents the world at large for women — where one woman gets a little too old, and one of them is replaced by a younger woman who is the newer model. It’s very easy to step out of that if women reject that themselves, as a construct.”

In the thriller, Portman plays Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life is completely consumed with dance. When the ballet’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace the prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), Portman’s Nina faces stiff competition to be Ryder’s replacement from a new dancer (Mila Kunis) — resulting in Nina getting in touch with her dark side. The film opened in just 18 theaters in the U.S. on Dec. 3, raking in $1.44 million for a per-theater average of $80,212. By Dec. 22, the movie is expected to be in about 1,000 screens.

Portman peeled 20 pounds off her already slender frame to play the role, but admits gaining it back came far easier. “I ate and I didn’t work out immediately after doing eight hours of exercise a day and not eating enough, it wasn’t really difficult,” she said. “I think it took me three days to look normal again.”

The development process for the film spanned a decade. “Darren and I first talked about it in 2000 or 2001 — I was still in college,” said Portman, who graduated from Harvard in 2003. “He described that he wanted to do this sort of thriller about the ego and the artist, set in the ballet world. And he had this idea in his mind, but there was no script. I kept talking to him year after year, saying, ‘What’s going on with that?’ whenever we would bump into each other.” The on-again, off-again financing threw the timing off, which didn’t bother Portman, who as a result got in a full year of ballet training.

She admitted that a big help was the design duo behind Rodarte, Kate and Laura Mulleavy. “They did the ballet costumes, and they were just exquisite — they really helped me feel like I was transforming into a ballet dancer and into a swan for the film,” said Portman.

In addition to her movie roles, Portman develops and produces films. Her Handsomecharlie Films — which takes its name from her departed terrier mutt, who in turn took his name from one of Portman’s heroes, Charlie Chaplin — is poised to launch two films in 2011: January’s “No Strings Attached,” in which the actress will star, and “Hesher,” coming in March. Portman is especially passionate about creating stronger comedic roles for women. “I just think it’s more challenging to find good female roles in comedies, and lighter material. The lighter material tends to give women fluffy roles — so much of female comedy is about, like, girls buying shoes, or wanting to just get married and wear nice clothes, and isn’t celebrating women’s personalities quite as much. With dramatic things, women can have a complex range of emotions and a complex range of characteristics. This year, I was very lucky to have two opportunities to have great female comedic characters.”

Portman is also keen to foster up-and-comers in the film business. “There are really amazing female writers coming out, who are writing women who can just be funny and not have to be stuck in sexist clichés,” she said. “It’s been really fun getting to produce also, because then you get to find these writers and also find these amazing young actresses like Olivia Thirlby and Lena Dunham. There are really amazing people out there writing, like Liz Meriwether, who is a 26-year-old woman who wrote ‘No Strings Attached.’ It’s one of the best things, to get to support new talent — whether it’s new directors, writers or actors.”

For the roles she chooses, Portman doesn’t profess to only stick to one genre. “It’s whatever will interest me at the moment; also, it’s what I feel like. After ‘Black Swan,’ I went and did ‘Thor,’ which was this big action movie — it’s nice to be able to do different things and switch from what you did before. If it’s going to be something stimulating and challenging and new, that’s always the impetus. I always think it would be fun to play a femme fatale, or to do a musical or something very different from what I’ve already done. I would love to get back on the stage — I haven’t done a play in 10 years.”

And what about getting behind the camera? “I directed two short films, and I would like to direct a film — but it’s hard to find two years of your life that you’re willing to spend every day all day, because it really takes you out of your personal life,” said Portman. “One of the lucky things about being an actress is that it’s three- or four-month stints. I would like to, when I find that moment in my life, to take that time. I would like to continue writing. I think it’s nice, having been in this industry for so long, that you do get exposed to so many different angles. It really is like a family business, a life where you know something so well because you’ve grown up in it. Not that my family was in this business [her father is a reproductive endocrinologist, her mother an artist], but I’ve been doing this since I was 11.

“I think Hollywood is changing in really exciting ways,” continued Portman, “because the fact that cameras are getting cheaper and better and that people can shoot entire movies on their iPhones and everyone has the software to edit things on their computers is really democratizing filmmaking, so that people can really do it on their own, which is hurting the industry as a whole, but which I think is really exciting for the art, because it’s really putting the art into the hands of the people.”

As WWD reported on June 7, Portman — long considered a major “get” among beauty companies — has taken on her first prestige beauty contract (long ago, she did a hair commercial for Lux in Japan) with Parfums Christian Dior. Her first role is as the face of the brand’s Miss Dior Cherie fragrance.

As for why she stayed out of the lucrative beauty fray for so long, Portman said, “To be honest, I had an aversion to selling things, and then I realized both that there could be a company that I would be proud to represent, and also that they would really support the things I believe in. It’s really wonderful to have this established, elegant brand willing to do great nonprofit work.

“I guess I always want to think about what I’m doing,” she continued. “There’s always some sort of combination between being thoughtful, and also having fun. And being thoughtful, sometimes you can argue two ways for the same cause, as you know. It definitely was a war inside my head for a long time and, finally, I was like, we can actually do something very positive with this, especially given the kind of company Dior is, which is truly elegant. It’s been exactly along the lines of what I had hoped for. I’m happy creatively; I’m happy with the images and the way I’m being portrayed, and their support of these various causes that are dear to my heart.”

A passionate philanthropist, Portman has been the Ambassador of Hope since 2004 for FINCA International, a village banking microfinance program, and is working with the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned brand to develop an educational philanthropy project.

The committed vegan is also grateful to the French fashion and beauty house for creating apparel and accessories she can wear with a clear conscience. “One of the things that’s been so nice is that Dior made all of the shoes for me with no animals and no leather or anything, because I don’t wear any leather,” said Portman, clad Wednesday night in a black Dior dress and black satin, jewel-encrusted stilettos. “They remade all my shoes so I can wear Dior shoes without taking lives.”

Claude Martinez, president and chief executive officer of Parfums Christian Dior, described the actress as an archetypical Dior woman “Natalie Portman is magical. She is radiant and graceful, also intelligent and committed with a unique luminous intensity.”

Tim Walker shot Natalie Portman’s print ad for Miss Dior Cherie, while Sofia Coppola did the TV; both the ads are expected out in March.

On the set of the Coppola shoot, Portman said of meeting her co-star, Alden Ehrenreich, “It was pretty much, ‘Nice to meet you and now we are going to kiss.’ He was like 20 years old, so I felt like a big old cougar.”

While she may have a beauty contract and be a style icon, Portman says she’s pretty casual when she’s not working. “Some might say sloppy,” she said with a laugh. “I think maybe because I have to be so put together all the time for work. When I’m home, I like to let my hair dry out of the shower and not put makeup on and wear sweatpants. I’m a one-perfume kind of girl, probably because I only wear perfume on special occasions. I think it’s really part of dressing up and feeling elegant and sexy and unique; scent is so specific to each woman, you want to have a scent that sets you apart. It’s not really a daily thing for me, but I think it’s good to have one scent.”