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Natalie Portman says she was a tad nervous taking on the role of Jackie Kennedy – ‘a character who’s so well-known; how they speak, they move … ’

Jordan Strauss/The Associated Press

Natalie Portman is feeling optimistic.

The Israeli-born actor returned to live in Los Angeles earlier this year after spending two years in France, during which the country experienced some of the worst terror attacks in its history. Arriving to a deeply divided America that could find itself living under a Trump presidency come November, she nevertheless looks at the world through positive eyes.

"Apart from the state of the environment, which is the scariest thing and hard to feel optimistic about, I actually think we're in one of the most peaceful moments of history," she says by phone from New York. "Statistically, there are fewer deaths from war than at any time in the past century or two. We just have a lot more media coverage of the instabilities, which makes us feel that it's more present. But, actually, we've been getting progressively more peaceful."

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Portman has other reasons to be cheerful, too. After a 15-month run at film festivals across the world, including last year's TIFF, her directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness finally hits theatres this month, arriving in Canada this Friday.

Based on Amos Oz's 2002 autobiography, the film explores the iconic Israeli author's childhood and his relationship with his mother, who Portman also plays onscreen. Set in the Palestine Mandate in the 1940s and filmed in Hebrew, it makes for a bold and vivid debut.

Portman, now 35, first approached Oz about adapting the work when she was just 27. "My first impulse was to have someone else write it and someone else play the lead role, but I couldn't find anyone who would give me money to make my first film in Hebrew, without a known actor," she says. "And all the writers I met with kept saying to me, 'Why don't you write it yourself?'" So she did.

Despite the contentious nature of telling an Israel/Palestine story in the present climate, the Harvard graduate – who won a best actress Oscar for her role in 2010's Black Swan – says she did not set out to provoke. "The reason I wanted to make it was not to make any political statement, although, of course, it resonates," Portman says, adding that Israelis and Palestinians are "still living with the consequences" of decisions made 75 years ago.

"It's a family story set at a very particular time in the world, which has a very particular emotional resonance. All of these refugees – who had basically been orphaned and traumatized – arrived with this sort of utopian vision but, of course, were perhaps blind to the other people living in the same region.

"In retrospect, I can see that it's a heavy and difficult topic, but when I was taking it on I didn't really look at it that way," she adds. "I guess my blindness helped me; I was just very passionate about the story and had a very strong vision for what I wanted the movie to be, and that led me."

In making the leap from acting to directing, she drew inspiration from many of the auteurs she has worked with over the years, including Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick and the late Mike Nichols. Aronofsky "really showed me how to work with actors in a different way; that each one needs their individual style," she says, while Malick "showed me that there are no rules really – and that you should always make things the way you feel them to be."

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And yet, Portman describes the resulting work as being "more like a collage" than a traditional three-act narrative structure, which she describes as feeling "very male" to her.

"I can't speak for all women, but [a three-act structure] didn't feel right to me," she explains. And despite directing herself to play a young mother in the movie – and being mother to a five-year-old son in real life – she does not identify an overt difference between the male and female gaze.

"I don't know that I would define the way my husband and I feel as parents as being wildly different, for example," she says, referring to former Paris Opera Ballet director Benjamin Millepied, whom she married in 2012. "I mean, both of us are connected in a very similarly close way with our child and I don't know that a male parent would necessarily not understand those bonds.

"But we definitely do need more female directors. I don't necessarily think that a female story can't be told well by a man, or that a male story can't be told well by a woman. I just feel like there are other things, which are maybe subtler."

Her film's delayed release means it arrives in theatres just as she is set to star in a further two films this year, both of which will premiere at TIFF early next month, marking a return to the big screen in a major way. (She will also have an upcoming producer credit on the anticipated documentary Eating Animals, an adaptation of the acclaimed book by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose recent correspondence with Portman in The New York Times kicked up something of a media frenzy.)

In the 1930s period drama Planetarium, from French director Rebecca Zlotowski, Portman stars alongside Johnny Depp's daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, with the duo playing a pair of performing supernatural medium sisters, in the vein of infamous spiritualists the Fox sisters. Zlotowski "is one of the great young filmmakers in France, and is also someone I've been friends with for a really long time," Portman says.

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The stakes will be higher, however, for Pablo Larraín's Jackie, which will have its North American premiere in Toronto. Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy in the days leading up to, and immediately following, the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

A seven-minute clip from the movie prompted a bidding war in Cannes this spring and its distributors are pushing it as an awards contender. But such roles can prove polarizing for actresses: while Meryl Streep won an Oscar playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Nicole Kidman bombed spectacularly in the widely mocked Grace of Monaco.

Portman admits to being nervous ahead of the premiere. "I've never really done that before – playing a character who's so well-known; how they speak, they move…everything about them is very well-known," she says.

In researching the role, she found that "a lot of the biographies were kind of trashy." More helpful, however, were the transcripts of Jackie's interviews with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., conducted shortly after JFK's assassination.

"Because there were also tapes of them, you could really hear the way she talked with someone she knew really well, in a private setting," says Portman. "And that was a nice contrast to all of the television interviews that I had access to, seeing her public voice versus her private voice, and how her wit came out in a different way. Even the tone of her voice was different."

Kennedy is not the only powerful, iconic American woman on Portman's radar. The actor has also signed on to play Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the forthcoming feature On the Basis of Sex, which has faced delays while its producers – at Portman's insistence – have searched for a female director.

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Despite taking on such iconic roles, Portman admits: "I've never prided myself on impressions or anything like that. It's not my 'thing.' But it was really amazing to get to do. It's always good to try something you're really, really afraid of."

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens Aug. 26; Jackie and Planetarium will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 8-18 (tiff.net).

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