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johanna schneller: fame game

It's Natalie Portman's world, at least for the next few months. She's a shoo-in to win the best-actress Academy Award next Sunday for Black Swan, which has already earned a glittering heap of accolades, and is just about to hit $100-million at the box office.

Her romantic comedy No Strings Attached, where she makes adorable whoopee with Ashton Kutcher, has grossed over $62-million. Her imminent baby will generate headlines when it arrives.

Plus, she has three new films coming out this spring: Your Highness, a medieval comedy co-starring James Franco and Danny McBride (April); Hesher, a drama about a misfit kid (April); and Thor, an adventure epic co-starring Anthony Hopkins and directed by Kenneth Branagh, due May 6.

In the glow of all that heat, it's no surprise that IFC Films has dusted off a drama starring Portman that's been on the shelf since 2009. Originally called Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, it's been retitled The Other Woman. On Feb. 4, it was released without fanfare in a couple of theatres; it's also available via on-demand on some cable systems.

When I interviewed Portman and Don Roos, the film's writer-director, at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, she was already impressively accomplished. She said she wanted to write and direct - which she did, in New York, I Love You. She wanted to produce - and indeed, she's a producer on The Other Woman, No Strings Attached and Hesher. She was even thinking about motherhood, though she had not yet met her fiancé.

"Absolutely, I want to have kids," she said. "I mean, knock on wood. People are such amazing creatures, so to be able to make one, wow. I can't make anything - I can't make a paper airplane - but I can make a person?! That's an amazing gift. Whenever a guy says, 'Thank God I don't have to give birth,' I'm like, 'Are you crazy?' That's the luckiest thing about being a girl."

Portman, who will turn 30 in June, has been working since age 11, and she was also quite clear-eyed about the importance of transitioning to adult parts. "I'm physically small, which makes people reluctant to see me as a grown-up," she said. "Even with people on the street, it's like, 'I swear, I'm an adult!' "

"You have to stop carrying balloons," Roos chimed in.

Portman cackled like a hyena. "But I was never a kid in kid movies," she continued. "I was in grown-up movies" - including The Professional, Heat and Beautiful Girls - "and in those, the role of the child is to be sort of a prophet or symbol. They're less real people, more idealizations for what's lost."

Easing away from those roles, Portman survived the green-screen onslaught of the Star Wars franchise; took time off to get a degree from Harvard, where she studied psychology; and then emerged full-grown in a variety of meaty roles, including a Civil War mother in Cold Mountain, a troubled slacker in Garden State and a clear-eyed stripper in Closer.

"I think a lot of actors are constantly searching for what can be known, what they can hold onto," said writer-director Zach Helm, who worked with Portman in 2007's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. "Natalie might be one of the only ones who's willing to live in the unknown. It makes me want to work with her on everything."

Clearly, Portman has taste, and knows how to mix it up. In both her life and work, she plays her ethereal beauty against a raunchy sense of fun. She did a filthy rap for Saturday Night Live that became a YouTube sensation. While filming the obscenity-laced Closer, she presented co-star Julia Roberts with a necklace that rendered in delicate gold script the C-word for female anatomy. (Roberts whooped with delight, and later countered with a necklace that read L'il C-word.) In No Strings Attached, Portman gives the line, "You have a very nice penis," an endearingly wide-eyed reading. While discussing in Entertainment Weekly how to sell Black Swan to both women and men, she declaimed, "The answer is a lesbian scene. Everyone wants to see that." And everyone's wondering if she'll be as giddy at the Oscars as she was at the Golden Globes, where she announced to the world from the winner's podium that her fiancé "totally wants to sleep with me."

"As an artist, you want to keep things strange," Portman said. "It's one place where it's comforting to be different, because you look at the world from such a different perspective than other people, and that different perspective is what makes art."

To that end, The Other Woman looked promising. It was based on a successful novel by Ayelet Waldman, and Don Roos is an indie darling who directed The Opposite of Sex and wrote the script for Marley & Me. Portman plays Emilia, a hungry young lawyer who seduces her boss (Scott Cohen). She gets pregnant, and he leaves his doctor wife (Lisa Kudrow) for her, but sadly, their baby dies. For the bulk of the film, Emilia is shattered by grief and unable to cope with her sensitive stepson. She's a prickly chick who does some not-nice things, and the ending is subtle - the changes she makes are realistic and therefore small.

Back in late 2009, Roos and Portman were worried about it. "It's so rare in a film to have a non-adorable female lead," Roos said. "This character has an enormous amount to learn about life, and we take a long time to get to where she's broken down enough to start to reassemble herself. That's very risky in today's market, where most films aren't watched in theatres, where you can flip the channel and rent a different movie."

"And it's honest about grief," Portman added. "Grief is monotonous. It wears on people; they get desensitized to it. The humour in it is also realistic - every terrible situation I've been exposed to, everybody eventually goes to their dark humour."

Unfortunately, it looks like not even Portman can save this one. Reviewers have been uniformly disappointed, and its theatrical run has grossed only $9,000. But with everything on her horizon, Portman is unfazed.

"I think acting is the most amazing thing to be able to do," she said. "Your job is to practise thinking, 'What is going on in someone else's head, what do they feel, how does life affect them?' You end up walking down the street, blown away that every person has a life. Which is also very childlike. When I was little, my stuffed animals, my dolls, the birds outside, everything had an interior life. I feel I'm continuing that, but with people, for real. And then to be able to travel, to explore the world, to have your life constantly changing, constantly finding new things, and not be attached to anything that's not meaningful - it's an amazing way to live." And so far, an amazing thing to watch, too.