Natalie Portman may lose her noggin in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” but in real life the 26-year-old has a very good head on her shoulders. In fact, Portman’s doing such a bang-up job of handling international celebrity that it makes her underwear-eschewing, publicly-melting-down peers look even more ridiculous when they try to blame their foibles on the media or the paparazzi.
In an age of starlets gone wild — and the pursuit of same by the insatiable scandal-sheet press corps — Portman has risen to the top of her profession with smarts and class. Even if all of her film choices weren’t the greatest — anybody remember “Where the Heart Is”? — she’s hit upon a winning formula for playing the fame game, and her peers would do well to follow her lead.
1. Be smart
OK, granted, that’s kind of like saying “Be pretty” — you’ve either got it, or you don’t. But even actresses who aren’t brainiacs like Portman could benefit from her example by taking a few years off and pursuing a college degree. They don’t have to go to Harvard, like Portman did, but her decision to put aside her film career (except for the demands of the “Star Wars” prequels) to attend higher education certainly didn’t make her any less desirable to casting agents or less accessible to fans.
Lots of starlets can say they did a hot photo spread for Maxim. But how many can claim to have co-written a research paper that was published in a scientific journal? Portman did it — twice.
But being smart isn’t just about having a bachelor’s degree in psychology and speaking several languages. Portman is smart about her image. She traversed two minefields early on — she wasn’t just a child actress, she was a child actress playing sexually precocious roles in “The Professional” and “Beautiful Girls” — but came out unscathed.
How? Well, take a look at her behavior. Does she say moronic things to interviewers? No. Does she embarrass herself publicly? Never. Do you see much of her in the press when she’s not out plugging a movie? Are her personal habits and relationships analyzed and deconstructed throughout the tabloids? Nuh-uh. And that’s because you can avoid that stuff if you want to. But you have to want not to be photographed all the time. And that’s smart.
2. Be politically committedAlthough you’d better be smart about this one, too; passion is great, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about when you’ve been given a platform, you’re sunk. Portman’s committed to animal rights and vegetarianism, but rather than pose for a ridiculously inflammatory PETA ad, she’s out there actually doing things.
She has traveled to Rwanda to make a documentary about the endangered silverback gorillas. She has designed and marketed a line of vegan footwear. She discussed microfinance at the Live 8 concert and has given lectures at universities nationwide about ending third world poverty. And it’s conceivable that you didn’t know any of these things, because she didn’t do it for the publicity.
3. Date non-gross guysPortman’s love life, like her activism, has mostly traveled under the radar. Unlike those twits from “The Hills” and their ilk, she’s not out there swapping spit in front of the nearest photographer. But even when gossip trickles out about whom she might be seeing, the men in her life aren’t from the usual line-up of seedy DJs and hard-partying rockers and Eurotrash shipping heirs.
Portman gets linked to nice, intelligent fellows like Gael Garcia Bernál and Jake Gyllenhaal and fashionista Nathan Bogle and banking heir Nat Rothschild. These are not the sort of men whose bleary-eyed mug shots you’ll be seeing on “Inside Edition” anytime soon.
4. Work hardThey don’t just give out those Harvard diplomas, you know. But Portman’s summer vacations were spent working on “Star Wars” or doing “The Seagull” in Central Park with Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman for director Mike Nichols.
She’s hardly been a slacker since leaving school, balancing her environmental and socio-economic activism with a string of interesting, challenging films like “Closer,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Paris je t’aime” and Wong Kar-Wai’s upcoming “My Blueberry Nights.” For the provocative “V for Vendetta,” Portman not only shaved her head for the role but, as part of her promotional tour, she lectured at Columbia University on the subject of terrorism and counter-terrorism.
5. Have a sense of humor about yourselfIf you read an interview with Portman, you can tell that she doesn’t comport herself like someone who’s curing cancer. (Although with her academic creds, she’s more likely to accomplish that feat than practically anyone else in show business.) And if you saw her host “Saturday Night Live,” you know she’s ready to goof on herself when it’s called for. Portman brilliantly mocked her good-little-girl image in a digital short where she unleashed a violent, unhinged gangsta rap persona. (“What’cha want, Natalie?” “To drink and fight!” “What’cha need, Natalie?” “To (bleep) all night!”)
6. Have parents that support you — and who stay out of the spotlight
There’s nothing wrong with having a mom-ager, as long as she makes good decisions and isn’t trying to stage-mother her way to fame on your back. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Dina Lohan. And Lynne Spears, too.) Portman’s mother, Shelley Stevens, has served as her agent, and the array of Portman’s film and stage work shows that her mother isn’t frightened by controversy and that she also steers clear of projects that reek of pointless commerciality. Every young actress should have such a guiding influence in her corner.
There’s no telling where Natalie Portman’s career will take her in the future. But based on what we’ve seen so far, she’s going to continue to impress critics and audiences, to defy convention and predictability, and perhaps most importantly, to always wear panties when exiting a limousine.
Duralde is the author of “101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men” (Advocate Books). Find him at