Finding your place in the world is difficult. But if you get sidetracked by Hollywood temptations — liquid breakfasts, powdered lunches, and intravenous dinners, broken up by outings to strip clubs, plastic surgeons and luxury automotive retailers — it's easy to lose yourself entirely.
That's what happens to Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter who's lived the highs and lows of hedonism for too many years, in Terrence Malick's Hollywood critique Knight of Cups, which opens in San Francisco March 11.
“I think that overall, he's a pilgrim, but he doesn't know what the journey is supposed to be on,” Natalie Portman, who plays Rick's married lover Elizabeth in the film, told SF Weekly. “He doesn't know he's lost his way.”
Reached by phone, the Oscar-winning Black Swan actress — who's still best-known for playing Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels — sounded a lot like a first lady. Specifically, Portman sounded like the breathy Jacqueline Kennedy, whom she recently portrayed in the soon-to-be-released Jackie, a profile of the future Mrs. Onassis in the days just after the Kennedy assassination.
While Mrs. Kennedy's philandering husband repeatedly cheated on her, in Knight of Cups, it's Portman's character Elizabeth who's doing the cheating. Rather than viewing her character as a woman living a lie, Portman chooses to see her as the most authentic of Rick's many lovers.
“I think each of the women has very particular personalities and circumstances,” she says. “Elizabeth's scenario is very different, because she and Rick have this real connection. There's the forbidden nature of the relationship, but also it's all about authenticity. She's always talking about respecting the love, and it seems to be one of the more authentic relationships, for sure.”
To lose herself in the character, Portman says she worked closely with director-producer Malick, known for 1998's The Thin Red Line and 2011's The Tree of Life.
“He gave me all these books and movies,” she says. “We talked about it a lot and exchanged letters. It was actually really wonderful working with him. He encourages you as an actor, which is very empowering to create and help imagine your own character — although, of course, he has a specific shape for it in mind, also.”
Having written Knight of Cups, Malick imagined and shaped these characters from the get-go. He based Rick's journey of self-discovery on the quests in John Bunyan's 1678 religious epic The Pilgrim's Progress and the “Hymn of the Pearl” passage from the apocryphal Acts of Thomas.
“But I think the whole concept of what he was saying with the pilgrim,” Portman says, “is that you do have this path and journey and purpose and beauty within us, but it's so easy to get lost from that purpose. I think we can all sort of identify with that issue. That's what this man's journey was about.”
A professional actress since she was a teenager, the 34-year-old Portman understands the difficulty of maintaining a sense of self when one can so easily become a cog in the Hollywood machine. She did so by putting her education first (though not before Star Wars) and graduating from Harvard with an A.B. in psychology, back in 2003, and lending her name and time to a number of charitable causes and political campaigns over the years.
“I think Hollywood is many worlds,” she says. “The [entertainment industry] is populated by both wonderful and less wonderful people. Depending on your environment, you can definitely feel discouraged or upset by the surroundings. Of course, you can have feelings of superficiality or emptiness or all of that, I think, and want to fill it with meaningless relationships — which I think is what Rick is doing.”
For her part, Portman fills her life with her family, with whom she remains close, as well as her husband Benjamin Millepied, a French dancer, choreographer and current Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet and their 4-year-old son Aleph Portman-Millepied.
“For me, it has to do with having strong friendships and strong relationships with family and friends,” she says. “That keeps everything focused and meaningful.”
While some may find their families to be distractions from achieving their goals, Portman says hers supports her through her many achievements.
“There are obviously so many things that you can't be in control of,” she says. “It's lucky to get to do a lot of things, and it's more common now for people to get to try different things in their lives. You do have a personal life and a career and are trying different things, and it's always lucky when you have friends and family around you who help support you and take the load off of you when you're overwhelmed, because it's not the kind of thing you can do alone.”