From her first film, Luc Besson's "The Professional" (1994), the slim, dark, olive-skinned and somewhat exotic looking Natalie Portman was tagged with star quality, and as she matured the actress proved her potential both as an Oscar-nominated dramatic actress and as a pop movie icon with her role as the regal Padme Amidala in the "Star Wars" prequels.
She played an orphan apprenticed to a "cleaner" or hit man (Jean Reno) who serves as her mentor, and she as his savior. "The Professional" proved an auspicious debut, winning Portman attention and positive notices, her performance particularly applauded, even by those who found the movie itself shocking. The young actress followed with a turn as Al Pacino's stepdaughter, suffering the rejection of her real father, in Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995). A smaller, less expository role than her previous effort, "Heat" showcased Portman's natural ability, the actress capably evincing her character's desperate dysfunction with very little dialogue or screen time. Next she had a scene-stealing turn as a wise-beyond-her-years young girl who establishes a tender and honest friendship with Timothy Hutton's conflicted pianist in Ted Demme's "Beautiful Girls" (1996). Again Portman received rave reviews which in turn led to increased opportunities. She had two memorable but less pivotal roles that same year, appearing in Woody Allen's odd musical "Everyone Says I Love You" and as the bright and collected daughter of the besieged United States president (Jack Nicholson) in Tim Burton's wacky "Mars Attacks!"
While the type of roles the actress has taken on (generally tough but sensitive old souls) reflected her own grounded maturity, perhaps even more telling are the parts she has declined. At age 14, Portman was approached for the starring role in Adrian Lyne's controversial remake "Lolita", but reluctant to agree to the required nudity and heeding her father's advice to avoid doing things on screen she had not yet experienced in real life, opted to pass on the role. Later she reportedly dropped out of Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), a film in which she was to play a 13-year-old, because she could no longer relate to the young character. Instead she headed to Broadway to star in the revised version of "The Diary of Anne Frank", lending a refreshing humanism to the historical legend, portraying her as a somewhat disagreeable, silly and vain young girl, a much more interesting characterization than her saintly reputation. Portman received positive notices for her Broadway debut, critics noting her grace as well as her unfettered talent and youthful exuberance.
Next up for the actress was the role that would make her an international star, that of Queen Amidala in the much-hyped prequel "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999). Portman joined the legendary saga as this wise and responsible teenaged leader, the future mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. She was also signed to reprise the role in the two subsequent prequels set for release in 2002 ("Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones") and 2005, a weighty decision for any young girl, especially considering Portman's focus on education and her admission that acting may not be where her future lies. Also in 1999, she starred opposite Susan Sarandon in the Wayne Wang adaptation of Mona Simpson's novel "Anywhere But Here", a culture shock tale tracing the ups and downs of a mother and daughter who move from small town Michigan to Beverly Hills, California.
Although the provocative nature of some of her earlier roles (including the questionable relationships her character has with much older men in both "The Professional" and "Beautiful Girls") has caused some to ask what kind of parents this actress has, the reality is that the well-spoken and charming Portman and her family have apparently made every effort to keep her from being exploited on screen and off. "Portman" is a stage name; the real family name has been shielded from the press. Wayne Wang reportedly cut some of her character's more explicitly sexual scenes from the script of "Anywhere But Here" at the request of the family. In an attempt to keep her childhood and education as normal as possible, Portman commuted to her Long Island high school to Broadway while performing in "The Diary of Anne Frank". After filming her newly mature and romantic turn as Amidala--paired opposite future Darth Vader Hayden Christensen in a surprisingly chemistry-impaired match-up—in the second "Star Wars" prequel, she took a lengthy break before returning to screen again in director Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain" (2003) in a haunting supporting turn as a young Civil War widow with an infant child encountered by Jude Law who bears her own deep psychological scars from her loss in the conflict.
She delivered her most charming adult performance yet as the open-hearted, free-spirited Sam, the love interest in writer/director/star Zach Braff's winning indie "Garden State" (2004)—indeed, approached as Braff's first choice to play the character, it was Portman's interest in the project that earned it funding. Playing a darker variation on the "Garden State" character, Portman continued her move in more mature roles in Mike Nichols' oft-brutal battle-of-the-sexes "Closer" (2004), playing a stripper who become involved in a messy, flip-flopping quadrangle involving two couples (Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen). In a much-buzzed-about incident, Portman allowed Nichols to film a brief nude scene with her character, but after finding the nudity distracting, Nichols replaced the scene with a more discreetly filmed version at her request. The actress' compelling performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. Hot off her Golden Globe win, Portman earned a spot at the Academy Awards with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Returning to the familiar galaxy far, far away for "Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith" (2005) Portman provided tragic closure for the prequel trilogy even though she and her character were not particularly well-served by George Lucas' script.