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Natalie Portman on Queen Amidala, 1999 – Out of the Archives

This week, Natalie Portman will be seen starring opposite Chris Hemsworth as superhero Mighty Thor in Marvel Comics Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) directed by Taika Waititi. In previous movies of the franchise, Portman played Jane Foster in Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013).
When she was 16, Portman was cast by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace (1999), as 14-year-old Queen Padmé Amidala, future mother of Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, their father being Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), trained as a Jedi by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). She was about to turn 18 when the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press interviewed her in May 1999 about the signature role that she would reprise in the two sequels, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).
Born in 1981, Portman had not seen the original Star Wars released in 1977, or the two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983): “The first time I saw that film was right after I was offered the role. I thought I should check up on it before I made my decision, and it was really great for me to see that something so fun and purely entertainment could attract so much love and devotion. A big part of me choosing it was realizing how many people really love those movies. It’s clearly much more hype than any other film I’ve ever worked on, which is strange, and having so much excitement about it for years before it’s out, is intimidating because when peoples’ expectations are so high, it’s always hard to please them; but it’s been really exciting from the beginning for me and really fun, and just as wonderful as any other experience I’ve had.”
This is how director George Lucas explained the character of Queen Amidala to the teenage actress that he chose to portray her: “Initially George talked to me about how she was a peaceful queen and how that came out of her innocence. At the beginning she says, ‘I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war.’ And that shows the idealistic point of view of a young person who doesn’t want to get involved in war.  Eventually, when it becomes inevitable that she’s led to war, she’s most concerned about her people, she can’t stand being cooped up in this big dress in her office giving orders, she has to be out there protecting them actively.”
The young actress understood the appeal of this teenage heroine to female viewers and the values that she represented: “Amidala is a great character for girls to see because she’s really strong, smart and peaceful. She’s not quick to jump into anything that’s dangerous or that would have a possibility of hurting people. And that’s a really nice image for girls to identify with, someone who’s a leader but not hasty to prove herself. One of the greatest things about this film is that it shows a young woman in a position of power and that’s what attracted me personally. I think that young people and women in particular have a reluctance to fight and more readiness to work things out without anybody getting hurt; and most people who aren’t belligerent soldiers would rather reconcile based on words than fighting.”
Speaking shortly after the Columbine High School shooting of April 20, 1999, in Littleton Colorado, Portman expressed her opinion on gun violence and the responsibility of filmmakers: “It’s a really scary issue, especially because there have been kids arrested at my own high school for making threats like that; so, it’s a very real thing to me, it’s not just somebody on the news. It’s scary to think that you might be an influence on people like that. On the other hand, Star Wars is a space fantasy, it isn’t real in any way, and actually there is a very strong peaceful quality to the character of the queen. But to be so influenced by a film you have to have something wrong with you, in the way you grew up, what your parents taught you, how your mind works. Or some people must just be born ill, because to go out and see a film then take away a human life is not a normal thing and you can’t blame that on a filmmaker.”
This is how the young actress described the qualities of George Lucas as a director and as a human being: “George is a wonderful person and he’s really kind. What surprised me most was how intelligent he is. I mean, when someone is so successful, you assume that they’re a smart person, but you can really talk to him about politics or science, he’s well educated, and he understands so many different aspects of life; he’s not narrow-minded and focused on just his profession. As a director he’s great too, he has a very specific vision of what he wants, he knows it exactly ahead of time, he can imagine what it’s going to look like, so he plans for it.  That’s the mark of a great director, when they know what they want their film to look like and then they make it happen.”
Portman had already been accepted to Harvard University, and she was planning to attend college in the fall, like Jodie Foster did but she did not think that this kind of higher education would help her acting: “I don’t think that intellectual greatness has a direct correlation to acting, because acting is very emotional, and you really have to forget your intellect sometimes to become completely not conscious of yourself and move into some other state. I do think that a college education gives you a greater knowledge of people and the world, it also brings you in touch with more normal people because it puts you in a regular classroom setting, and since you have to pull all your acting out of real-life experiences, if you don’t have any life you can’t act.  I believe that having a complete self is more important than anything else and that’s why I chose to get an education.”