Natalie Portman isn't a Jersey girl by birth (she's actually a Long Island native), but she certainly makes a convincing one in her latest film, Garden State. She plays Sam, an Annie Hall-like young woman who strikes up a relationship with the film's Benjamin Braddock-like hero, Andrew (played by Scrubs star Zach Braff). The role gave Portman the chance to wear ordinary clothes for once, unlike the elaborate costumes she sports as Amidala in those Star Wars prequels.
"Sam was a fun character to play because she doesn't really hide anything," says the 23-year-old actress. "She gets to have all of this weirdness hanging out. I enjoyed doing a small movie like this. It's not about big special effects or opening-weekend grosses. It's about creating something together that people will enjoy."
Portman agreed to appear in Garden State after meeting with writer-director Braff, with whom she clicked right away. But while he's has claimed that he wrote Sam with Portman in mind, she isn't buying it. "Zach would tell you that I am this character, but I don't think I am at all. I happen to have inside info from knowing him. I know who his real celebrity crushes are, and they're not me!"
She wasn't even dissuaded by Braff's slim directorial résumé. "I was concerned that I might have to step in and save the day, but he really knew what he was doing," she says. "He was so confident without being overbearing and really created a terrific atmosphere on the set. It was very impressive."
One incident in particular stands out in her mind. "We were shooting a pool scene at a lady's house in New Jersey, and we were only allowed to use one bathroom. We were a 50-person crew! We started shooting at 7 pm and that bathroom got disgusting very quickly. At midnight, the woman was like, "We are stopping shooting. There is doody in the bathtub!" So Zach had to deal with her while trying to direct this scene." All together now: Ewww!
Right now, Portman's headed back to Australia for reshoots on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Naturally, she's completely tight-lipped about the story ("I haven't seen it yet" is all she'll say). But she's glad to talk up her next movie, Closer, due out this December. "It's a very different movie from Garden State," she says of the Mike Nichols-directed film, which also stars Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen. "We play four people who have the nastiest love relationships with each other. It's nasty and dirty and bad." Perhaps, but with that cast and director, it also sounds like potential Oscar material.