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Natalie Portman Pirouettes into Dior’s Spotlight

The actress has Oscar buzz swirling for her star turn in “Black Swan” and a Dior beauty contract under her belt.

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NEW YORK — With Oscar buzz swirling for her star turn in “Black Swan,” a Dior beauty contract under her belt and a film production company poised to release two films this spring, this is Natalie Portman’s moment.

The gamine actress couldn’t be happier with audience reaction to her role in the Darren Aronofsky film. “Your biggest dream, when you make a film, is that people respond to it, and once they see it have these crazy reactions to it and different interpretations and bring their own thing to it,” Portman said during an interview with WWD at the end of long day of promoting her new role as a face for Dior’s Miss Dior Cherie, the first project of what is expected to be a lengthy relationship with the fashion house.

Earlier, on a soundstage at Chelsea Piers’ Pier 59, she had participated in a question-and-answer session before a group of 120 journalists from more than eight countries. What emerged was a portrait of a highly accomplished 29-year-old woman who puts a high value on a strong sense of self and ethics.

“I think true elegance is just comfort in oneself,” said Portman. “When there is no posturing or posing, just when you are being who you are and not posing.”

Those feelings spilled over into her attitude about her “Black Swan” role. “Obviously, people will go to great lengths when they’re competitive,” she said. “For me personally, I think it maybe was more of an issue when I was in my early 20s. Now it is not. Everyone has their own unique place in the world. Competition is invented. For women in general, it’s certainly a persistent theme, because in ‘Black Swan,’ it sort of represents the world at large for women — where one woman gets a little too old, and one of them is replaced by a younger woman who is the newer model. It’s very easy to step out of that if women reject that themselves, as a construct.”

In the thriller, Portman plays Nina, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life is completely consumed with dance. When the ballet’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace the prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), Portman’s Nina faces stiff competition to be Ryder’s replacement from a new dancer (Mila Kunis) — resulting in Nina getting in touch with her dark side. The film opened in just 18 theaters in the U.S. on Dec. 3, raking in $1.44 million for a per-theater average of $80,212. By Dec. 22, the movie is expected to be in about 1,000 screens.

Portman peeled 20 pounds off her already slender frame to play the role, but admits gaining it back came far easier. “I ate and I didn’t work out immediately after doing eight hours of exercise a day and not eating enough, it wasn’t really difficult,” she said. “I think it took me three days to look normal again.”

The development process for the film spanned a decade. “Darren and I first talked about it in 2000 or 2001 — I was still in college,” said Portman, who graduated from Harvard in 2003. “He described that he wanted to do this sort of thriller about the ego and the artist, set in the ballet world. And he had this idea in his mind, but there was no script. I kept talking to him year after year, saying, ‘What’s going on with that?’ whenever we would bump into each other.” The on-again, off-again financing threw the timing off, which didn’t bother Portman, who as a result got in a full year of ballet training.

She admitted that a big help was the design duo behind Rodarte, Kate and Laura Mulleavy. “They did the ballet costumes, and they were just exquisite — they really helped me feel like I was transforming into a ballet dancer and into a swan for the film,” said Portman.

In addition to her movie roles, Portman develops and produces films. Her Handsomecharlie Films — which takes its name from her departed terrier mutt, who in turn took his name from one of Portman’s heroes, Charlie Chaplin — is poised to launch two films in 2011: January’s “No Strings Attached,” in which the actress will star, and “Hesher,” coming in March. Portman is especially passionate about creating stronger comedic roles for women. “I just think it’s more challenging to find good female roles in comedies, and lighter material. The lighter material tends to give women fluffy roles — so much of female comedy is about, like, girls buying shoes, or wanting to just get married and wear nice clothes, and isn’t celebrating women’s personalities quite as much. With dramatic things, women can have a complex range of emotions and a complex range of characteristics. This year, I was very lucky to have two opportunities to have great female comedic characters.”

Portman is also keen to foster up-and-comers in the film business. “There are really amazing female writers coming out, who are writing women who can just be funny and not have to be stuck in sexist clichés,” she said. “It’s been really fun getting to produce also, because then you get to find these writers and also find these amazing young actresses like Olivia Thirlby and Lena Dunham. There are really amazing people out there writing, like Liz Meriwether, who is a 26-year-old woman who wrote ‘No Strings Attached.’ It’s one of the best things, to get to support new talent — whether it’s new directors, writers or actors.”

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