Although the film’s theatrical trailer makes it look like some kind of monster movie, The Black Swan is at heart about the pursuit of perfection. Natalie Portman plays a young ballerina thrust into the main role (technically, roles) of a re-imagined version of Swan Lake, and the film chronicles the toll that the production takes on her mind and body.
Suffice it to say that even with a gifted actress like Portman in the main role, the challenges of bringing the story to life are considerable. But with an equally capable ensemble supporting her, including Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Vincent Cassel, not to mention director Darren Aronofsky in the director’s chair, achieving a certain kind of perfection is perhaps not as insurmountable a task as it seems. Movies spoke with Portman and Co. at the recent Los Angeles press day for Black Swan.
Q: Your work on Black Swan started 10 years ago. Can you talk about that process?
Darren Aronofsky: I've been a fan of Natalie's since I saw her in The Professional. We met in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson's, and we had a really bad cup of coffee and talked about the early ideas I had about the film.
Getting in to the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out. And over the years, Natalie would say, “I'm getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.”' I was like, “Natalie, you look great. You'll be fine.” And then about a year out before the film, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That's how it started.
Q: So much of this movie is about obsession. Natalie, how do you pull yourself out of that after diving into a role like this?
Portman: Well, as soon as I finish a scene I'm back to being me. I want to be myself again. I'm not someone who likes to stay in character. This clearly had a kind of discipline that lent itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences but I just go back to my regular life afterwards.
Q: How did you maintain that balance on this film?
Portman: I feel that Darren’s as disciplined and focused and alert as he could possibly be, and that's what I try to be. I'm not a perfectionist, but definitely I like discipline. I'm obedient. I'm not a perfectionist. I think it's important to work your hardest and be as kind as possible to everyone that you work with - and that's the goal every day.
Q: Barbara, you played Natalie’s mother. What was your relationship like on-set?
Hershey: I came into the film rather late – the last two and a half weeks -- and they had already done all of the ballet and the whole rest of the film was behind them. It was exciting to come in and do this insular, claustrophobic intense relationship, and we got a nice history, a feeling of ritual. I tried to copy her eyebrows as much as I could…her little necklace and earrings...and we were very aware of the symbiotic everyday-ness of living together forever.
Portman: Darren did a really beautiful thing where he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film that he would hand to me on sort of important days of shooting so that I should feel my mother. Barbara wrote really, really gorgeous letters that were in character.
Hershey: It came out of me without any thought; they were very easy to write, that really shocked me.
Aronofsky: And I never read the letters. I just thought that it should be between the two of you.
Q: Vincent, was your relationship with Darren “symbiotic” given your role as the ballet director and his as the director of the film?
Cassel: No, even though I tried to imagine what I could take from him. The closest thing to what I had to play was the real choreographer of the movie, Benjamin Millepied. Not that he’s as hard as I am in the movie, but he’s French, he’s of the same generation as I am, so I could see how he would go from the opera to the New York City Ballet.
Aronofsky: I wish that I could be as manipulative as his character in the film! I think I'm really way, way too direct and I've actually scared away a lot of A-list actors. In fact, Natalie Portman is the first A-list actor I've worked with in my career. Everyone else sort of went, “You want me to do what, for how long, for how little money?” And then they walked away. I think that a more manipulative director would be like, “Oh, it's not going to that hard. Come in and we'll have fun,” but I think that's when wars start. It's like, “You told me there would be sushi on set every day.” So I'm a little bit too direct, too straightforward I think.
Q: This is described in the press notes as a companion piece of sorts to The Wrestler. There are some obvious parallels, but how did you approach this in contrast to The Wrestler?
Aronofsky: I don't really think there's that much difference. I keep saying that it doesn't matter if you're an aging fiftysomething-year-old wrestler at the end of his career or an ambitious twentysomething-year-old ballet dancer, if they're truthful to who they are and they're expressing something real, then audiences will connect.