Black Swan - Natalie Portman
Black Swan - Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

In the role of her young lifetime, Academy Award nominee Natalie Portman portrays Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, an ambitious young New York ballet dancer who is after the ultimate role: the delicately innocent White Swan and the seductively evil Black Swan in the star-making classic Swan Lake.

But as she fights to embody the dark side of the Black Swan she unleashes her most deeply buried fantasies, jealousies and nightmares which begin to overtake her life.

Was this a dream role for you?

Black Swan - Director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman
Director Darren Aronofsky and Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

Yes, I had danced when I was younger until I was about 12, and I guess I always idealized it as most young girls do.

It’s the most beautiful art. It’s expression without words, and I always wanted to do a film relating to dance.

So when Darren had this incredible idea that was not just relating to the dance world, but also had this really complicated character, it was (a wonderful) opportunity, and especially with Darren who is a director I would do anything for. It was just something completely exciting.

Can you talk a little about who Nina is?

Nina is dedicated, hardworking but also obsessive. She doesn’t yet have her own voice as a dancer, as a young woman, but she progressively changes as she searches to find her sensuality and sense of freedom. At the same time, she also starts to come undone, and that was a challenge.

What Nina wants is perfection, which is something that can only exist for a brief fleeting moment, but like all artist she may have to destroy herself to find it.  When she tries to become the Black Swan, something dark starts to bubble inside her. It becomes an identity crisis where she’s not only unsure of who she is, but the lines become blurred between her and other people. She starts literally seeing herself everywhere.

The film is about a transformation, and you make a complete transformation in the movie, how do you even approach transforming yourself so completely for a role?

Black Swan - Natalie Portman
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

It was a great challenge and I had really amazing support. All of the teachers and coaches and choreographer obviously, and director first and foremost, were shaping and pushing me along the way. I started with my ballet teacher a year ahead of time, and she started very basically with me.

We would do two hours a day for the first six months. That was really just sort of strengthening and getting me ready to do more so that I wouldn’t get injured.

Six months later we started doing five hours a day where I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day. Two months before we added the choreography so we were doing probably eight hours a day.

The physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of this sort of monastic lifestyle of only working out. It is a ballet dancer’s life where you don’t drink, you don’t go out with your friends, you don’t have much food, you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, and you get that sort of understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer.

You studied psychology at Harvard. What is your diagnosis for Nina?

Black Swan - Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

This was actually a case where something I learned in school did translate into something practical in real life, which is very, very rare. It was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior.

I mean the scratching, the anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD, and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual. The wrapping the shoes everyday, preparing new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature.

Then they have this godlike character in their director that it really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art. You can relate to it as an actor too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. You devote yourself to your director and you want to help create their vision. So I think the religious obsession would be my professional diagnosis.

This poor character is going through a descent into madness in searching for perfection. I know you devoted yourself wholly to the role, how did you find your own balance?

Black Swan - Natalie Portman
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) © 2010 Fox Searchlight

As soon as I finished a scene, I’d be back to being me. As soon as I finished shooting, I would want to be myself again. I’m not someone who likes to stay in character.

This clearly had a kind of discipline that lends itself to me being probably more like my character while we were shooting than past experiences. But I just went back to my regular life after.

There is already Oscar buzz around your role, how do you feel about that?

The best thing when you make a movie and you put your soul into it, like all of us did, is that people respond to it well, and the fact that audiences have come away moved and excited and entertained and stimulated by this film is extraordinarily flattering. So it’s a great, great honor.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.