Natalie Portman was 19 years old when she was cast alongside Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Christopher Walken in Mike Nichols’ Central Park production of “The Seagull.” As the Oscar-winning actress tells author Mark Harris in his new book, “Mike Nichols, A Life” (now available for purchase), it was the director who gave her the encouragement to stand next to acting titans such as Streep and Hoffman and not feel completely out of her league. Nichols became a mentor figure to Portman during the production, the likes of which Portman never had or never would have again in Hollywood.
As Harris writes in “Mike Nichols, A Life”: “‘I was nineteen,’ says Portman, ‘and I hadn’t done anything I had needed to research except for Anne Frank. I’d watch Phil [Hoffman] write down question after question in his notebook, and Meryl [Streep] would make up songs to sing and put them in her pocket just in case her character suddenly wanted to burst into song.’ She feared she was out of her depth and turned to Nichols, whom she found to be not only a sensitive director but also ‘the only older man who mentored me without there ever being a creepy element in it.’”
“I think he was a genuine feminist,” Portman says of Nichols in the book. “There was nothing, nothing, nothing there except him seeing you as a creative, interesting, talented human. It is the rarest, finest quality, and not many directors of his generation had it.”
Nichols and Portman would collaborate for a second time on “Closer,” the director’s 2004 adaptation of Patrick Marber’s play of the same name. Portman’s role landed her the first Academy Award nomination of her career (she competed in the Best Supporting Actress category). As Harris writes in the book: “With Portman, Nichols was careful and protective, particularly in the strip club sequence, for which, at her request, he was happy to eliminate some of the nudity. ‘He wants to see my bare ass [even] less than my father would,’ said Portman at the time.”
The book continues: “[Nichols] made sure [Portman] was comfortable with the angles, the costumes, and the movement, and walked her through the scene until she felt ready. ‘What he did for me…’ she says. ‘Lord, may I have that ability to offer that kind of mentorship and guidance to one other person.’”
“Closer” proved to be a dramatic breakthrough for Portman, who was still involved with the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy at the time. Harris’ book “Mike Nichols, A Life” is now available for purchase through Penguin Press.
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