NEW YORK — New York-- --Andy and Larry Wachowski summoned Natalie Portman to San Francisco from Israel to get inside her head.
Then they wanted to inspect her head.
The Matrix creators were casting V for Vendetta, the futuristic thriller that they wrote. Portman, a Star Wars star, read a few scenes as Evey, the waif pulled into a masked anarchist's plot to blow up the British Parliament. Evey gets her head shaved in prison, and the Wachowskis asked Portman to pull her hair back so they could imagine her with locks shorn.
Portman passed the cranial casting call, but the Wachowskis and director James McTeigue gained far more than a physical ideal for the anti-heroine of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel. They landed a game actress itching to tackle social issues.
"I'm pretty much for nonviolence," Portman says. "But I also understand the impossibility of nonviolence in a violent world. You can only be nonviolent when your neighbor is not violent. Otherwise you cease to exist, which becomes a sort of violence against yourself."
Portman's life is enveloped by politics. She was born in Israel, educated at Harvard, and is immersed in her pet cause of aiding Third World women. Few 24-year-olds could take a studio's manifest destiny to turn a science-fiction action film into global commentary and run with it.
She has given plenty of thought to Evey's walking the line between freedom fighter and insurgent. In Vendetta, which opens today, Evey is rescued by a masked terrorist bent on bringing down an iron-fisted regime and exacting personal revenge. Evey must decide whether she is a damsel in distress or a disciple. After personifying across-the-board goodness in Star Wars, moral ambiguity has its appeal.
"There are movies where we are interested in seeing peoples' lives without agreeing with what they're doing," Portman says.
She is no stranger to the high-profile: She played Queen Padme Amidala (mother of Luke Skywalker, wife of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader) in the second trilogy of Star Wars movies. Last year she earned an Oscar nomination as part of a tangled web of love in Mike Nichols' Closer.
Yet Vendetta is the first bigger-budget movie in which Portman is expected to hoist the marquee on her delicate shoulders. Stirring it up in an R-rated smarty-pants adventure without plastic action figures to hawk is not the safest place to start. In addition, the part might not make Portman - gulp - popular.
"The only way to grow is to do things you don't know you can already do," she says. "If I can't keep myself stimulated, how am I going to keep the audience?"
The shadowy V (Hugo Weaving, Elrond in Lord of the Rings) plays with knives, has a cool lair, speechifies and masquerades as a latter-day Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 and was hanged. V plots a subway destruction (which was said to have delayed the movie's release after the real-life London tube bombings). Does that make V a terrorist in the pejorative?
"You have to be careful with the label of terrorism," Portman says. "The Boston Tea Party - the Brits might have called that terrorism."
Producer Joel Silver conjures a lot of bang for $50 million, a relative bargain for this sort of enterprise. Portman says bravo to the economy, with a caveat.
"It's always smart to keep the budget at its minimum to make a good movie, but ... a lot of times everyone applauds for these [other] cheap movies that basically means everyone involved isn't getting what they're supposed to," she says. "Your wardrobe people and hair and makeup people and set designers, they're not getting compensated properly."
The Wachowskis wanted a tough and tender provocateur. They got Norma Rae, too. Portman is packing enough clout these days to lock horns with men as mean and powerful as the despot played by John Hurt in Vendetta.
"I've stood up to producers before and even a director," she says. "I saw them being abusive. A lot of people on the set are scared to say stuff when they're not being treated right."
Portman's next project is the fantasy Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.
Asked to what lengths she would go for that movie, she smiles and says, "Reversible changes. Hair grows back, and I'm not getting a tattoo."
Ron Dicker writes for the Hartford Courant