Film & TV

3 Things Natalie Portman Learned From Working With Terrence Malick

Written by MasterClass

Jul 25, 2019 • 3 min read

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Natalie Portman Teaches Acting

“Terrence Malick was an incredible mentor to get to work with in terms of throwing away all the rules of filmmaking. You realize a lot of these rituals aren’t as important as you think.” - Natalie Portman

Terrence Malick, director of such films as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life, is one of the most acclaimed directors working today. For Academy Award-winning actor Natalie Portman, working with Malick was a unique opportunity, because he doesn’t abide by the traditional rules of filmmaking. Here are three things the actress learned from working with Malick.

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A Different Approach to Filmmaking

Malick is known as a demanding filmmaker, with his own approach to visual storytelling developed over a decades-long career.

  • Adaptability leads to creativity. To work successfully with Terrence, Portman had to adapt to her director’s style of filmmaking. In the process, she found new ways to access her character and even picked up some ideas that have guided her own filmmaking process.
  • How to be present. On Terrence’s films, the actors only have hair and makeup done once at the beginning of the day with no touch-ups. Portman found this to be helpful in maintaining her character because she experienced what it was like to live moment to moment in the skin of the character throughout the day.
  • Developing a relationship with the camera. Generally, Malick creates a theatrical environment. Within his sets, you can walk freely without worrying about hitting a mark. He instructs his actors to move continuously—never stopping, never sitting, never being still on camera. The actors guide the camera with their movements, which means that the actors and the camera operator need to be in sync. This way of working requires an acute awareness of the camera’s position. Portman talks about creating interesting angles with her body for the camera to capture; in order to do this, she has to be very in touch with her character’s physicality and the relationship to the other character(s) in a given scene.

How to Collaborate on Character

In Knight of Cups, Portman’s character is married and having an affair; she feels conflicted, but she’s also in love.

  • Prepare far in advance. Malick works with little to no script, so he sent Portman books and films that related to her character to help her prepare for the role. She found the experience to be very collaborative and ultimately very freeing because it felt like they were building something together. Her prep work also gave her the confidence to do his well-known long takes.
  • Root improvisation in emotion. When Portman was faced with her first improvised love scene, she drew from her deep understanding of her character’s relationship with her lover and used a physical gesture that was truthful, creative, and safe. Portman chose to put her foot in Christian Bale’s mouth, a provocative and sexy moment that conveyed the emotion of the scene. It’s important to always communicate what your boundaries are to your costars and director, especially when working in an improvised way.
  • Access the subconscious. In Knight of Cups and Song to Song, Malick uses voice-over to create a collective subconscious that guides both films through multiple characters’ points of view. Portman drew inspiration from Linda Manz’s voice-over in another Malick film, Days of Heaven.

Finding Moments After a Scene Ends

Portman has also applied some of the lessons she learned from Malick to her own work as a director. She likes to let the camera roll past the scripted scene ending because sometimes that’s when the most truthful and creative moments happen. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the actors continue to speak—she tries to see what you find in silence. It’s more important that the feeling of the scene continues, as long as you stay in the moment.

In your prep work as an actor, try to think about what your character would do after your scene ends, and start there.

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