The child actor is a pretty sweet gig, let's face it. You get paid lots of money to play make believe. It certainly beats flipping burgers. But making the transition from young adolescent to adult is where the real challenge lies. It's difficult for young actors to be taken seriously in mature roles when the public is used to seeing them in children's fluff. They also go through many physical changes that, in an image conscious industry, undoubtedly influence people's perceptions for better or for worse.
Natalie Portman's screen debut was in The Professional (1994) at age 11, where she played a precocious orphan who latches on to a hit man (Jean Reno) and gets him to teach her the trade. From there she went on to play a number of plucky girl next door types in Beautiful Girls (1996) and Anywhere But Here (1998). Comparisons were made to Audrey Hepburn (as they are with any young 'it' girl) but Portman was believed to be the real deal. And like Hepburn, as Portman got older she struggled to find mature roles. Hepburn was stuck in the light romantic comedy ingénue role and could never shake that even into her later years.
This is where Portman finds herself right now. Stuck in the ingénue mould and struggling to be taken seriously as a mature screen presence. This is why Black Swan is the most important role of her career.
One of the things I love about the casting of Natalie Portman in Black Swan is she is used to perfection in this film. I have always been a fan of hers ever since The Professional. She showed a maturity beyond her years in that film and has continued to grow through a number of interesting and diverse choices (Mr. Magorium notwithstanding).
There is no denying her talent and beauty. But one of the problems I've had with her in recent years is that she has been blessed and cursed with her youthful looks. She's just shy of 30 and could still pass for someone in high school. I guess that's great for Natalie Portman the person, but for Natalie Portman the actor it has created quite a challenge to be taken seriously in more grown up roles. She is basically stuck in an awkward woman/girl phase: too mature for the kids' stuff, but too young looking for the adult material.
In Black Swan, Portman has finally landed a role that best showcases her physical attributes which would have otherwise been an obstacle for other roles. In a nutshell, Nina was the role Miss Portman (at least at this time in her career) was born to play.
In the film, Nina is a fragile, virginal young woman obsessed with obtaining the lead in Swan Lake. Of course to be the lead Swan, one has to take on the dual task of portraying both the White Swan – the pure and angelic ingénue, and the Black Swan – the dark, sensuously erotic beauty. Nina has no trouble with the White Swan but has trouble finding her inner Black Swan... much like Portman herself. She has, for many years now, built up a resume of wholesome characters. It's rather off putting to see her in such erotically charged material.
Obvious comparisons of Black Swan to The Wrestler have been made already. But I don't want to talk about the similarities between the fictional characters of Nina and Randy the Ram. That's a given. Comparing both characters' passion for their art is obvious.
I want to talk about the actors involved. Director Darren Aronofsky does with Natalie Portman in Black Swan what he did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. He takes a preconceived notion the general public has about an actor that would have otherwise hurt their chances at landing roles and creates a character for them to use those "limitations" for their advantage. Randy the Ram is a washed up star of the 80s who pissed his life and career away on drugs, booze, women, and bad decisions. A description that eerily parallels Mickey Rourke himself – the actor who portrayed him. Nina is basically a little girl trapped in a woman's body. She is officially an adult, but you wouldn't know it by her little girl bedroom, her creepy relationship with her mother, and her virginal body language. Nina is stuck in this woman/girl phase much like Portman herself.
Perfect casting for sure. I like to call it Method Casting. Rather than use someone to portray the part, Aronofsky on both occasions has found someone who's lived the real thing and become the role.
Cynics would argue then, that these people aren't challenged as much because they aren't so much 'acting' as 'being'. They're either playing characters well within their range or just being used well. Though I don't disagree with those statements, I do believe part of an actor's job is to draw upon their own experiences to create a character true to them self. It's not the actor's fault if they are well cast. Also, one cannot begin to criticize until we see what the actor follows up the role with.
Black Swan will turn out to be a turning point in Portman's career. The race for Best Actress has come down to a two person race between her and Annette Benning for The Kids Are All Right. But even if Natalie doesn't win, it will be interesting to see what will come of this role. Traditionally, Hollywood likes to reward successful roles for actors with scripts featuring the exact same role.
It would be a tragedy for Portman to be stuck playing fragile woman/girl roles for the rest of her career. Hopefully this role has helped her find her own inner "black swan" that will express themselves in more mature and darker characters.