Natalie Portman Is 'Lucy In The Sky,' With An Existential Crisis

Oct 6, 2019

Natalie Portman has played lots of different royalty, so to speak, from a galactic queen in the Star Wars prequels to a first lady in Jackie. But in the new movie Lucy in the Sky, Portman plays a member of an even more rarified club: an astronaut.

When we meet Portman's character Lucy Cola, she is one of the first female astronauts to venture into space. But her adjustment back to Earth is uneasy, and she quickly spirals out of control. The character is inspired by the real story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged in 2007 with attempted kidnapping of the then-girlfriend of a man with whom she was having an affair.

For Lucy, the experience of going to space has been transformative.

"It's so remarkable that this moment, that can be the most beautiful moment of her life — and probably is the most beautiful moment of most astronauts' lives — is also the moment where they face the smallness of everything they've ever known, and everyone they've ever known, because they see how the Earth is situated, and how small it is, and how they can literally cover it with their outstretched hand," Portman says. "And so to have those simultaneous experiences, I think, can be pretty jarring."

In an interview, Portman spoke about the film alongside its director, Noah Hawley.


Interview Highlights

On the question posed by a review in The A.V. Club:
"Why make the astronaut-in-a-diaper movie if you don't want to show an astronaut in a diaper?"

Hawley: I find it interesting, because I've seen those kinds of headlines as well, and I think it says a lot about the people who are writing them. ... Well, for me, what was interesting was the realization that behind every tabloid story are human beings with dignity who've made mistakes, who've failed, maybe even ruined everything — and we've reduced them to a punchline. So when I see those headlines, what it makes me think is that, you know, there's a segment of society that's not OK with that, that need those people to be punchlines for whatever reason.

On how female characters often function reductively

Lucy in the Sky stars Jon Hamm and Natalie Portman pose with director Noah Hawley at the movie's Los Angeles premiere.
Todd Williamson / Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Portman: I think that often female characters are reduced to single-word descriptive possibilities. I think people talk a lot about "strong" women or "badass" women or "tough" women — or "victims" or "villains." ... I mean, there's almost a genre of films about men who are lovable but curmudgeons. There's so many male characters that [have] contradictory qualities, which is the most human kind of behavior, in my view.

Hawley: Look, I find it interesting that there's two movies coming out this weekend about characters having a psychological decline that ends in violence. And he gets to be called Joker, with a capital J, but she's just supposed to be a joke.

On who gets to direct female-driven movies

Hawley: You know, I thought a lot about the male gaze, especially since it's a film that has an affair at the center of it, and the way that that might normally be portrayed by a filmmaker — and in making an experiential movie from her point of view, to also cinematically represent the female gaze. The romance or the sex at the heart of it is not — it's not about the act of it as much as the feelings that go along with it. And the editing of the film, the calibrating of the journey, was one of the hardest parts, just in terms of shaping the audience's journey. Because there's never a moment that I want you to step outside and judge her. ...

Portman: It's actually really disturbing to me when people ask male directors how they feel telling a female story — if they can do it. And I'm like: We take it for granted that they can tell stories about serial killers. Like, if you can get into the mind of a serial killer, why can't you get into the mind of a woman? ... I don't think there's anything qualitatively different about women directors or men directors except that women directors get way fewer opportunities. So yes, I'm very conscious of working with female directors. I am a female director. I think women directors need more opportunities at every level. And the more disturbing thing is male directors who only tell stories about men — because then I feel like they do not consider female stories as human stories.

On the novelty of making a space movie with female astronauts

Hawley: I think if I had been offered the male version of this film, I wouldn't have found it that interesting, just because I've seen so many versions of it. You know, Brad Pitt is having his existential crisis in space right now [in the movie Ad Astra]. ... Whether or not people like that movie, they don't question its right to exist. This story, obviously, is a story that is meant to portray the reality of experience, of someone who has an existential crisis basically, and makes mistakes, and on some level ruins everything. And there's nothing more human than that, you know; there's no redemption without the fall. So that's what was appealing.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Natalie Portman has played lots of different royalty, from a galactic Queen in "Star Wars" to a first lady in "Jackie". But in the new movie, "Lucy In The Sky", Portman plays a member of an even more rarefied club - an astronaut named Lucy Cola. Lucy, when we meet her, is one of the first female astronauts to venture into space. But her adjustment back to Earth is uneasy. And she quickly spirals out of control.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCY IN THE SKY")

NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Lucy Cola) You know how it is. You go up there. You see everything - the whole universe - and then you splash down. And - what? - you go to Applebee's? - you know, Monday Night Football, clip your toenails?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The character is inspired by the real story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged with attempted kidnapping in 2007 of the then-girlfriend of a man with whom she was having an affair. "Lucy In The Sky" is directed by Noah Hawley, who joins me now, along with Natalie Portman. Welcome to the program.

NOAH HAWLEY: Thank you.

PORTMAN: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Natalie, I want to start with you, so you can talk to us a little bit about your character Lucy. In this film, she was recruited by NASA from the Naval Academy. It seems like there's nothing she can't do. What drives her?

PORTMAN: Lucy is one of those kids who will do everything to succeed. You can feel it, but she's kind of been pushed to just be this high achiever, making-everyone-proud kind of figure in their family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, thumb their nose at the Ivy-Leaguers, like...

PORTMAN: Exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. She's got a chip on her shoulder.

PORTMAN: But yeah, she certainly has a lot of bottled-up pressure, for sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then she goes to space. Remind us how that changes her.

PORTMAN: Well, it's so remarkable that this moment that can be the most beautiful moment of her life - and probably is the most beautiful moment of most astronauts' lives - is also the moment when they face the smallness of everything they've ever known and everyone they've ever known because they see how the Earth is situated and how small it is and how they can literally cover it with their outstretched hand. And so to have those simultaneous experiences, I think, can be pretty jarring.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Noah, this story is based loosely on a real person. I want to read a headline from the A.V. Club, which is, "Why Make The Astronaut-In-A-Diaper Movie If You Don't Want To Show The Astronaut In A Diaper?" And so I have to ask you about why you decided not to include that.

HAWLEY: I find it interesting because I've seen those kinds of headlines, as well. And I think it says a lot about the people who are writing them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain.

HAWLEY: Well, for me, what was interesting was the realization that behind every tabloid story are human beings with dignity, who've made mistakes, who failed, maybe even ruined everything. And we've reduced them to a punchline. So when I see those headlines, what it makes me think is that, you know, there's a segment of society that's not OK with that, that need those people to be punchlines for whatever reason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Natalie, do you think that female characters or complicated stories about women can sometimes be reduced to a punchline in that way that Noah was talking about?

PORTMAN: I think that often, female characters are reduced to single-word descriptive possibilities - you know, I think people talk a lot about strong women or badass women or tough women or victims or villains...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Or psychos or crazy people...

PORTMAN: Yeah, psychos - yeah, exactly. I mean, there's almost like a genre of films about like men who are, like, lovable but curmudgeons. Or, like, you know, there's so many male characters that are, like, contradictory qualities, which is the most human kind of behavior, in my view.

HAWLEY: Look. I find it interesting that there's two movies coming out this weekend about characters having a psychological decline that ends in violence. And he gets to be called Joker with a capital J, but she's just supposed to be a joke.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Noah, listening to you speak, I can hear you're very protective of this character. And I'm wondering how that translates as a male director directing a film that is so centered on the female experience. Was there something that you went into this thinking, you know, I have to really be thoughtful about the way that this is portrayed and that you felt you were the right person to tell this story?

HAWLEY: You know, I thought a lot about the male gaze - especially since it's a film that has an affair at the center of it - and the way that that might normally be portrayed by a filmmaker. And in making an experiential movie from her point of view, to also cinematically represent the female gaze. The romance or the sex at the heart of it is not - it's not about the act itself, as much about the feelings that go with it. And the editing of the film, the calibrating of the journey was one of the hardest parts, just in terms of shaping the audience's journey because there's never a moment that I want you to step outside and judge her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask also because, Natalie, you made a comment at the Golden Globes last year about the fact that the category for best directors was all male nominees and that there is still, obviously, a lack of female directors in Hollywood. So when you come into a project like this with Noah, is there a discussion beforehand? Are you more intentional now about who you work with?

PORTMAN: It's actually really disturbing to me when people ask male directors how they feel telling a female story, if they can do it. And I'm like, we take it for granted that they can tell stories about serial killers. Like, if you can get into the mind of a serial killer, why can't you get into the mind of a woman? The problem - and I don't think there's anything qualitatively different about women directors or men directors, except that women directors get way fewer opportunities. So yes, I am very conscious of working with female directors. I am a female director. I think women directors need more opportunities at every level. And the more disturbing thing is male directors who only tell stories about men because then I feel like they do not consider female stories as human stories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I do want to point out how novel this movie is - I mean, because it is about a female astronaut, and that is a rarity. We've seen several space movies this year about men, like "Ad Astra" and "High Life". Was that - and this is to both of you - something on your mind while making this that that was, you know, very important to show the real and important contribution that women have made to space exploration?

HAWLEY: Definitely. I think if I'd been offered the male version of this film, I wouldn't have found it that interesting just because I've seen so many versions of it. And, you know, Brad Pitt is having his existential crisis in space right now. And...

PORTMAN: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, he is.

HAWLEY: You know, And what's interesting is, you know, whether or not people liked that movie, they don't question its right to exist. This story, obviously, you know, is a story that is meant to portray the reality of experience of, you know, someone who has a existential crisis, basically, and makes mistakes and, on some level, ruins everything. And there's nothing more human than that, you know? There's no redemption without the fall. So, you know, I think that that's what was appealing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Natalie, I read that you actually do want to be an astronaut.

PORTMAN: It might be a little too late for me, but I definitely dreamed of it as a kid. And, you know, if there was some fast-track opportunity (laughter)...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NASA, if you're listening...

PORTMAN: ...I would certainly take it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Lucy In The Sky" is directed by Noah Hawley and stars Natalie Portman. Thank you both so very much.

PORTMAN: Thank you.

HAWLEY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.