Natalie Portman on ‘Lady Bird’: ‘I’ve wanted to see this movie for the past 20 years’

Two weeks after putting the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. on notice for producing an all-male lineup of best director Golden Globe nominees, actress (and director in her own right) Natalie Portman sang the praises of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” in Hollywood Thursday night.

“I just want to say, I’m so grateful for this movie,” the 26-year-old Oscar-winner said of her “Jackie” and “No Strings Attached” co-star’s awards-season success story. “I’ve wanted to see this movie for the past 20 years and it hasn’t existed. I’ve been waiting for it. It’s just magic.”

The discussion, a post-screening Q&A in front of an audience of Academy and guild members, ranged from Gerwig’s broad influences (the work of Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, and Carole Lombard) to her specific ones (Northern California artist Wayne Thiebaud and John Huston’s Stockton, Calif.-set “Fat City,” which were heavy influences on the look of “Lady Bird”).

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Natalie Portman (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
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Actress Natalie Portman attends the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' 2nd annual Governors Awards at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center on November 13, 2010 in Hollywood, California.
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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Natalie Portman and producer Ram Bergman (L) attend the 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' Party during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Gisela Schober/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 08: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Actress Natalie Portman attends the 'As We Were Dreaming' premiere during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palace on February 9, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
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In particular, Gerwig noted the impact female filmmakers like Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, and Mia Hansen-Løve have had on her outlook in the profession. She referenced movies like Denis’ “Beau Travail” and Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels” as formative.

“I didn’t know how many [female filmmakers] there were and I didn’t know how important it was, but even though I didn’t want to make works like that, it sparked something in me and led to me going, ‘I need to do this,'” Gerwig said. “I think women tend to focus on stories that men don’t have the privilege of seeing, particularly things that are domestic. ‘Jeanne Dielman,’ so much of that movie is static shots of her doing housework. Chantal Akerman said that is the lowest on the totem pole of cinema language; we value the image of a woman doing anything else besides housework. There was something about that intimacy with making dinner or making a bed that was really interesting to me. It felt like there was this whole world left to be explored that had been largely undocumented.”

She also noted Marielle Heller’s 2015 film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which she saw when she was casting “Lady Bird” and which really spoke to her in terms of depicting a young woman with dimension and complexity.

“When I saw it I was like, ‘That’s it. She’s right,'” Gerwig said. “I feel like allowing a young woman to experience desires and not just utterly punching them for it is weirdly not that common. Lady Bird is so inside of her own desires and able to be the active person in her own life. She’s not ever waiting to be looked at; she’s the one doing the looking. Even when it’s misguided and even when she messes up and fails, it’s not disallowed.”

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BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Actor Saoirse Ronan attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards Nominee Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 5, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Actress Saoirse Ronan attends the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 21, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
SANTA BARBARA, CA - FEBRUARY 04: Actress Saoirse Ronan at the Santa Barbara Award Honoring Saoirse Ronan Presented By UGG during The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival at Arlington Theatre on February 4, 2018 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Alison Buck/Getty Images for SBIFF)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Saoirse Ronan attends the AARP's 17th Annual Movies For Grownups Awards on February 05, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/ WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 03: Actor Saoirse Ronan poses in the press room during the 70th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 3, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 07: Actress Saoirse Ronan poses with the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in 'Lady Bird' in the press room during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Venturelli/WireImage)
Actor Saoirse Ronan poses at the 29th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala in Palm Springs, California, U.S., January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 13: Actress Saoirse Ronan attends the 2016 Irish Repertory Theatre Gala Benefit of Finian's Rainbow: In Concert at Town Hall on June 13, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)
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HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Actress Saoirse Ronan attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
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HOLLYWOOD - FEBRUARY 24: Actress Saoirse Ronan attends the 80th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on February 24, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***
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This sparked a memory in Portman of seeing Heller’s film with a male artist friend. Someone asked them later what the movie was about, and her friend said it was about a nymphomaniac. “I was like, ‘What?’ It was just about a girl with normal desires,” Portman said. “But it was so foreign [to him], and he had, like, diagnosed it!”

There are plenty of men who have influenced Gerwig, she said, name-checking Mike Leigh specifically. “But for some reason,” she said, “movies directed by women have all these vivid moments that I can point to and say, ‘Oh, she knows.'”

The entire discussion, naturally, was on-brand for an awards campaign that is and has been focused on a woman’s perspective of a woman’s story, as well as the push for more of the same in the industry. The 34-year-old Gerwig became the ninth woman to receive a nomination from the Directors Guild of America last week, and she could become just the fifth woman to be recognized by the Academy’s directors branch when Oscar nominations are revealed Tuesday, Jan. 23. (That would also, incidentally, make her the fourth-youngest director ever nominated.)

Elsewhere in the conversation, Gerwig dug deep on the minutiae she wanted to convey in her film, influenced in some ways by the Maysles brothers documentary “Grey Gardens” and its depiction of the repetition inherent in family structures. She also conveyed some sage advice she received from her Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright star Tracy Letts on the film.

“I was questioning something I wrote and he said, ‘You have to trust the person you were when you wrote it, because you’re actually not that person anymore,'” she recalled. “‘Now you’re directing it, and that’s a different job.'”

On that note, one of the audience questions — pre-written and submitted prior to the Q&A — came from a young woman asking for suggestions in embarking on a filmmaking career. Gerwig started by noting that the tools available to upstart filmmakers are considerable. “So much is possible right now,” she said. She also suggested finding like minds. “Find the people who hate the same things you do,” she said with a giggle. “It’s good to go, ‘When I’m in charge, I’m never going to do that.’ It gives you a kind of fire. When you’re 20 you should hate a lot of stuff.”

Most importantly, her independent spirit really ignited as she painted a picture of casual rebellion against the status quo.

“Sometimes you can get real fixated on going through the front door of the castle, but you don’t always need to,” she said. “You can sometimes go through a side door. Sometimes you don’t even need to go in. You can just set up a camp outside and have your own party. I think more often than not, that’s what it ends up being.”

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