Natalie Portman On The Moral Complexity Of ‘May December’: “Can You Depict A Crime Without Somehow Endorsing It Or Glamorizing It?”

Natalie Portman On The Moral Complexity Of ‘May December’: “Can You Depict A Crime Without Somehow Endorsing It Or Glamorizing It?”

Even by the HFPA’s eccentric standards, Todd HaynesMay December is a wild card in the Best Musical or Comedy category. But it does feature elements of both, in a deceptively dark story that harks back to the days of Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship code, when ingenious directors found sensitive and intelligent ways to address taboo subjects in mainstream movies. Here, the inspiration is the real-life case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a 35-year-old married teacher who, in 1997, seduced a pupil and was sentenced to prison for it, twice. A year after her release in 2004, claiming their love was “eternal and endless”, Letourneau married the boy, then 21. That wedding, and their subsequent life together, was covered, flatteringly, by the media. May December is not their story, but it does address two key points. What was she thinking. And how did the media become so complicit?

In May December, Natalie Portman plays Elizabeth Berry, a classy, well-known TV actress who has come to Savannah, Georgia, as research for her starring role in a biopic of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). At first glance, Gracie is just another middle-aged mom, sending her kids off to college, and the fact that her husband Joe is quite a bit younger doesn’t really seem so strange at first, given that he’s a handsome, solid, and unassumingly capable presence. But after they meet at Gracie’s barbecue, the film that follows is an unravelling of all our preconceptions, in a story that seems — as the main players would want us (and themselves) to believe — to have turned out fine in the end.

We asked both actresses about their role. Here’s what Natalie Portman had to say…

DEADLINE: Where did May December start for you?

NATALIE PORTMAN: Jessica Elbaum, who’s another one of the producers, sent me the script, and I was just so blown away by Sammy Birch’s writing. It was just astonishing, and I was so moved by the specificity of the characters and the exploration of subjects like performance and identity. I sent it to Todd, who I had always wanted to work with, and I had previously sent him other projects that he had not responded to. So, it was very exciting when he was taken with this story. And the rest just kind of rolled from there, into this dream assembly of people.

Natalie Portman interview

Natalie Portman in May December.

Netflix/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: There’s a very vivid, real-life counterpart to this story? Did you know anything about Mary Kay Letourneau?

PORTMAN: I, of course, was very aware of the tabloids as a young person growing up in the US, I think it was really everywhere, and I think it was such, yeah, it was really just splashed everywhere. So, I was quite aware of it, but hadn’t really thought much about it and certainly hadn’t considered, I think most of us, quite callously, what happened to those people whose lives we consumed. What happened to them 20 years later? Where were they? What was the effect on their lives of the story that was told over and over again in such a lascivious way?

DEADLINE: How did you approach the character? Because you’re playing two characters really, in the sense that you’re playing an actress who’s playing a character. Was there any overlap with your own process?

PORTMAN: Well, I hope it’s not how I approach characters! [Laughs] I think my approach is similar to a journalist’s or documentarian’s when you’re telling a story that is true, that is a real story. You try and not get involved in it, even though there is the inevitable aspect that it’s being told already affects the course of a story — the fact that it’s being documented, being publicized — even if it’s as faithful to the source as possible.

But of course, Elizabeth goes so much farther into getting involved in their story. And then, as for the preparation and the character, it was really layered, as you mentioned. It’s this meta thing of, I’m an actress playing an actress playing a character. Julie keeps joking about how she studied with a baker to learn how to bake the cake that she bakes in real time in the movie. Then I watched her to learn how to bake a cake.

It’s very layered, but it’s emblematic of how everyone’s identity is made up of various performances, particularly female identity. That’s something that’s always been interesting to me. Our appearance as female: the makeup, the hair, the clothing, the way we move, and the way we behave, of course, is also highly performative, whether it’s someone being aggressive with us and us swallowing it politely and smiling, or whether we’re performing, being a perfect mother or a perfect wife. All of the things that society places on us.

Even Elizabeth’s first entrance into this barbecue [is performative], like, “I’m this big actress, but look how down to earth I am.” That’s a performance of a sort. It’s reflective of the way Gracie is in the world, how she wants to be seen. Struggling for the narrative.

DEADLINE: The bottle of wine you take to the barbecue is the bottle of wine that’s waiting for you in the goodie bag in your hotel, isn’t it?

PORTMAN: Yes. [Laughs] Repurposed!

DEADLINE: What were you going for in the look of Elizabeth Berry as she presents herself?

PORTMAN: There’s a kind of typical actor style that April Napier, the costume designer, and I played with. There’s, like, a uniform of what actresses wear at the airport. [Laughs] We looked at photographs of various people, and their haircuts, and all of these kinds of Jane Birkin-inspired outfits that would obviously contrast with this kind of suburban lifestyle that Gracie leads, and which would eventually create quite a contrast when she gets closer and closer to Gracie’s appearance — which was obviously challenging, considering Julianne and I don’t look that much alike. So, in terms of creating a kind of appearance that could mesh without dyeing my hair or whatever, that was part of what we mapped out with hair and makeup and wardrobe.

DEADLINE: It’s rare to see a film that uses the camera as a mirror quite as much as this, particularly when Julianne is doing your makeup. What was going on there?

PORTMAN: It was an incredible innovation of Todd’s that he brought to the script: the camera as a mirror, and it’s so evocative of performance as identity-reflection, because, of course, the mirror is literally the audience here. And it was technically quite difficult because we weren’t actually looking in a mirror. We were looking in a camera lens, and there was an X mark for where we were supposedly seeing ourselves and an X mark for where we were supposedly seeing each other. And we’d have to react off of it without actually seeing the other’s reflection, which was quite complex, but it was really an incredible way to absorb the artifice and play with that.

The makeup scene is, for me, the most moving, and shooting it was the most revelatory scene in the movie, because Sammy’s writing, which was deceptively simple on the page, just exploded with meaning when we started saying the words. Because it wasn’t the words, it was the silences between them and what goes unsaid that is so full of trauma, particularly when my character says to Gracie, “What was your mother like?” Julie takes this long pause and then says, “She was beautiful.” And it’s just the most devastating line to me because of everything she doesn’t say about her mother. During this act of putting on makeup, which is, of course, the performance of being female how you’re supposed to be, and being kind of trapped in this way that society prescribes you to be.

And she’s saying that as the most important thing about her mother that you’re supposed to know. Or is it the only thing that is positive to say? It’s these two women confronting not having the mothers they needed. It’s a very vulnerable moment without actually saying it. And while having this incredibly intimate moment, where we’re sharing the performance of what it is to be a woman in the world, all of it was just so heartbreaking.

Natalie Portman interview

From left: director Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman on set.

Francois Duhamel/Netflix/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: It’s not that Elizabeth morphs into Gracie, but does she borrow her characteristics, and she starts to mimic her, perhaps unintentionally. Did you have to spend any time with Julianne to pick up some of her mannerisms?

PORTMAN: We didn’t have rehearsal at all, and I didn’t know what Julie was going to do ahead of time, so it was very scary showing up to work on the first day. We shot the whole film in 23 days, and we had two bouts of luck on this. Point one was that we shot relatively chronologically at Todd’s insistence, so that I got to observe Julie in real time, which, of course, was exactly what my character was doing: looking at what she was doing and then practicing copying it.

And then, the second thing that was just so lucky is that, obviously, Julie’s such a brilliant actress. She makes these bold choices that are so extreme yet always completely human and believable. You just know who those people [she plays] are, but they’re like the characters in documentaries where you’re like, “I can’t believe this is a real person,” because they’re so wild, in the way that humans are wild. But then she also was very thoughtful in creating her character, to choose traits, identifiable traits, for Gracie that I could mimic, that I could hold onto, which was very generous to consider my performance when she was crafting hers. And so, things like the lisp and her very feminine hand movements, those were choices that were incredibly right for her character that she had thought through. The childishness and naïveté of the character made sense with a lisp, but also it was something that I could really grab onto and identifiably copy.

DEADLINE: How much did Charles Melton’s performance feed into this because, on second viewing, it’s clearer how the roles are reversed in that relationship. How childlike Gracie is, and how he’s been forced into being an adult from an early age.

PORTMAN: Well, he’s extraordinary. I wasn’t familiar with his work before. It’s such a challenging role because it’s really someone who you simultaneously need to feel was thrust into adulthood too early, he’s prematurely adult and stuck in childhood forever. He has this arrested development and premature adulthood, which maybe are two sides of the same coin. But he was so serious and so focused and worked so hard and was so professional, and then was so heartbreakingly wonderful in every scene he did, and is just the nicest, easiest, most wonderful human. So, it was just a pleasure.

And then, I think as the character, I think it’s so much about these two women vying for narrative dominance — whose version of the story gets to be told? — and they’re trying to use Joe as a pawn to win. Because, basically, whichever story he accepts will become the truth. Meanwhile, his journey is to find his own narrative and his own version of the story. And we don’t know at the end what that will be, but we do know that it will be his own. He’s not just going to go along with either of these women’s stories just because they’ve pressured him to, like, in the past. You feel that he’s developing his own voice and his own ability to narrativize his own experience.

DEADLINE: There’s a darkly funny line when Elizabeth is talking to her partner on the phone while she’s looking at self-tapes on her laptop. She tells him that none of the young actors auditioning to play Joe are attractive enough, and he says, very sharply, “You need to come home.” Did you see the humor in it the first time round?

PORTMAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the line you referenced. I mean, it was very clear that Samy had a view of the ridiculousness of a lot of these situations and that she could hold the tragedy and the melodrama alongside the absurdity of our celebrity culture, of moviemaking, of the pursuit of truth in art that she had. I mean, even if you just look at the writing of the last scene of the movie that they finally get to, it’s ridiculous. At the end of this entire artistic pursuit that’s overturned everyone’s lives, they make this movie, and you’re like, “That’s the movie?” [Laughs] I mean, so much of the kind of ridiculousness is pointed out. And I think it’s also thanks to Todd’s incredible grasp of tone, that you can hold all of these things at once, that they can be incredibly moving and real emotionally, and have this comedy and feel deeply unsettling and kind of off-kilter. I mean, that’s masterful direction.

May December

Portman and Charles Melton.

Netflix/Everett Collection

DEADLINE: Todd used music on the set. How was that for you?

PORTMAN: It was incredible. It’s the first time in my life that I have worked with the actual music as we’re shooting. And he not only had the music, he had the exact pieces of music, like which part of the original Michel Legrand score from The Go-Between, the 1971 Losey film would be in which part of the movie. So, when I was driving, he was playing one part. And it was so incredible, tonally, to understand that while we were shooting, because I think music does so much that sometimes the work you do in a scene has to be in opposition to it. Normally it’s reverse-engineered: you shoot, and then you counter-program with the music. Here we had the music first, so I think we understood how much it was doing for us, and we were allowed to live in the restraint of Sammy’s words, because it’s such sparse writing, and so much is between the lines. So, it was an incredible gift to have the music in advance.

DEADLINE: There’s so much going on in this movie between the lines, and the enormity of what Gracie has done is a slow burn for the audience. What kind of reactions have you had so far?

PORTMAN: Yeah. Well, it’s been really remarkable to hear audience reactions, because people have been so excited and provoked by it, and everyone’s just enthralled by being challenged in this way of not being told what to think. It’s something you want to talk about afterwards, and that’s rare. And it’s exciting, because it was so hard to get this financed that I think it’s pretty sweet now to know it’s something that everyone’s watching. Financiers were like, “Who’s going to watch this?” I mean, that’s why we had to shoot for 23 days, because they were like, “This is really complicated subject matter.” And it’s also a story with has two female leads, which is just inevitably harder to get made.

But a lot of it is because of Todd’s direction. Like the scene when the dramatic music plays, and Gracie says, “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs.” It’s so brilliant of Todd, because he lets the audience know that it’s OK to laugh. It’s so clear, it’s like a signal, and it’s such a release from all the discomfort. But the film is supposed to make you uncomfortable, because I think one of the big questions it poses, when you talk about Gracie and her behavior, is about whether art can really be amoral.

So many of us — and Elizabeth says a version of it in that scene with the theater students — think that bad characters are the most interesting to play, because you just kind of want to get into the human heart. Because it’s not about judging characters; it’s about understanding human behavior. We all say that. But can you depict a crime without somehow endorsing it or glamorizing it? It’s a worthy question.

DEADLINE: Todd said you very much enjoyed playing an actress while also playing with the perception that people might have of you as an actress

PORTMAN: Yeah, well, it was very fun to do because many of the things that I’ve actually experienced and recognized the absurdity of them, we get to kind of depict, explore, and Todd kept me away from the great temptation of caricaturing. I think the most tempting thing was just to make fun of myself through it, and Todd really geared me more toward making Elizabeth feel — especially when we meet her at the beginning — like someone we actually might like and trust. She takes us into the story. She’s kind of our detective at the beginning, so you’re really going into the movie feeling like she’s your vehicle through which you’re going to understand Grace and Joe. That she’s really just there to ask questions for us as an audience and help us understand Grace and Joe. And then all of a sudden, the carpet is pulled out from under your feet when you’re like, “Oh, wait, she’s not reliable at all. She’s not trustworthy at all.” And that kind of narrative switch was so important. That was completely Todd’s guidance.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Oscar Preview issue here.

DEADLINE: How does he help you prepare? Did he show you any movies?

PORTMAN: Yes. It was the best. Before the film, it was the most incredible stroke of genius of aligning everyone’s vision. He called it his image book, but it was actually a file of 25 movies, maybe, that were inspirations for tone, visuals, content. And they ranged from… [Pauses] Obviously, I think you would recognize Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Winter Light, but also Manhattan, The Graduate, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. That was a big one. There were movies I had never heard of before, like The Pumpkin Eater and Sunday Bloody Sunday, and, of course, The Go-Between, and he shared them all with the entire cast and crew, so we all were on the exact same page. So, despite the fact we had no rehearsal, despite the fact that we had 23 days to shoot the film, I felt like we all knew exactly what we were making, which is very unusual. It was such a beautiful way to conduct us. I always feel like the director is kind of conducting us as an orchestra.

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