After the original trilogy’s success, George Lucas looked to reignite the Star Wars legacy two decades later with the prequel films. That quest started with The Phantom Menace, and to call the cast of characters “fresh” is an understatement. Yes, there was the critically acclaimed Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, but that was largely it. Eight-year-old Jake Lloyd stepped into the shoes of the villain and opposite to him was a young Queen of Naboo, played by Natalie Portman.
From a tragic relationship with Anakin Skywalker to giving birth to the heroes who went on to save the galaxy, Padme Amidala’s character is as pivotal to the prequels as any other. That is in no small part due to Portman’s portrayal of her. From balancing her studies while taking on the role to facing the fallout from it, here are five facts about Natalie Portman and Star Wars.
1. She got started in Star Wars out of nowhere
Acting has been one of Portman’s primary passions since beginning her career at age 12. Born in Jerusalem, Portman moved around the United States until her family settled down in Long Island, and numerous opportunities came with it.
One was modeling, but she wanted to act instead, whether on Broadway or the big screen. Her start came in theatre, playing small roles at camps and eventually moving up to the Off-Broadway scene and then to a film debut in The Professional.
With the early success, it is no surprise that George Lucas took interest. The two had a conversation and suddenly the part was hers. However, Portman was just two years old upon Return of the Jedi’s release. She had never seen the films nor been aware of the massive following they acquired.
Additionally, the prequels were a big challenge to commit to at such a young age. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Portman said, “I thought it over for a few weeks … And when you’re 14, to commit the next 10 years of your life to anything . . . you don’t even know what you want to be when you grow up.
Regardless, Portman made it a point of watching the films after being cast, and spoke very highly of them:
I thought they were wonderful. They were ahead of their time the way this film [Phantom Menace] is ahead of its time now. George has such vision. He’s our modern-day inventor.
2. She filmed Star Wars while working on a degree
Portman’s decision was further complicated by the balancing act the films required. First because of her acting responsibilities, namely starring in The Diary of Anne Frank forcing a schedule adjustment to The Phantom Menace. That is a familiar problem in Hollywood, but having to compete with schooling is not.
Portman was a dedicated student, and it showed on multiple occasions. She reportedly missed the premiere of The Phantom Menace to study for her final exams while the trilogy had to be filmed during her summer break from working toward a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University.
Her mindset was simple, “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. . .I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Coming from a highly academic background, it was part of what made Portman such a prudent teenager, which Lucas respected. Portman said in reference to him:
George never once suggested guidelines for the movies I do between the Star Wars films. He knows that his movies are not the centre of my life … He has three of his own children and has incredible respect for education.”
Ultimately, Portman’s love for acting prevailed, saying that is what she enjoyed doing most. However, she will always have a college degree to fall back on as well.
3. Initially, Star Wars somewhat negatively impacted her career
While time has been kind to both Portman and the prequels, they received a critical response upon release. That was especially true for The Phantom Menace, which carried over the expectations from the original trilogy and in many ways differed from it.
Speaking about the backlash, Portman said:
It was a bummer because it felt like people were so excited about new ones and then to have people feel disappointed. Also to be at an age that I didn’t really understand that’s kind of the nature of the beast …
The film’s struggles also impacted Portman’s career as well. The exposure could have been beneficial, but it backfired as many viewed her in a negative light. Speaking to The New Yorker, Portman said, “everyone thought I was a horrible actress. I was in the biggest-grossing movie of the decade, and no director wanted to work with me.”
One break from Mike Nichols went on to change that. Furthermore, the pushback did not remove from the joy she felt filming them, saying “Star Wars is the most like being a child that I’ve ever experienced in acting. It’s like taking a refrigerator box and pretending it’s your spaceship because you’re literally working with nothing…”
Additionally, she has acknowledged the growing appreciation for the films and in an interview with Yahoo! said, “It feels really lucky to be part of something that’s every child’s imaginary world. It’s very exciting to be able to impress my kids a little bit.
4. She (still?) hasn’t shown her kids the prequel films
Speaking of her kids, Portman has repeatedly stated that she is yet to show the films to her two, Aleph and Amalia. Quarantine may have changed that, but as of 2020, that was still the case. In the same Yahoo! interview, Portman said, ” I haven’t shown my kids the movies yet — I think it’s so weird for them to think of me as anything other than their mom. They’ve seen the recent Star Wars movies that I am not in — my son has, my daughter, is too young.”
There is also the fact that Amidala dies in Revenge of the Sith, not necessarily something a parent wants their young kids to see. That doesn’t mean she lacks an opinion on which film to start with, saying that the only right answer is A New Hope because of the surprises that come with it. I definitely agree.
5. She stays involved with Star Wars today
One can imagine that Portman wanted to take a significant amount of time away from Star Wars as many other actors have done before, and that was largely the case. However, her comments about the saga are continually affectionate, and she noted that her son is fully involved with it through modern films and video games.
For Portman, it’s a question of whether she will appear again. There were rumblings about a brief role in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series. However, those now seem defunct, especially after the majority of the cast was already revealed.
Even without a reappearance, she still reaps the Star Wars benefits. At London’s Pinewood Studios, Portman was working on Annihilation as Rogue One and The Last Jedi were filmed next door. Thanks to “a little special access because of Mr. Oscar Isaac,” she had the chance to bring her son onto the set of both.
Beyond that, she added, “It’s fun to see that [Star Wars] lives on, and now having a little boy, I see how deeply it lives in kids’ culture.” Regardless of the struggles or the backlash, that is the part that matters most and is a testament to just how valuable Portman’s contributions continue to be. It’s a good thing that those are finally becoming the focus.