Actress put in countless hours to portray ballet dancer

Natalie Portman first discussed “Black Swan” with helmer Darren Aronofsky nine years ago, but it took this long for the audacious film to get made.

She stars as Nina, a repressed ballerina, and describes the film as “a psychological thriller set in the dance world, an exploration of the territory between ego and artistry. It’s also about many other things.”

The actress, who had taken ballet lessons as a girl, always wanted to make a dance film, but nothing could have prepared her for this test. Beyond the physical effort required to portray a dancer, Portman also had the pressure of taking on an especially vulnerable character. Or as she bluntly puts it: “The film is a journey in which Nina goes from being a child to being a woman by finding her own pleasure.”

Her challenge was not easily surmounted. “I had never done anything so physical in a movie before,” Portman says. “One thing that was especially hard was when I had to focus on getting a turn right while acting. It’s hard enough to keep your mouth closed while dancing, let alone convey emotion.”

Her regimen was exhausting. “A year ahead of filming, I did two hours of ballet a day,” she explains. “Then I started cross-training along with three hours of ballet. Two months before filming I started working with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. So by the end, I was doing five hours of training and three hours of choreography. Then while shooting 15- or 16-hour days, I was doing two hours of training before or after, sometimes both. Plus the dancing doesn’t keep you thin; it keeps you strong. So you really have to watch what you eat as well.”

She credits Aronofsky with getting her through the process. “It was definitely a case where everything stays together when you’re working,” she says. “Then you fall apart when it’s over — more physically than emotionally. I’m pretty tough, and I pride myself in separating my work from life, but this was hard to shake.”

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