Mighty Natalie Portman: How She Emerged From the Marvel Sidelines to Wield Thor’s Hammer

Photographs by Sophy Holland

It wasn’t just that Natalie Portman packed on so much muscle she could arm-wrestle Captain America. It’s that she’d never been asked to do it before.

Throughout her 30-year career, Portman has grown accustomed to exploiting her lean five-foot-three frame, most memorably in her Oscar-winning performance as an obsessive, spindle-thin ballet dancer in 2010’s “Black Swan.” As the brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster in 2011’s “Thor” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World,” she spends much of her screen time in varying states of dewy-eyed peril or with her head craned at a substantial angle to pine after Chris Hemsworth’s towering Asgardian warrior.

When Portman returns as Jane on July 8 in director Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” however, the 41-year-old will not only be playing a superhero in her own right — the Mighty Thor, Jane’s persona once she comes into possession of the mystical hammer Mjolnir — but one who can stand toe-to-toe, and nearly eye-to-eye, with Hemsworth’s Thor.

“On ‘Black Swan,’ I was asked to get as small as possible,” Portman says on a recent morning over a two-hour breakfast. “Here, I was asked to get as big as possible. That’s an amazing challenge — and also state of mind as a woman.”

Natalie Portman Variety Cover

While female superheroes have finally started to populate across film and television — from Captain Marvel to Ms. Marvel — it’s still quite uncommon for the women playing them to be asked to put on the brawn that’s compulsory for their male counterparts. But starting in the fall of 2020, Portman worked with a trainer over 10 months before and during filming to rebuild her physique, especially her shoulders and arms, into ripped, comic book shape. Between leaked photos from the “Love and Thunder” set in Australia in 2021 and the film’s trailers this past spring, the internet has lost its collective mind that Portman, who was just 16 when she was cast as Queen Amidala in “Star Wars,” could get so stacked. The experience was revelatory for her.

“To have this reaction and be seen as big, you realize, ‘Oh, this must be so different, to walk through the world like this,’” Portman says. “When you’re small — and also, I think, because I started as a kid — a lot of times I feel young or little or, like, a pat-on-the-head kind of person. And I present myself that way, too, because of that.”

Seated at a quiet waterfront restaurant in Baltimore, where she’s shooting the limited series “Lady in the Lake” for Apple TV+, Portman often folds her arms (now back to human scale) inside the sleeves of an oversize T-shirt, which has the odd effect of accentuating her petite proportions. If anything, though, she has spent the past three years learning just how much space she can take up in the world: In addition to an on-screen superhero, she’s a full-time producer and the co-founder of Angel City Football Club, the women’s soccer team based in Los Angeles that launched its inaugural season in April. Each of these endeavors has also been driven by Portman’s desire to center the national reckonings over sex, gender and race of the past five years in her work, from diversifying crews to pushing for pay equity.

“Natalie’s the kind of person who would call another female castmate and have transparency around what she’s making so that she can help someone also advocate for herself,” says “Love and Thunder” co-star Tessa Thompson, who began working closely with Portman in 2018 as a fellow co-founder of Time’s Up. “That’s like real-world superhero shit that I have seen Natalie do time and time again.”

Another unexpected benefit for Portman to embracing her newfound sense of size has been watching others around her have to contend with it. Quite literally on “Love and Thunder”: Jane’s Mighty Thor stands six feet tall, and since there’s no healthy way yet for an actor to grow nearly 10 inches, the crew had to get creative to bring Portman to the proper height for scenes in which she walked with her co-stars.

“We’d rehearse the scene, they’d see the path, and then they’d build a path that was like one foot off the ground or whatever, and I would just walk on that,” Portman says, her eyes lighting up at the memory.

Thompson laughs at just the mention of the process. “They would call it a deck, but depending on the accent, sometimes it sounded like something else,” she recalls. “Because we’re all children.”

“It was actually one of our running jokes,” Portman says before leaping up from her chair with a wild grin to demonstrate what would happen when Hemsworth had to cross over the deck. “Chris would have to …” she says before attempting to take a wide step while keeping her head level. She dissolves into giggles: “They’d all have to navigate my deck!”

The last time Portman showed up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” during a sequence in which Thor traveled back in time to the events of “The Dark World.” Except, Portman says she didn’t actually shoot anything for “Endgame,” nor was she asked to. Instead, directors Anthony and Joe Russo pulled old, unused footage of her from “The Dark World,” and only had Portman record some voiceover heard in the background.

“It was very easy for me,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s always amazing to see yourself, even if only for a split second, in a Marvel film, because you’re in places that you’ve never actually been before. It’s like seeing photos from a vacation that you never took or something.”

Natalie Portman Variety Cover Story

Whether Portman would return to the MCU was much less clear for her. She’d been keeping up with all the movies — “I have a 10-year-old boy,” she explains — so she knew that Jane still existed somewhere. But she “didn’t really know” whether she would ever come back, especially after 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” also directed by Waititi, excluded her character altogether. “They don’t often make more than three films in a series,” she says with a shrug.

One factor, however, that did not affect Portman’s feelings: the tricky matter that “The Dark World” has been widely regarded as one of the worst films in the MCU. “I mean, I had it with ‘The Professional’ too,” she says of the 1994 Luc Besson thriller that was her feature debut. “It was slaughtered critically, and now, despite having been in Marvel and ‘Star Wars’ movies, it’s the main thing people come up to me about. That and ‘Star Wars’ are two examples of things that when they came out, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is a disaster.’ And then 20 years later — actually, 30 years later for ‘The Professional’ — it’s beloved.”

Ironically, from the day of the premiere of “Ragnarok,” Waititi says he and Marvel Studios were already talking about what to do for another “Thor” film, and bringing back Portman’s Jane Foster was always high on the list. The question was what to do with her.

“I’ve seen her play the scientist character in ‘Thor’ 1 and 2, and it just seemed pointless to do it again,” Waititi says. “That character feels like just a love interest. It’s an Earthwoman who runs around being mortal and not really consequential throughout.”

Fortunately, a “Thor” comic book run launched in 2014 provided an ideal solution: When Jane becomes worthy to carry Mjolnir, she transforms into the Mighty Thor. She wouldn’t need to be saved; she’d be the one doing the saving.

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Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: Love and Thunder.” Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

With that pitch, Portman was on board — aided by the encouragement of her children (she’s married to choreographer Benjamin Millepied). “I feel like it’s the phase of my career where I’m really trying to just impress my kids,” she says. “My 5-year-old and my 10-year-old were so enthralled by this process, getting to visit the set and see me dressed up in a cape. It made it really cool. You know, it’s very rare that my kids are like, ‘Please go to work!’ Usually, it’s quite the opposite.”

Portman embraced all aspects of the character, from goofing on the “nerdy Marvel science dialogue” that Jane loves to spout to working with the stunt team to develop how she moves in battle. “Fight choreography is actually quite similar to dance,” she says.

But there’s one aspect of Jane’s journey that both Portman and Waititi are at pains to avoid talking about directly. Namely, in the comic book version of the Mighty Thor storyline — spoiler alert for a potential plot development in “Love and Thunder” — Jane has breast cancer, and becoming Thor purges her body of the treatment for it. Effectively, being a superhero is killing her.

When asked whether Jane will face a similar fate in the movie, Portman’s eyes go slack. “How can I answer this in a way that will be not completely skirting it, but also not being …” She trails off, and then gives a painstakingly worded response about the “duality” of human Jane versus the Mighty Thor, and how living as a superhero “might give you a different perspective on your human life.” She laughs sheepishly. “I don’t know. Does that give you anything that’s not totally vague?”

Waititi’s answer is only slightly more revealing. “Part of why [Natalie] wanted to play that character is that she has a dilemma in the book,” he says, then interrupts himself. “Am I allowed to talk about this?” After taking a moment, he adds that Jane “has big choices to make within the comic” and that he and his collaborators “were all very interested” in keeping those choices, whatever they are, in the movie.

Natalie Portman Variety Cover Story

To be fair, Waititi has been asked about Jane having cancer since he announced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019 that Portman was playing the Mighty Thor. Each time, he’s professed to have no idea what will happen, since Marvel Studios movies change “all the way through post-production” — as he says in his interview with Variety weeks before the film’s completion. “You have to go in blind and say, ‘It’s going to be great!’”

He’s not kidding. “There’s a script, but most days, he prefers to throw it completely away and just spitball,” Portman says of Waititi’s shooting style. “It’s a really baller way to work on a movie like this. It was daunting at first, because I was like, there’s no way for me to prepare. How am I supposed to do a good job? And then I think I learned how to enjoy it.”

It helped that, along with her hammer and cape, Portman had at least two women fighting, and training, alongside her — Thompson and Jaimie Alexander (also returning as fellow Asgardian warrior Sif after sitting out “Ragnarok”). On big action blockbusters, that is much more the exception than the rule.

“I haven’t had particularly bad workplace experiences, but I was usually the only female around,” Portman says. “It’s just imbalanced. So it’s nice to feel the awareness of it. There doesn’t have to be the girl in the movie. There can be many women who have many different personalities and many different desires.”

For Portman, that applies as much offscreen as on it.

While in the middle of shooting “Love and Thunder,” Portman announced that she and her producing partner Sophie Mas would executive produce an adaptation of the 2019 Laura Lippman novel “Lady in the Lake” as part of a first-look deal with Apple TV+ and their production company, MountainA. Filmmaker Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”) would direct and executive produce, along with co-star Lupita Nyong’o. Set in 1960s Baltimore, the show tracks Portman’s Maddie Schwartz, a Jewish housewife who decides to leave her family to become an investigative journalist, and soon is reporting on the death of Cleo Sherwood (Nyong’o), a Black activist found drowned in a city park.

After shooting for roughly a month — “I’m in the beginning of the middle,” she says — Portman has the gratified-if-weary energy of someone who’s living and breathing every second of a dream project. Telling a story about 1960s Baltimore Jews is one of the rare times she been able to explore her Jewish heritage; her maternal grandmother grew up in the city. She’s especially drawn to the richly flawed character of Maddie, whose best intentions mask her hurtful ignorance.

“You can experience oppression and still be blind to how you’re oppressing others,” she says. “You think that you can’t also step on someone else’s neck. It’s the tragedy of being oppressed and an oppressor.”

At the same time, this is her first production without her children nearby, and as her very first TV project, the learning curve has been steep.

“I have to be able to go from big production stuff to doing a scene five minutes later,” she says. “Which is not all that dissimilar from people who are parents and also act. You have to go from being a character to going home and doing a bunch of other stuff, or having to take a call from school in the middle of your workday. And that’s why it’s always very frustrating for me to hear about, like, people who are in character all the time. That sounds so nice!” She starts cackling. “What a luxury!”

There was a major setback: In late May, Nyong’o dropped out of the series weeks into shooting for unspecified reasons, forcing the production to reshuffle the schedule while a replacement is found. “It’s obviously super devastating,” Portman says. “I’m a huge fan of hers and was really looking forward to working with her. But these things happen.”

(Reps for Nyong’o did not respond to requests for comment; a replacement for the actor has not yet been set.)

Despite that disappointment, Portman is proud that with “Lady in the Lake,” she and Har’el have been able to put into practice their commitment, borne from the twin crucibles of the #MeToo and racial justice reckonings, to diversify who gets hired on productions. “This is the best crew I’ve ever worked with, and while it is so much more representative than any other set I’ve worked on, we still have a lot of work to do if we want to truly reflect society,” Portman says.

While she’s encouraged by the progress, she says, “You meet people, and they’re like, ‘My parents did this job, and I’m doing this job.’ There’s obviously something kind of beautiful about that. But also, it’s a real barrier for entry” for those without family in the business.

To Portman’s delight, she’s made even more progress in a different arena altogether.

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Sophy Holland for Variety

In June 2018, Portman attended a summit of roughly 150 women activists across several industry groups, among them Kara Nortman, partner at the venture capital firm Upfront Ventures. At the end of a three-minute talk, Nortman encouraged the group to approach someone they didn’t know and give them their number. “And Natalie came up to me, put her number in my phone and said, ‘I’d love to be your friend,’” Nortman says.

When they met up for lunch, Nortman found herself holding forth on the fight members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team were waging to achieve pay equity with their male counterparts. Portman perked up immediately.

“She said, ‘Oh, my goodness, I love soccer. Is there anything I can do?’” Nortman recalls.

Portman, who was passionate about lobbying for equal pay in her industry, appreciated how soccer provided an undeniable model for the absurdity of paying women less for doing the same work.

“It’s rare to have this side-by-side comparison where people are doing exactly the same thing and have the same employer and that their success is objective,” Portman says. “You can see who wins the World Cup, who doesn’t win, how many games, how many goals. It’s quite statistically objective.”

There was also a deeper, more personal reason for why the sport lit up Portman’s commitment to social change, catalyzed after she observed her son watching the Women’s World Cup in 2015. “I kind of had this assumption that as soon as he realized it was women playing, he wasn’t going to be interested,” she says. “And it was no difference. A kid who loves the sport just wants to see great players.” She pauses to think about it: “There’s been an assumption my whole life that I’d be interested in watching men’s basketball, men’s baseball, men’s football and soccer. And I do. I love watching great players play a sport. Why would a man not watch it because it’s women?”

So Portman and Nortman got to work. They hosted exhibition games around the 2019 Women’s World Cup to help bring awareness to the pay equity issue. Portman recruited actors like Eva Longoria and Jessica Chastain to attend, but that kind of passive visibility wasn’t moving the needle nearly enough for her liking.

“Some players were working in Amazon warehouses in their offseason and living with host families, and these are the best players in the world,” Portman says. “So how could we make a model that’s different? And I was like, ‘Well, we have to have our own team.’”

Nortman still laughs about it. “[Natalie] texted me and said, ‘I think we should buy a professional soccer team,’” she says. “I thought she was nuts.”

When this story is told back to her, Portman just grins. “The league is undervalued,” she says. “The teams were undervalued. People are starting to catch on now, but it was just like, this is actually not a crazy thing to achieve.” She starts to chuckle. “I appreciate my own ignorance, in leaping into things that I’m not prepared for. I don’t think I realized how hard it would be or how wild an idea that was.”

To get there, Portman, Nortman, Angel City co-founder Julie Uhrman and leading investor Alexis Ohanian brought together an unprecedented majority female ownership group that included actors (among them Longoria, Chastain and Gabrielle Union) and 12 former U.S. Women’s National Team players (including Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach). The results speak for themselves: The team has sold upwards of 16,000 season tickets to date and has roughly $43 million in sponsorships. In April, its opening game sold out.

“It’s so moving and so incredible,” says Portman, who is quick to bestow the lion’s share of the credit on the players and her partners.

Portman will spend the rest of her year working: After shooting “Lady in the Lake” through August, she’ll pivot to Todd Haynes’ film “May December” opposite Julianne Moore. And she’s looking for a feature to follow up her 2015 directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

Nonetheless, the experience of putting her ideals into action with Angel City has recalibrated how Portman regards the ceiling for her own ambitions. “I know that you can’t just build it and then move on to another project,” she says. “This is going to be the rest of my life, putting attention and time and love into this. But it does make me think about what other impossible — seemingly impossible — things we could try to change or create.”

Nortman isn’t surprised by Portman’s commitment, the same way she wasn’t fazed when the actor hulkified her body for “Love and Thunder.”

“I’m always telling Natalie she’s as much of an athlete as any of us,” Nortman says. “I think of her as Thor every day.”

Styling: Ryan Hastings; Makeup: Tracey Levy/Forward Artists/Dior; Hair: Mara Roszak/A Frame Agency; Manicure: Ana Morcillo; Look 1 (headpiece): Rings, Earring and Headpiece: Christian Dior; Look 2 (silver cutout dress): Dress: Iris Van Herpen; Ring: Stefere; Look 3 (white): Jumpsuit: Iris Van Herpen, some shot with Christian Dior rings and earrings; Look 4 (silver shoulder plate dress): Christian Dior