With an extensive filmography, award-winning actress Natalie Portman is celebrated for her versatility and prolific acting skills. Having started life in cinema from an early age, Portman’s unbridled talent helped her carve out her place in the competitive industry. From films like Heat and Beautiful Girls to Black Swan, Jackie, Closer and countless others, the actress has left an indelible mark on the audience’s minds.
Portman was barely 12 when she was cast in Luc Besson’s 1994 film, Léon: The Professional, alongside talented actors like Jean Reno and Gary Oldman. She defeated 2000 other actors in the audition for the role, making a promising debut as a fantastic actor-in-making.
The film is highly controversial and documents an unusual relationship between a professional hitman and his 12-year-old protegee as the latter learns the hitman’s job. The girl comes under his vigilance after her drug-dealing father’s employers brutally murder her family. As Leon gives her shelter, he teaches her the tricks of the trade to seek revenge on the murderers.
While the film was a brilliant stepping stone for Portman and even taught her to “cry on cue”, the young actor was exposed to the dark side of fame and the spotlight.
Portman’s character appeared dressed as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, and other risque icons, drawing immense criticism. At 13, she even received rape threats from audience members who ordered her to cover her body. According to Portman, the first-ever “fan mail” she received contained “a rape fantasy that a man had written [her]”.
Portman later opened up about her experiences and talked about how the film made her feel “unsafe”. While she was “definitely aware” of how she was being portrayed as a “Lolita figure”, she was taken aback by the adverse, grotesque reaction.
Detailing further, she said: “Being sexualised as a child, I think, took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid, and it made me [feel] like the way I could be safe was to be like, ‘I’m conservative,’ and ‘I’m serious, and you should respect me,’ and ‘I’m smart,’ and ‘don’t look at me that way'”.
Portman talked about the psychological impact of hyper-sexualising a child at a young age by adding: “Whereas at that age, you do have your own sexuality and you do have your own desire, and you do want to explore things and you do want to be open. But you don’t feel safe, necessarily, when there’s older men that are interested, and you’re like, ‘No, no, no, no.”
Talking about the “fortresses” she had to construct around herself to stop doing such roles that would lead to further objectification, she said: “When I was in my teens, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna have any love scenes or make-out scenes’. I would start choosing parts that were less sexy because it made me worried about the way I was perceived and how safe I felt'”.
While Reno tried hard to portray the hitman in an emotionally stunted manner to dispel any possibilities of the older taking advantage of Portman’s character’s vulnerability, it seems like the perverse nature of society did not spare her, leaving her emotionally scarred for a long time.
Léon: The Professional is now streaming on Netflix.