Vox Pop Star

Dominic Corry reports from the AFI Fest screening of Natalie Portman’s new film Vox Lux, in which she plays Celeste, an unravelling global superstar.

She can handle it to the point where the audience isn’t aware that she had a drug-fuelled meltdown minutes earlier” —⁠Natalie Portman

In Vox Lux, late 2018’s other pop star drama, Natalie Portman gives one of her rawest ever performances as Celeste, a global superstar about to embark on a huge tour. Even among fictional singers, Celeste has a unique backstory.

The first third or so of the film chronicles how a young Celeste (played by English actress Raffey Cassidy from Tomorrowland and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) barely survives a high school mass shooting. At a memorial for her fallen friends, she performs a song with her sister, and it goes viral. A manager (played by Jude Law) takes notice, and Celeste is on her way to Taylor Swift levels of idolatry.

The film then jumps ahead two decades to 2018, with Celeste now played by Natalie Portman. In a high-concept casting gambit that ends up working extremely well, her teenage daughter Albertine is also played by Cassidy.

Like in A Star Is Born, there is a resentment-laden relationship with a talented older sibling, Celeste’s sister Eleanor, played in both time periods by the ethereally ageless Stacy Martin (Nymphomaniac).

But ultimately Vox Lux treads a very different path to Bradley Cooper’s smash hit. This is an intensely intimate film that culminates with a spectacular meltdown and an arena-worthy pop star performance from Portman, who absolutely kills it performing songs written by prolific pop music genius Sia. It’s rare that “fictional” hits sound so convincing.

Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux.
Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux.

Vox Lux was written and directed by Brady Corbet, who first came to prominence as an actor in films such as Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) and Michael Haneke’s 2007 remake of his own Funny Games. Vox Lux is Corbet’s second film behind the camera, following the 2015 period drama The Childhood of a Leader.

With Vox Lux, he ties tragedy and celebrity together in a thorny character study.

Following a recent screening of the film in Los Angeles, Portman got on stage to discuss making Vox Lux. Here’s some of what she had to say:

On what drew her to the role:

Natalie Portman: It was an incredible opportunity to play a character that I’d never had the chance to play before. And also to work with someone like Brady who I think is incredibly talented and interesting and full of great ideas. And then also, I think a lot of the themes are really relevant to the world we live in. It feels like a really accurate portrayal of what it’s like to live in this moment in history, which feels very specific in a way that I hadn’t seen reflected before.

On how she approached the character:

The biggest part of the character was the writing. Brady wrote such a specific character that felt so rounded and just like a real human being. Sometimes she’s really authentic and sometimes she’s totally fake. Sometimes she’s cruel and sometimes she’s gentle. And sometimes she’s performing and sometimes she’s being. It was really just remarkable reading it. So I feel like that really provided a great blueprint.

On whether or not she discussed how to approach Celeste with Raffey Cassidy, who plays the younger Celeste:

We actually didn’t and I think that was intentional for Brady because he really wanted them to be different characters. Because she’s really changed obviously from this innocent young woman at the beginning and then we catch her after twenty years of hard life and I loved the fact that he chose to skip that period because we all know how to fill it in, we know plenty of, you know, the hard times of a pop star, the rocky road until their resurrection, it’s such a familiar tale to us so we don’t have to see it.

On working alongside Cassidy, who also plays her daughter, Albertine:

Raffey’s remarkable. We didn’t rehearse together, we just started working together. The first time I saw her as young Celeste was when I saw the finished film, so to see how she could modify her performance so subtly [as Albertine] and really be believable as two completely different characters. I really thought Brady was nuts, I was like, “Are you sure? You’re gonna make me stand next to the actor that played me in the beginning and try to make people believe that we’re the same character?” But Brady was really convinced about it, and I think it’s so powerful in the film. I think we still often see our kids as versions of ourselves, and how we relate to them with all the self-hatred and self-love, alternately, or sometimes all at once. And then I think it’s just so powerful to have it embodied, the entire time she’s with her daughter, she’s also with her younger self. Both as what that means for everyone experiencing parenthood, but also for the film to see both of these versions of this woman together. I think it works because it’s like a metaphor but it also works literally. She does such a great job of acting. You do always believe that both characters are different people, but she holds within her both characters, so there’s like a doubling of meaning all the time.

On working with Jude Law again:

Jude is just one of the greatest actors. His voice in this is different than I’ve ever heard. It has such amazing resonance. He is again also one of the kindest most wonderful people I know, a real major talent. It was very lucky ’cause this is the fourth film I’ve been in with him. We worked together for the first time on Cold Mountain almost twenty years ago, and then Closer, and we both were in the Wong Kar-Wai film My Blueberry Nights, [but] we didn’t have scenes together. So I’ve known him over the course of like, twenty years. We’ve never been like buddies or hanging out or anything, but I’ve worked with him and so it was lucky going into this that we had a history and comfort level to play off of, so like day one, I already felt at ease.

On performing songs written by Sia:

It was incredible when I received the script to have the Sia songs with it, I remember getting an email with these attachments of the songs, and she sings them herself on the demos so of course they’re just gorgeous. Beautiful, beautiful songs, really great pop songs so I knew that it was realistic, because if you read a script and it says “and then she writes a hit pop song” and you don’t see the song, you’re like: okay good luck getting that. But it was clear from the beginning that it had this incredible music. And then getting to record it was really fun, because I got to work with [longtime Sia collaborator] Chris [Briade] who’s incredible and just the loveliest person. To see what they can do, they’re the real artists, they can do so much magic to make things sound like what we’re used to hearing.

On how she prepped for the lengthy song and dance performance finalé:

Physically it was a lot of preparation, I worked with [movement coach] Raquel [Horsford], I worked with my husband on the choreography, across like a month. I actually prepped the film twice, because the night before, I think I was on my way to the airport, the first time, and they were like, “Turn home, the financing has come apart”. The movie was cancelled and I had prepped everything. When everything got pulled back together again it was a few months later, even though of course it was relatively recent in my memory, I had to kind of start over. So that was kind of nice because it gave me a longer time to prep, and a longer time to sit in my head and my body and all that.

So physically, it was dance training, physical training to have this endurance, and then emotionally I kept asking Brady if I should be kind of ‘off’. She’s had this massive breakdown, she’s had this drug experience, and he was like, “No, she’s out of it but she’s a professional, and she’s done this a million times…”.

She can handle it to the point where the audience isn’t aware that she had a drug-fuelled meltdown minutes earlier. So that was really informative in terms of the headspace, that she can kind of enter a space and leave everything behind her. Which is an interesting key to the character too because there’s a certain kind of erasure that I think must have to happen.


Vox Lux’ is in US theaters now.

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