tel aviv | “Metzalmim!”
The Hebrew version of “lights, camera, action” is predictably forthright. This is an Israeli film set after all, but the speaker is a big, sweet surprise: Natalie Portman.
The Oscar-nominated star of “Closer” has been spending a lot of time in her native Israel recently. She spent a semester reading up on national history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last year and hanging out with sabra relatives.
But in what will no doubt surprise Hollywood mavens, she also took time off from her schedule this month to appear in “Free Zone,” a low-budget Israeli film about Middle East coexistence.
“It was really a point in my life when I really wanted to work in Israel,” she said in an on-set interview to be played on local television.
“I think it’s an amazing time for Israeli cinema. It is just starting to flower and I think, you know, I wanted to be part of that.”
Directed by Amos Gitai, “Free Zone” is about Rebecca, an American who falls in love with an Israeli and gets caught up in a car deal that takes her to the West Bank and Jordan.
For the 23-year-old beauty, whose original family name is Hershlag and whose father was a Jerusalem doctor, the project was part of a process of self-discovery.
“It definitely is informed by the fact that I was born in Israel and raised in the States,” she said.
“There is sort of a split between where you belong and not quite knowing where you belong, although both my parents are Jewish so I don’t have the religion aspect of the character, who is not 100 percent Jewish and is not accepted by the Jewish community in Israel. So that’s more imagination — but I definitely feel that split of origin.”
Portman had at least one real run-in with religion during the shoot. A group of fervently religious worshippers spotted her acting out a romantic scene with Israeli heart-throb Aki Avni at the Western Wall and heckled them until the crew packed up.
“I really don’t want to offend anyone’s beliefs or impose anything on anyone, and it was mistaken to do it,” Portman told Access Hollywood in an interview. “As soon as it offended people, we moved,” said the Jerusalem-born actress, 23. “We had a very hectic work schedule, so we weren’t thinking. We shouldn’t have done it.”
For Gitai, who has won accolades for films including “Kippur” and “Kadosh,” such culture clashes are key to his art.
“Natalie Portman wrote me some e-mails over several months, some faxes, and she said she was interested to work on a picture with me,” Gitai said.
“I like, in a way, to integrate the biographies of my actresses and my actors into the film,” he continued. His new film “is a kind of voyage into a place, but it is also a voyage into her own interior, to find something of herself.”
It may have been Portman’s first professional experience in Israel, but she was no stranger to Middle East politics.
While studying psychology at Harvard University, she wrote an open letter in defense of Israeli security policies after a pro-Palestinian student slammed the Jewish state. And when Palestinian terror attacks peaked, she flew in to visit Israeli casualties in hospitals, doing her best to avoid publicity.
“I’m not someone who lives here full time, so it’s not fair for me. I’m not representing anyone or anything like that. I have my personal opinions about the conflict,” she said.
As a director, Gitai is nothing if not individual, relying as much on his performers’ improvisations as on the script. This was a challenge to Portman, who is best known for big-budget films such as the “Star Wars” trilogy.
Portman was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role as Alice, a London stripper, in “Closer.” As someone known to prefer libraries to movie theaters, she was pleasantly surprised at the nomination for Hollywood’s top honor.
She failed to win the Oscar in the category, which went to Cate Blanchett for her performance in “The Aviator.”