For over a decade, the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman and the author Jonathan Safran Foer have amassed countless email exchanges about family, creativity and angry koalas — until earlier this year, when their epistolary archive mysteriously disappeared. On the eve of her ambitious directorial debut, the old friends start anew, reconnecting online to reflect on how the times have changed, and how they have changed over time.
Being the world’s last Hotmail user finally caught up with me a few months ago, and I lost virtually all of the correspondence I’d saved since getting the only email address I’ve ever had.
You came to one of my first readings for my first novel, and in the 15 years of friendship that have followed, we’ve known each other through many other firsts. In the process, we’ve exchanged a great number of emails: about work, parenting, religion, politics. You’re now on the brink of another first: the release of your directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It’s most explicitly about a boy growing up in Jerusalem, in the final years of the British Mandate. But it’s every bit as much about mothers and sons, husbands and wives, dreams, depression, Jewishness and language itself.
When The Times suggested this piece, and it became clear we weren’t going to be in the same place for long enough to allow for a traditional profile — me observing you at the farmer’s market, etc., which would have felt ridiculous, anyway — I was happy to think of the lost correspondence being somehow replenished with, or redeemed by, a new exchange.
I’m so pleased to hear that our correspondence (at least my side of it) has disappeared into the digital abyss. I’m sure at the beginning of our emailing I was trying too hard to be smart and interesting. Now, of course, I’m comfortable enough to send you videos of a sax-playing walrus. But yes, of course we mainly discuss religion and politics. And don’t forget art! We also talk about art!
It’s almost 6:00 in the morning. The boys are still asleep. I can hear the guinea pigs stirring, but that might be the residue of a nightmare. People often refer to aloneness and writer’s block as the two great challenges of being a novelist. In fact, the hardest part is having to care for guinea pigs.
Am I correct that “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is the first project that was entirely your own conception? (The film is based on Amos Oz’s memoir of the same name, but that was your choice, as were all of the departures your script makes from his book.) There is so much that I love about the film — how simultaneously precise and impressionistic it is, how visually and verbally beautiful — but more than anything, I was moved by how much you seemed to care about it. That is not the observation of a friend. The art that I feel most passionate about always conveys its creator’s passion.
Freedom might not be a prerequisite for the expression of passion — it helps, sometimes, not to be able to follow your instincts — but they are strongly intertwined. How do you think about freedom? When do you most strongly wish you had more of it? When do you most strongly wish you had less?
I hear steps on the stairs, larger than paws, thank God.
My mother-in-law used the word guinea pig when telling me a story in French yesterday, and it’s “cochon d’inde,” which translates to “pig from India.” Who’s right?
In many ways, adapting Oz’s memoir was an obvious choice for my first film. The story of Oz’s family at the dawn of the state of Israel is remarkably close to all the stories I heard growing up about my father’s family: the worship of everything European, refugees confronted by the desert, the atmosphere of constant violence, the political debates, the obsession with books and storytelling and language, womanhood in a religious/military/socialist amalgam, the dark fantasy of building a utopian community when all the parents have been killed, the mythology of the pioneer and the new Israeli man. The themes are endlessly interesting to me, as is the question of how much of the mythology is an accurate reflection of history, and how much is storytelling cemented by repetition.
I didn’t realize it was also a radical choice until I started sharing the film. Then I learned that if you set something in Israel, even if it is fundamentally a story of love between a boy and his mother, it is “brave.” Often I wish I was from somewhere inoffensive to anyone, neutral, unproblematic. Like, “Hi, I’m Finnish.” But I know that Israel — the place and its stories — engages me like nothing else. It has made me understand that so many conflicting things can be true at the same time, like how you write in “Here I Am” — another first; your first novel in a decade — “To be and not to be.” Because I’ve primarily lived outside of Israel — hearing, reading and thinking about it from afar — it is also the place I’ve most imagined in my life. A movie in Hebrew, a period piece in which I also act, was clearly not the easiest first film to make. But it was my film to make.
More later? I’m night shooting. It’s 3:30 in the morning and the sun rises at 4:50 here in England — when it rises at all.
It’s Thursday, garbage day. One of the garbage days, I should say. Thursday and Sunday are garbage days. Tuesday is garbage and recycling day. Monday and Tuesday are alternate-side parking days, which makes Tuesday — parking, garbage and recycling — a very special day, indeed. At 8:30 everyone double-parks, creating two lanes of parking on one side of the street. Once the street-cleaning Zamboni comes through, everyone moves his car back, but you have to stay in it until 10:00 — with the pretext of being able to move it if necessary, otherwise De Blasio’s willing executioner will slap you with a hefty ticket. I don’t know to what extent this is law, convention or a massive NPR conspiracy — literally half of my neighborhood sits around listening to the radio while watching the clock never tick.
Why do I mention all of this? Because the garbage and parking are among the many rituals around which my daily life is organized. Some are imposed (like school pick-up times), some are self-originating if meaningless (like buying a seltzer every day on the way to pick-up) and some were created for the purpose of adding deliberateness and meaning to life. For the last half a year, we have played a game at dinner called the Wonder Line. If one of the kids can tell me something that generates the experience of wonder — the cocked head, slight nod, raised eyebrow and muttered “hmmm …” — we call it “clearing the Wonder Line.” If they can clear it five times, they get to decide how we end the night, i.e., have ice cream, or watch a “Pirates of the Caribbean” iteration.
It must be terribly difficult to establish rituals in your life. (Night shooting at 3:30 in the morning …) I know you don’t have an “average day,” but what have you tried to ritualize in your work and home life? And so long as the subject has been raised, what has cleared your Wonder Line in the past couple of weeks?
I am woefully lacking ritual in my life, which is among the hardest things and best things about my work. I will never have the boredom or repetitiveness of an office. But every job takes me to a new place with a new schedule, and it requires a reinvention of ritual each time, even more so with a family. Every time I go on location, I have to figure out where to live, what activities are available for my son, how and when we will travel from our home base. You learn how deeply grounding ritual is when you lose it.
When I’m not working, I’m pretty much exclusively with my family, so my rituals have to do with school, meal preparation, playdates, bedtime. Weekends are best for ritual, because I own them completely. I do the whole week’s laundry, which I love because it’s a task with a clear beginning and end. And then we spend the weekend together as a family — usually somewhere in nature, often with friends who have children. Lots of cooking. I like weekends better when I’m working because then they truly feel like I’m regenerating energy, whereas when I’m not working, time blends into one continuous, undifferentiated stream.
What has cleared my Wonder Line recently? Yesterday we saw five bunnies when we left the community pool, and they didn’t clear my Wonder Line, but the look in my son’s eyes definitely did.
He also made prolonged eye contact with a horse, during which it was pretty clear they were having some sort of communication. That made me feel wonder.
We saw James Blake sing Saturday night — extreme levels of wonder.
Before the concert we ate a meal at a restaurant that was pretty insane. It’s called the Clove Club; next time you come to London, eat there. Ben made me laugh a lot comparing his main course (an aged roasted duck stuffed with hay) to mine (asparagus in papillote which came out looking like cardboard because it was served in the brown paper).
I’m working with a group of actresses right now who are so kind and talented and funny — Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny — and we did a scene last night, all night, in which every take was different, and each one real, and we laughed and froze our asses off and played. It was rare energy on a film because there were so many women together. Usually it’s all men and each of us is the only woman.
Children, animals, music, food, artistic camaraderie … that’s five! Now do I get an ice cream? Happy Thursday.
The clock recently ticked over to 12:00, from Thursday to Friday. It’s been unseasonably warm, lower nineties. The calendar is ticking over to summer. We’re driving to Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, later today, to spend Memorial Weekend with my brothers and their families. It’s a wonderful place — it is literally a “census-designated place,” rather than a city, town or village — where my sister-in-law’s family has been going for decades. The two things that distinguish it are its proximity to Gettysburg (which I always threaten the boys with a daylong tour of if they don’t behave on the four-hour drive down) and “Site R,” a complex on Raven Rock Mountain, built to serve as an “underground pentagon.” Apparently it was Cheney’s preferred “undisclosed location.”
I never have followed through on my threats of a tour, but Gettysburg’s presence is constantly felt while in the area: the innumerable signs commemorating battles, the ammunition in the antiques shops, the memorials. It also exudes a ghostly aura. I feel silly writing that, but there’s nothing silly or ignorable about the feeling. And it isn’t just the proximity to history. It’s something else — something in the air, and in the ground. Are there places where you feel a “something else”?
You know, the word “Hebrew” (ivri, as in a nationality, like Abraham the Hebrew) comes from the root for “to cross over” — la’avor. I think it’s related to Jews being nomadic people, or maybe Abraham being the first one to cross a river in the Bible? But it does feel like a state that is emblematic of our people, and maybe all people — that we are always in the midst of replacing one fulfilled desire with a new desire, accepting a new piece of knowledge with another question.
When I first encountered Buddhist thought in my 20s, I was so confused. I’m supposed to be content with what’s going on here and now? I realized how much Judaism for me was connected to yearning — to wanting what you don’t have — which is maybe why Israel is so complicated emotionally for Jews: It’s built into the emotional structure of our religion to yearn for a homeland we don’t have.
So then if we have it, what do we yearn for? We say “next year in Jerusalem” as if we are still in exile. But maybe Jerusalem as an idea is never attainable — so we can keep longing for it even when we have it, like a spouse you desire eternally. You keep feeling that you can’t get them, as if it were the perpetual beginning of a flirtation. Jerusalem does have an aura. The air feels thicker there. It feels like the city, itself, is manipulating, pushing passions around.
An ex-boyfriend of mine used to call me “Moscow,” because he said I was always looking out the window sadly, like “Moscow,” like some Russian novel or Chekhov play. Clearly there were grounds for this ex getting fired, but he did have a point — I have that longing, yearning, it’s-better-over-there tendency. It was illuminating for me to have Oz describe that kind of behavior in his mother as “Slavic romantic melancholy,” because it associated it with a cultural tendency. And it’s true that there is a very cultural influence on that sort of yearning, depressive “Moscow”-ing out the window (there must be one German adjective that describes this exact feeling).
Do you remember how in the ’90s there was this sort of “sad girl chic”? Like “Reviving Ophelia” and Fiona Apple, and just a lot of sad, beautiful girls. And it felt like being deep or interesting or even attractive was being a little sullen, to use Ms. Apple’s word (whom I love by the way). And then living in France, I got the same ’90s sense, that there’s a beauty there culturally associated with sadness. It was kind of a revelation for me to acknowledge, through Oz’s book, that mood could be so influenced by when and where you live, and the feelings of that time and place about feelings. That it might not just be your chemical makeup. Because I was adapting the book over almost a decade (not consistently — I’d pick it up and then put it down for a few years before picking it up again), this was a later connection.
My first connection to Oz’s book was the etymology. For me, more than the religion or the country or the food, the Hebrew language is the center of my engagement with the culture. Finding the etymological links between words feels like unlocking poetry from thousands of years ago — aligning with souls of humans across time. The way Oz traces these linguistic genealogies stops my breath: earth (adama), man (adam), blood (dam), red (adom), silence (doomia). Etymology might seem dry, but the connections between words feel to me like the connectedness I felt while giving birth — that I was related to every woman who had ever given birth throughout time. I guess it’s having an experience that gives you a feeling of wonder, to use your word, that you can then feel that you share with people — not just people around you, or people exposed to the things that you’re exposed to, but people in the desert looking at slightly younger versions of the same stars while herding sheep and believing that lightning was the wrath of G-d.
Time to get my boy out of the bath, where Lego Batman is alternately battling dinosaurs and performing a concert.
Hello from Blue Ridge Summit. All the cousins slept in the same room last night, which required half a dozen new amendments to the Constitution: who was allowed to wake up whom, and who was obligated to wake up whom, and under what conditions, and exactly how, and exactly when. Cy came into my room not long ago, grumpier than Ed Asner in “Up,” bemoaning how everyone else was awake, and for all he knew, they’d been watching cartoons and eating dessert for hours, and now his entire weekend, not to mention his entire life, had been wasted with sleep. (It was 6:10 in the morning.) I tried to waste a bit more of my life with sleep while he whined, but he refused to be ignored. And when I attempted to gently point out the irony that he’d been complaining about wasted time for half an hour, he only redirected his anger from his cousins onto me.
My first book came out when I was young, but you have been a professional actress for what seems like your entire life. How has that influenced your sense of the passage of time? (Most people see milestones ahead, and work toward them. You had so much come at once.) Is there any sense in which writing and directing are a means to feel that you are beginning again? And not to pile on the questions, but “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is about a young boy growing up in a young country that is itself growing up. At the same time, the boy is clearly a very “old soul,” and the young country is more than 5,000 years old. More, you play a woman who is never her chronological age — sometimes too full of a child’s wonder to be an adult, sometimes prematurely old, sometimes almost biblical. What, if anything, did your own experiences with time — growing up, and as a mother — contribute to your vision of time in the film?
I keep thinking about what you had to say, a few letters back, about freedom. It’s strange to have an art that’s largely an instinct. People would argue that there’s plenty of technique to learn, but we all know actors we love who’ve never studied, and actors who drive us nuts with too much technique. Acting is not like music or dance or drawing, where there is clear technique that you need to work obsessively to master, and then your individuality makes you more than just a computer who’s learned a skill. You’re basically trying to be un-self-conscious and use your imagination and lose yourself. Of course there are techniques to help you do these things, but oftentimes thinking about things gets in the way. So searching for freedom in that can be self-defeating. But it’s a challenge I love and am thrilled by when I have a rare moment of overcoming it.
And yes, I suppose choosing to direct now is sort of a symptom of having a long career already at 35 (I’ve been working since age 11, for longer than many of my colleagues in their 50s). Wanting to direct is like what we were talking about before — about transition, passage and replacing old desires with new ones. What I always look for in my work are new challenges — things I’m not sure I can do. And oftentimes I can’t do them, and I fail. But that’s what keeps me interested, and nothing offers knowledge and self-knowledge like failure.
And yes, I can become a young director as I turn into an older actress.
I like how you describe the film — the coming of age of a boy and of a country, neither of which is the age they seem. I think being a mother made me realize how maternal the role of director is. It made me much calmer under stress, because there’s that weird parent thing you develop, that when things get really bad, your voice gets calm and your blood pressure slows, and you can make everything okay again. And things get bad and stressful easily on films.
Also, you look at the people you work with and think: How can I treat them, and what can I tell them, so that they can do their best work? Because that’s sort of what directing is — talking to people in a way that can best unlock their potential. Of course, with directing, the purpose is to help them realize your vision. With parenting, the purpose is for your kid to realize his. But it’s a similar skill.
Time goes exponentially fast as a parent. I hate saying it, cause ugh, we hated it so much when people said it to us: Pay attention and hold them close because before you know it, they’re moving out of the house. They always said it, and now we say it, and it’s awful, and we’re old. But it’s also true. And that’s why Shabbat is such a lovely idea that I’m trying to revive in my life. I love that Erich Fromm thing about Shabbat being the ability to suspend time. The reason we aren’t allowed to move a book from one place to another on Shabbat, or turn on a light, or buy something — it’s not because it’s “work,” and work isn’t allowed on the Sabbath. It’s because those things would show the passage of time. And Shabbat is the one day when we can stop time.
Okay, I gotta go to sleep though there’s some loud Harry Potter music blasting in the house.
Not even Shabbat can stop the clock — two have moved from the future to the past in the course of our having this exchange — but every now and then the broken-down time machine that is Hotmail can cough itself back to life. I didn’t bother mentioning it, because it felt so fruitless, but while corresponding with you, I have also been corresponding with what I think is a robot at Hotmail. And while most everything that was lost will remain lost, I was able to dig up a few things, including the email that began our long friendship, from all the way back in 2002.
It was so good to meet you after the reading the other day. I loved what you said about the last line of the book ending in the middle of a sentence, that it was a dialogue with the reader, and what a reader fills in completes the book.
It reminded me of the Walter Murch thing about digital film: It will never be as emotional as film-film because it doesn’t have the black between frames. With regular film (as you probably know), between each frame is a black frame that flashes for a fraction of a second, and the viewer’s eyes fill in the picture reflexively. So the viewer has to be engaged in a way they don’t have to when all the visuals are provided to them. It is our engagement in the process, our helping the creation of the piece, that makes us feel the story.