TEL AVIV (Feb. 24)
“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 Orthodox worshipers 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.
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.
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.
The “Free Zone” shoot came shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a cease-fire, stirring new hopes of an eventual peace deal.
“I think we are all praying that all the political progress that is being made right now will continue and bring some sanity to the region, because it is just — the people are missing out, because it’s young people who are suffering the most,” Portman said.
The new calm allowed the “Free Zone” cast and crew to cross boundaries freely. At a West Bank oasis, they found themselves surrounded by foaling camels. When they arrived in Jordan to film, they were met by a police honor guard.
“You could see that when we were working in the territories and in Jordan, everyone was fine,” Portman recalled. “It was just human being to human being. It’s just when people forget about the individual that it gets crazy.”
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 recent “Star Wars” trilogy.
“Natalie comes from the school of cinema which is extremely rehearsed, which is premeditated, always constructed in advance. I am more interested to dig into the soul of the actress or the actor, and get something that maybe they themselves don’t know exists,” Gitai said.
Laughing, Portman agreed.
“The filming has been so unlike anything else I have ever done. I think it is always good to try something new and try to adjust to different ways of working. You know, it is good to throw yourself off as an actor,” she said.
On Sunday, Portman is up for an Academy Award for her supporting role as Alice, a London stripper, in “Closer.” As someone known often to prefer libraries to movie theaters, she was pleasantly surprised at the nomination for Hollywood’s top honor.
“The most important thing is the work and enjoying the work and feeling fulfilled from the work, and it was such an amazing experience making that film. So this is just a nice, sweet extra,” she said.
“I have never had any experience with prizes or anything, so I never really thought about them much. So it was a nice surprise.”
When she moves on to her next project — filming an adaptation of the action comic “V for Vendetta” in Berlin — Portman will take away fond memories of “Free Zone,” not to mention a bolstered Hebrew vocabulary and even a smattering of Arabic.
“Zeh kef,” she said, describing the “fun” of the shoot. “I’m sure I have some memories that are stuck in Hebrew in my mind so it’s very different as an actor. It’s nice.”