by Tom O'Connell

It's hard to imagine that just a few years ago, many directors had all but written off Natalie Portman because of her woodenly written role as Queen Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. As she stood with her Oscar, literally glowing as she thanked film technicians and family members, vindication was hers, the flat sci-fi role overshadowed by a terrifying swan with dueling personalities. It was edgy roles like the one in her Academy Award-winning Black Swan that likely saved her from B-list mediocrity.

Serious roles became harder for her to snag after the period of 1999 to 2003, when she pursued a psychology degree at Harvard while working on the space opera during the summers. At the time, Portman said, “I don't care if going to Harvard ruins my career. I'd rather be smart than a movie star.” She almost got her wish. And then Mike Nichols picked her up, dusted her off, and gave her her first adult role, as a hooker, in his dimly lighted indie Closer (2004). She had also appeared in his 2001 New York City Public Theater production of Chekov's The Seagull. More challenging roles followed, and Portman was soon able to pick and choose only projects that interested her, and stay away from big-payday pap.

To this day, the actress still cites Nichols as a mentor and savior: “Mike Nichols is sort of my creative father. He rebirthed my belief in myself. And I think other people's belief in me, too. He would lobby other directors for me - he got me the part in Cold Mountain. They didn't want to hire me, and he wrote a letter...”

And the director seems to have a pedestal in his heart for his muse. “She's a lesson in what you put first,” he has said. “She can't stand to see herself in a movie, and she never puts movies ahead of life. She cares about her friends, what's going on in her head, and how things work.”

“... I'm like, 'I'll show my butt but not my boobs.' Nobody really cares about butts.”

The same year as Closer, she took on a character on the brink in the microbudgeted Garden State, but it wasn't until her profanity-laced rap video on Saturday Night Live in 2006 that the dark side of the swan was truly appreciated by a large audience. That same year, she exploded in the controversial, futuristic terrorism tale V for Vendetta, in which she had to shave her famous pixie 'do.

She finally showed the world some of the goods in 2007 when she bared her buns in the short Hotel Chevalier (which appeared before the Wes Anderson feature The Darjeeling Limited). She has subsequently downplayed this choice: “I'm definitely not a prude about sex or nudity. I just don't want to do something that will end up as a screen grab on a porn site. So meanwhile I'm doing halfsies. I'm like, 'I'll show my butt but not my boobs.' Nobody really cares about butts.” As long as she believes this, the world will be a happier place.

Portman was born in Jerusalem in 1981, and moved at age three with her fertility-doctor father and artist mother to the States, ending up in Long Island by 1999, where she graduated from a Syosset high school and where her parents still live on the North Shore. At age 11 she was famously approached in a Long Island pizza joint by a scout looking to cast her in a Revlon commercial. She passed, but did snag her first feature film at age 12 when she was controversially cast as a Lolita-esque wannabe assassin's protégé in The Professional. Her parents were skewered by the public and media for allowing her to take such a risqué role, and so many of the films that followed presented her as the sweet, virginal little girl.

“I'd rather be smart than a movie star.”

She has defended that first role, and described her parents' trepidation in letting her take it: “My dad had stipulations on how many drags on a cigarette I could take [in a scene], how many times I could curse. I wasn't actually allowed to inhale. My dad would have people behind me blowing the smoke out.”

After The Professional, said Portman, her parents “never wanted me to have to walk down the street wondering if people can visualize me naked.” After that movie, she reportedly received “fan mail” from several creepy dudes. It was probably partly because of this first experience that she and her family turned down the Lolita remake and Romeo + Juliet (in addition to the fact that the film studio behind Romeo “said it looked like Leonardo DiCaprio was molesting me when we kissed,” she has said).

Portman described the often awkward coming-of-age she experienced in the movies this way: “Kids are the Shakespearean fools in Hollywood movies. They hold the keys to wisdom in their innocence, or are so creepily adult they make us reflect on how creepy adults are.”

Portman has always set herself apart from her contemporaries, staying out of the drooling paparazzi spotlight for the kinds of scandals others fall prey to, and taking on several worthy causes. There's something different about this brunette vegan pixie. Perhaps it's that she's more innocent or self-aware, lacking the need for self-immolation exhibited by Hollywood's Lindsay Lohans.

Her Harvard instructor Alan Dershowitz, to whom she served as research assistant, has noted: “She's not one of those Hollywood stars who plays on her stardom to have you listen to her on other issues. She's worth listening to because of her own inherent intelligence, experience, and background.”

Portman sums up the young-Hollywood syndrome this way: “The problem with most child actors is that they think they're grown up. But they're not at all. And when they get to be older, they're not as grown up as their peers, because they just thought they were.”

Although she is one of its biggest stars, and does indeed live in Los Angeles, Portman is a little aloof when it comes to what the industry expects of her and her ilk: “I get pissed off that I go to a premiere to talk about my movie, and the first thing they ask me is what dress I'm wearing. And look, I buy into that because I play along- you have to, in a certain way. If you don't dress up, then they'll talk about that! It almost becomes less of an issue to play along with it, because then it doesn't become a conversation topic. But that's annoying.”

She is also not terribly fond of the fawning self-importance that goes along with the acting game, which may explain why she seems much more low-key than her contemporaries. “I've always found actor-y people to be really creepy,” she has been quoted. “You know exactly what I'm saying. The people who are, like, 'Yes! It's my life!' They seem really fake.”

For her biggest tour-de-force to date, as Nina in the multiple-personality art-house psychological thriller Black Swan, Portman revisited her childhood ballet pursuits, training up to eight hours a day with Benjamin Millepied, her choreographer and now father to her yet-to-be-born child. The role was challenging in many other ways, including her taking on a solo sex scene as well as one with costar Mila Kunis.

“Lesbian scenes, sex scenes, they're all over the place!” Portman has said. “But because it's me, people are shocked. I see the value of a good-girl persona - it's so easy to subvert it!”

Her Swan director, celebrated art-house helmer Darren Aronofsky, described part of the draw and challenge of the role for the actress: “The only way to be perfect is to allow chaos and madness into your life. Natalie has very few opportunities to express the dangerous side of her, and there's a lot of colors there. She teases; she's playful and sexy and so beautiful it hurts.”

“The biggest challenge for all actors,” Portman has said, “is that you see yourself on a screen outside of your body and have to reenter your body to look at the world through your own eyes instead of at yourself.”

“The only way to be perfect is to allow chaos and madness into your life.”

There is no turning back to the good-girl roles after Swan, which may be why the actress is currently taking on a few softer roles. She is following it up with a turn in the romantic comedy No Strings Attached with the inimitable Ashton Kutcher. Then there is her brave entry into the superhero genre with her role in (gasp) Thor. Film fans might want to hold their breath to see if Sir Kenneth Branagh can make something viable of his source material, and whether Portman will approach the project with a straight face. She will also try her hand at comedy in the upcoming swords-and-sorcery romp Your Highness. With hilarious costars James Franco and Danny McBride, this one looks like a worthwhile vehicle for her first venture into the genre.

“It wasn't that I didn't want to do a comedy,” she has said. “It's just that I would only get offered girlfriend parts in guy comedies, which aren't exciting to me, or those offensive roles in romantic comedies where the woman has to have a job in fashion so that she can have nice clothes, and her goal is always marriage. I'm more interested in finding characters that make me laugh.”

Portman has been signing her own ticket for several years now, but with the Oscar win, she enters a whole new class and earning bracket that should find her in some of the most memorable movies of her generation.