Natalie Portman began her acting career at the ripe age of 12 years old, with a role as a hitman’s protégée in Léon: The Professional. Five years later, she became a household name when she snagged the role of Padmé Amidala in Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, meaning that her face and voice were just about everywhere in her teen years — including, podcast host Dax Shepard notes, in his personal toolbox. Chatting with Portman as a guest on podcast Armchair Expert, Shepard asked the A-list star what those years of being — forgive the phrasing — drooled over by Hollywood audiences at such a young age, and Portman doesn’t hold back from admitting how that early sexualization shaped her life. When you’re told that “sexy” is what adult men want you to act like when you’re 15 years old, it can be very hard to form a healthy sense of adult sexuality in the years that follow, Portman explains. And for that matter, it can be equally hard to feel like “sexy” is something you’re even interested in being.
“I was definitely aware of the fact that I was being portrayed — mainly in kind of journalism around when the movies would come out — as like this Lolita figure,” Portman tells Shepard about seeing herself in this sexualized reflection when she was younger.
“I’ve actually talked about it, I wrote a thing about it for the Women’s March a few years ago about how being sexualized as a child I think took away from my own sexuality because it made me afraid,” Portman continues. “It made me feel like the way that I could be safe was to be like, ‘I’m conservative and I’m serious and you should respect me and I’m smart and don’t look at me that way.'”
Portman knows that her thinking was misguided, but also recognizes the self-protection she was trying to give herself from the onslaught of sexual attention.
“I feel like you build these fortresses around you… If someone respects you, they’re not going to objectify you,” she explained. And when she was younger, she couldn’t understand why she would want to embrace her sexuality any more than she was.
“You’re told as a girl and a woman that you’re supposed to want that, and that it’s a good thing, people finding you attractive or people thinking you’re sexy,” she says. “These words that we use around young girls in particular — and then it’s complicated because it doesn’t necessarily always make you feel good or feel safe. You do have your own sexuality, and you do have your own desire, and you do want to explore things and you do want to be open but you don’t feel safe necessarily when there’s like older men that are like interested, you’re like no no no no.”
Poor Portman was exposed to a sexualized image of herself before she’d ever defined sexuality on her own terms, associating being sexy with a sense of powerlessness and violation, of being preyed on as a young star by an older man. To be found sexy was to feel unsafe for young Portman, and so she bolstered her persona and career with as many serious, non-sexual facets as she could to avoid it.
Only in recent years has Portman felt the freedom to express herself more on her own terms — but the way she articulates this feeling of being trapped as a young woman will resonate with adolescent girls everywhere who are confused by the messages they’re getting about sexuality.
Before you go, click here to see actors who have spoken out about pressure to get naked for a role.