Michelle Tauber
March 07, 2011 12:00 PM

Having jointly navigated awards season and pregnancy for the past few months, Natalie Portman has mastered the art of red carpet walking for two. “I just try to remember how wonderful this all is and not get stressed out,” she told PEOPLE at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January. Still, she acknowledged, “it can be really overwhelming.”

At 29, Portman has a long list of reasons to feel swamped, from that baby on board to her Best Actress Oscar nomination. Through it all, the ultraprivate star, who announced her engagement to her Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied, 33, in December, has revealed a more personal-and surprisingly irreverent-side than ever before. (“He totally wants to sleep with me!” she said of Millepied during her Golden Globes acceptance speech.) Yes, she can be intense-a 2003 Harvard grad, she’d rather discuss microfinance loans for women in impoverished countries than her latest fashion choices-but the biggest misconception about her “is that she’s serious. She takes issues very seriously, but she’s funny, smart and likable,” says Greta Gerwig, her costar in this winter’s romantic comedy No Strings Attached. “On the set, we’d set up chairs in a circle to talk to her. She’s magnetic.”

As an unraveling ballerina in Black Swan, Portman channeled all of her famous drive. “There was a point when the film nearly fell apart, and I was about to give up,” says director Darren Aronofsky. “I realized if I did, I’d get my butt kicked by a 90-lb. actress. So that’s why I kept going.” Millepied, a French-born choreographer and principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who met Portman on the movie, also marvels at his future wife’s commitment: “There are moments in the film when she really comes across as a ballerina.”

Born in Israel to Avner, a fertility specialist, and Shelley, a homemaker, Portman-she changed her last name from Hershlag as a teen star-remains close with her parents, who raised her on Long Island. Praising them as “the best in the world,” she says that along with her fiance, “they are my rocks.”

After the Oscars, Portman has roles in two spring releases, Thor and Your Highness. And of course, her biggest project to date: motherhood. “I’m sure I’ll make lots of mistakes, but I’m open to learning,” she says. In the end, the lure of a gold statue isn’t even what Portman most wants on Oscar night. “I’m just excited to be in bed,” she says, “in sweatpants!”

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