August 02, 2004 06:00 AM

She’s no Jersey girl, but Natalie Portman, a native of Long Island, N.Y., knows what it’s like to grow up in suburbia. The 23-year-old Star Wars actress is putting her experience to use in Garden State, the directorial and writing debut of Scrubs star Zach Braff. Her role as a pathological liar in the romantic-comedy was a welcome change: “You can conserve your resources and be creative” on an independent film, she says. A Harvard graduate, Portman recently talked about her good fortune, being a sex symbol and what made her head to the other side of the George Washington Bridge.

What attracted you to Garden State?
It was like no other character that I’ve ever done before. In Hollywood, when they see you do one thing, they send you 40 scripts of the same thing. I just get bored. I have to be able to imagine myself in a part. I can’t think that anyone would believe me as a fashion executive who falls in love really cute-ly. I feel like I’m so much weirder than that.

What was it like working with Zach Braff?
It was such a wonderful experience. It was very clear that he was confident and smart and funny. He had all the pieces that go into what makes a great director, but you don’t really know until you get there. It has so much to do with how your styles mesh and what your chemistry is.

How was it to do a romantic comedy?
It was fun. Zach created this atmosphere where we were all just hanging out, laughing all the time and it translated onto film.

"Acting is fulfilling on a personal level but I don't know how much it contributes to the world," Portman says. "Although I think a world without movies and theater would be a sad one."

Can you relate to the suburban experience of your character in Garden State?
I can really feel it. Jersey embodies what everyone is feeling: (It’s) close to where everything is happening but not there. There’s a real feeling in those regions of comfort. They’re not ka-jillionaires but they have every comfort and opportunity open to them. As a young person, as spoiled and snotty as it sounds, that’s really scary to have every choice open to you. It’s this funny state of having everything and because you have everything, knowing nothing.

Is that your experience?
Absolutely. I’m the luckiest girl in the world. When you have some sort of struggle or come up against some obstacle, it makes you stronger. It’s hard to have identity and direction and purpose when it’s all easy. Most of my friends have an external discipline: a job. I do obviously work, but it’s for three months at a time. Then I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ So I started taking classes and feeling productive. I’m learning Spanish and taking ballet and working on producing things.

Are you uncomfortable being a sex symbol?
I don’t consider myself a sex symbol. Sex is so much the combination of soul and mind and body that it’s such a weird thing to be a sex symbol in our movie culture.

Now that you’re getting older, how do you feel about doing nudity in films?
I wouldn’t say “no, never,” because I think setting any limits is silly. There might be a day when you change. It’s much better to flow with the time and the context, see how things change and see how you feel. I also try to value my private life over my acting life, as fulfilling as it can be to work on something and give your all. If you do anything that jeopardizes your privacy or your safety, it’s not worth it in my book.

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