How Natalie Portman got into superhero shape in ‘Thor’ return

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since its early days when Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was the sole female hero and most other women with substantial screen time were relegated to love interests and damsels.

Case in point, Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman), who was first introduced in 2011‘s “Thor” and returned two years later for “Thor: The Dark World.” She’s an accomplished astrophysicist and astronomer but is best known for being Thor’s ex-girlfriend. With “Thor: Love and Thunder,” Foster’s first substantial appearance in nine years (she had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in “Avengers: Endgame”), director Taika Waititi hopes to imbue Foster with a fresh sense of agency.

“It was really important to us that we bring Jane back because people would ask what happened to her and where she’d gone,” said the director. “It’s nice to be able to answer that and bring her back, but in a more meaningful way. She no longer is the girlfriend on the sidelines, Thor’s ‘chick.’ She comes back as her own person, as a strong, powerful woman who is holding the hammer now and is actually a superhero herself.”

In the film — as in the “Mighty Thor” comic run it’s based on — Foster assumes the power of Thor as she battles cancer and is deemed worthy by Mjölnir, the fragmented hammer the hero carried for five films before it was shattered in “Thor: Ragnarok.” Portman says the opportunity to return and revamp the character was “really exciting.” “To get to be a superhero at all is such a rare opportunity [for an actor],” she said. “Certainly getting to be one as you’re turning 40 is pretty much unheard of. It’s not anything that I dreamt I would get to do.”

Chris Hemsworth said sharing Thor’s mantle with Portman was “an honor.” “I started this journey 11 years ago with Natalie and to team up again now, both as the characters and ourselves have evolved and changed so dramatically, was brilliant.”

During shooting, Portman leaned on Hemsworth for advice on how to embody a superhero. “He would help me figure out how to do certain things with the hammer,” she said. “Oftentimes you’re not actually using anything, you’re pretending you’re catching the hammer in thin air. And so he would demonstrate and help me figure out how to do that, as the expert of 10 years.”

“The first time she turned up on set as the character, all of us were blown away,” said Hemsworth. “She embodied everything a hero should, but there was a vulnerability and a strength there that was personal to her. She wasn’t mimicking anyone else’s version.”

“The costume is what made it sink in that this was happening for real,” said Portman. “I called Taika right away like, ‘I hope I’ve told you how grateful I am.’”

It was also relatively comfortable, as far as superhero costumes go. “It was quite easy to take on and off,” said Portman. “I think that’s the biggest deal, to have breaks, because it is quite heavy. Mayes Rubeo, our costume designer, was so considerate of having to actually wear it so I think it was pretty much the most comfortable version [it could be]. She did different versions with different cape lengths for different actions.”

Two women in superhero costumes sit on thrones

From left, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor in Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

(Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

Rejoining the franchise at this point in Thor’s journey also afforded Portman the chance to work with real-life friend Tessa Thompson, who plays the warrior/New Asgardian king Valkyrie. The two met in 2018 while working on the sci-fi horror “Annihilation” and became fast friends, a bond that was strengthened through their work with the Time’s Up movement.

“My favorite scenes were definitely the ones with Valkyrie,” said Portman. “Getting to work with a friend is so amazing because you get to bring all of your real affection and experience with that person to the characters, you’re not just pretending you have this relationship. She’s so ferocious and talented and brilliant and it’s also just fun to get to see your friend.”

“To bring our real-life dynamic and to get to really play with her in the world of this film was really exciting,” said Thompson, who likened Portman to “a sister.” “I think for Valkyrie’s sake, she’s somebody that has been mourning the loss of her sisters for a very long time and so this feels like she gets to have a sister again in the form of Mighty Thor.”

a woman in superhero armor

Natalie Portman as the Mighty Thor in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

(Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

Going from astrophysicist to a god presents quite the learning curve for Foster. “I think she’s a little overeager,” said Portman. “She jumps the gun on things. She’s got to learn a lot of information and luckily she’s got Valkyrie and Thor to help her catch up on what’s been going on.”

Similarly, despite a nearly 30-year career, Portman found herself facing brand-new challenges and leaned on her co-stars for advice. The first hurdle was figuring out how to get strong, fast. “A lot of that I was learning from Tessa and Chris,” she said. “About how nutrition plays such a big deal and how you have to be doing the protein shakes and losing the water weight, you’ve got to do the saunas. There’s all this stuff that goes into it that is really interesting to learn.”

With the help of trainer Naomi Pendergast, Portman got into the best shape of her life over 10 months of grueling workouts. “She did a lot of weight training to get me stronger but also was really focused on getting me balanced as well as [targeting] the small muscles that support the bigger muscles,” said Portman. “It was really awesome to turn 40 and feel the best I’ve ever felt physically. To be tasked for the first time with taking up as much space as possible, when most of the time as women we’re asked to get as small as possible. Even things that had been aches and pains were cured by the strength training that evened me out and got me into balance in my body.”

That training came in handy during the film’s action sequences, in which Portman did many of her own stunts. “I loved doing all of the stuff on wires,” she said. “That was so fun to get to fly and do flips. Learning the choreography was reminiscent of learning dance choreography. Obviously I had stunt doubles who did most of the really difficult stuff, but I did get to learn a bunch of the choreography.”

Despite the gains, the actor says she’s particularly happy to be kissing the protein shakes goodbye. “I definitely love exercising,” she said. “Well, I wouldn’t say love — I like. It feels good to be strong. I’m definitely not trying to bulk up [though], that’s not my personal lifestyle choice. Once you do the protein shakes, you’re not really eager to [maintain] that part of your life forever.”

Shooting a series of flashback scenes to Thor and Jane’s relationship was much more lighthearted. “It was so fun to imagine it as this rom-com,” said Portman. “And we shot it really indie-style too. We shot like 40 different things in a day … getting the vibe of that kind of movie.”

Hemsworth concurred those sequences were among the most enjoyable to shoot. “We just made up all of those pieces,” he said. He proposed an idea for Jane and Thor to be pulled along on rollerblades by Mjölnir, which made it into the final cut. “It was cool because often you see these characters in all their glory and being heroes, but you don’t really get insight into who they are on a regular day,” he said.

Shifting between action scenes, rom-com moments and Jane’s very personal struggle with cancer gave Portman an opportunity to explore her character from all sides. “I really love Taika’s ability to not have any rules about how [a comic book movie is] supposed to be,” Portman said. “Having that kind of freeform and free possibility is so lucky, and really lucky for [Jane as a] female character, in particular. He really made room for her to be ridiculous and weak, and she didn’t just have to be this kick-ass tough girl all the time, which I think is sometimes the interpretation of what a feminist character would be.

“To me, a feminist character is able to be all the things: Sometimes you’re vulnerable, sometimes you’re strong, sometimes you’re falling flat on your face. It’s nice to have the ability to be human like that.”

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to grow, Portman says she’s open to reprising the Mighty Thor should the opportunity present itself. “I am open to anything,” she said. “It’s such a cool character and I feel like anything is possible.”

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