Natalie Portman: Hometown Heroine

Natalie Portman Thor
Long Island’s own Natalie Portman stars in the upcoming superhero film “Thor.”

She’s played a ballerina, a queen, a stripper and two famous Annes (Frank and Boleyn). She was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People by People Magazine. She won the Academy Award for her performance in the psychological thriller Black Swan, along with a Golden Globe and several other major accolades.

Yet during one of her nearly 20 David Letterman Show appearances, Natalie Portman told the host, “I’ll always still be a kid from Long Island.”

Portman, who was born in Jerusalem and lived there until age 3, spent most of her formative years in Jericho, attending Solomon Schechter Day School in Glen Cove, and graduating in 1999 from Syosset High School, where she was valedictorian and also voted “Most Likely to Win Jeopardy.”

“Natalie was brilliant in every subject,” says Jill Goldberg, her guidance counselor at Syosset High School when the actress was still known by her given name, Natalie Hershlag (Portman is her grandmother’s maiden name). “She balanced her work here with her professional life seamlessly, maintaining a flawless average. She’s just a brilliant, remarkable person, inside and out. I absolutely adore her.”

Portman studied ballet and modern dance at the American Theater Dance Workshop in New Hyde Park and attended the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts in Wheatley Heights. Her road to stardom began at age 10, when she was “discovered” at an LI pizza parlor by a Revlon scout looking for child models.

By age 12, Portman was cast in her first film, Leon: The Professional. Roles followed in Heat (1995), Beautiful Girls (1996) and Mars Attacks! (1996). But despite her busy career, academics always came first—a value instilled by her parents, Dr. Avner Hershlag, chief of North Shore-LIJ’s Center for Human Reproduction, and Shelley Hershlag, an artist.

“Natalie’s parents didn’t let her work on major films during the school year,” says Goldberg. “They valued education very highly.”

They made an exception for Portman’s starring role on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank during her high school junior year. Natalie’s grandfather’s parents and his younger brother were killed in concentration camps, making it extremely personal.

Promoting the play on the Today Show in 1997, she told Matt Lauer, “I read the diary at 12, and it’s very close to my own family history. It’s very important to remind people of the wrongs of racism and hatred.”

During her senior year, Portman reached superstardom as Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, famously missing its premiere to study for finals.

Her studiousness paid off. Portman graduated with a 4.0 average from Syosset High and continued her education at Harvard, majoring in psychology. At the time, Portman said, “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.”

The actress lived for a time in Sea Cliff, where longtime resident and Bart’s Barber Shop owner Joseph Mazzeo once cut her hair. “She came in with her mom, and I had no idea who she was,” Mazzeo recalls. “She was growing her hair out, and she said, ‘Give me a Mohawk.’” He later learned that she’d shaved her head for a movie roll. “Her mom looked nervous,” Mazzeo says, “but Natalie told me, ‘I bet you think I’m 14, but I’m 24.’”

Portman, now 32, reprises her role as astrophysicist Jane Foster in Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, debuting this month—and her science cred isn’t fiction. In high school, Portman co-authored a paper titled “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” which earned her semifinalist honors in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. She continued her distinguished science career at Harvard, contributing to a study on memory called “Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence.”

She may still be “just a kid from Long Island,” but with her brains, beauty and killer-acting chops, she’s done LI proud.