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Natalie Portman Looks Back on "Cringey" Child Star Role in "Léon: The Professional"

The actor was just 12 years old when she starred in the controversial film.

Today, Natalie Portman is an Oscar-winning actor famous for leading roles in Black Swan, Jackie, the Star Wars franchise, and many more movies. But, her very first film role came in 1994 when she starred in Léon: The Professional at only 12 years old. The Luc Besson film is about a hitman (Jean Reno) who takes in a young girl after her family is killed and trains her to be an assassin.

Portman was praised for her acting in the film, and it kicked off her very successful career. But, the now 41-year-old actor has complex feelings about Léon and about Besson, who has faced accusations in the years since, which she opened up about in a new interview. In the past, the actor has also talked about how she was sexualized by adult men after playing the character. Read on to see how she feels about the cult favorite today.

READ THIS NEXT: Former Child Star Says She "Became a Recluse" After Jokes About Her Body Spread Online.

Portman finds aspects of the film "cringey" now.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published on May 10, Portman addressed the public response to Léon: The Professional and how it impacted her.

"It's a movie that's still beloved, and people come up to me about it more than almost anything I've ever made, and it gave me my career, but it is definitely, when you watch it now, it definitely has some cringey, to say the least, aspects to it," she said. "So, yes, it's complicated for me."

She commented on the allegations against Besson.

Luc Besson in 2017

As reported by THR, in 2018, Sand Van Roy, an actor who had appeared in two of Besson's films, claimed that the director had raped her. Eight more women then came forward with claims that the director had harassed or assaulted them in the past. Van Roy's case was dismissed in a French court in 2021; previously, the case brought forth by Van Roy had been dropped due to a lack of evidence.

A lawyer for Besson said at the time, "This hearing in Paris is part of ongoing judicial proceedings that began with an investigation by the police and public prosecutor, which exonerated Luc Besson and found that no criminal acts had been committed. Mr. Besson continues to fully cooperate with the authorities and to deny all accusations made against him, and he looks forward to clearing his name."

Portman told THR that she found the accusations "devastating" and said that she was surprised to hear about them. But, she explained, "I really didn't know. I was a kid working. I was a kid. But I don't want to say anything that would invalidate anyone's experience."

She received disturbing fan mail.

Natalie Portman speaking at 2018 Women's March Los Angeles
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for The Women's March Los Angeles

Portman has spoken out in the past about the inappropriate attention she received as a child actor. As reported by Access Hollywood, at the 2018 Women's March in Los Angeles, she gave a speech about being sexualized and feeling like she had to alter her personality and appearance in order to feel safe. Portman said that the first fan mail she received was a "rape fantasy that a man had written [her]" and that she became aware of a local radio show starting a countdown to her 18th birthday.

"I understood very quickly, even as a 13-year-old, that if I were to express myself sexually, I would feel unsafe and that men would feel entitled to discuss and objectify my body to my great discomfort," she said. Because of this, Portman said, she "built a reputation for basically being prudish, conservative, nerdy, serious, in an attempt to feel that [her] body was safe and that [her] voice would be listened to."

Portman added, "At 13 years old, the message from our culture was clear to me. I felt the need to cover my body and to inhibit my expression and my work in order to send my own message to the world: that I'm someone worthy of safety and respect."

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She knew she was being marketed as a "Lolita."

Natalie Portman at the premiere of "Thor: Love and Thunder" in 2022
DFree / Shutterstock

During a 2020 interview on the podcast Armchair Expert, Portman reflected on her public image after appearing in Léon and 1996's Beautiful Girls.

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," she said.

"Being sexualized as a child, I think took away from my own sexuality," she continued, "because it made me afraid and 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.'"

"Whereas at that age, 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," the Annihilation star went on. "But you don't feel safe, necessarily, when there's older men that are interested, and you're like, 'No, no, no, no, no.'"

Still, she "loved" being on set as a child.

Natalie Portman at WE Day California 2019
DFree / Shutterstock

Despite the upsetting response she got from adult male fans, Portman has said that most of her memories of being a young actor are good ones. Asked by THR if she has advice for child performers, she said, "Yeah, I always want to tell them to treat it as a game more than a job because I don't think kids should really have jobs."

"It was fun," she continued of her own early career. "I definitely knew how to take things seriously as a kid, but I loved it. I really, really loved it."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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