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Stars and Scholars: Natalie Portman

Apr 11, 2011

Natalie Portman's Oscar-winning performance in 'Black Swan' has elevated her star power to a whole new level. While more people are becoming familiar with Portman's work in film, relatively few know that the Hollywood star was once an academic standout at Harvard.

By Douglas Fehlen

Natalie Portman Black Swan Harvard University college student smart stars genius actor intel science talent search Your Highness Star Wars Oscar Academy Awards

Prioritizing Education

At 29, Natalie Portman has already enjoyed an acting career that many in the entertainment industry could only dream of. Having begun her work in feature movies at the age of 13, Portman has spent more than half of her life in front of film cameras. From work on the sci-fi Star Wars prequels to the fantasy comedy Your Highness, now in wide release, the actor has enjoyed a charmed life on the screen.

Logging hours on movies sets, however, has never been the sole, or even primary, priority in Portman's life. Instead, the A-list actor has also been busy earning A's in the classroom. Even as she played in major roles alongside actors like Drew Barrymore, Matt Dillon and Julia Roberts, Portman maintained perfect grades at Syosset High School on New York's Long Island. When Hollywood called, Portman was willing to skip events that would endanger her ability to perform well at school.

In addition to delivering picture-perfect report cards, Portman also had the remarkable distinction of being a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search - a prestigious national contest whose winners have gone on to earn Nobel Prizes and other awards in the sciences. Working with two others, Portman co-authored a paper called 'A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar.'

Natalie Portman Black Swan Harvard University college student smart stars genius actor intel science talent search Your Highness Star Wars Oscar Academy Awards

Continuing On to College

Many actors have ended their education after high school to focus on a Hollywood career. An aspiring academic, Natalie Portman chose to move on to higher ed, attending Harvard University in the fall of 1999. As explanation for potentially harming her acting career by going to college, she said, 'I'd rather be smart than a movie star.' To be able to focus on school, Portman declined many movie roles. She did act in select films during her college years when shooting took place in summer.

All of Portman's work in the classroom paid off when, in 2003, she graduated with a degree in psychology. The screen star made significant academic contributions while at Harvard. For instance, Portman was a lab assistant and contributed to an academic article titled 'Frontal Lobe Activation During Object Permanence,' which was published in a scientific journal. The actor was also a research assistant for famed law professor Alan Dershowitz.

At Harvard, Portman had the reputation of being a hard worker, which may shed light on how she's also succeeded in film. Said her psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn: 'It was very clear when she was a student that she is a very determined person and capable of focused effort over a sustained period.' Professor Dershowitz sees a connection between Portman's lives in the classroom and onscreen: 'Her psychology background helped her. . . . She's an actor who uses her academic background.'

Learn more about Rashida Jones, best known for her role as Karen on The Office, another Harvard grad who is also a huge Hollywood star.


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