If you want a sense of just how mysterious and persuasive Terrence Malick really is, consider this: Even Natalie Portman will act in his movies without knowing if she’ll make the final cut. This weekend sees the premiere of Song to Song, the pair’s second collaboration after 2016’s Knight of Cups. And unlike some unlucky actors, Portman does indeed show up in the movie: Her Rhonda plays a pivotal role in the story of two intersecting couples caught up in the Austin music scene. Vulture caught up with Portman before the release of Song to Song to discuss the allure of working with the man his actors call “Terry,” the experience of seeing yourself in a Malick film for the first time, and watching Michael Fassbender get tackled by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
What do you think it is that Malick brings that makes actors love working with him?
He really breaks down the ritual of filmmaking that we’re all used to. It frees you, in a way, when you go on to something else afterwards. You feel freer because he reminds you that all the rituals aren’t there for a reason, and that you can kind of break them whenever you want, whenever you feel like it. Because you’re always creating these moments in his films, you’re not just following a script and making what’s happening on the page. You have to invent more, and you take that into other projects, too. When you are going into a film that does have a script, you bring that spirit with you.
Is there any specific element of the production that seemed to particularly show that freedom?
The fact that you are always moving while you’re working, while you’re shooting, and that every take is different, every scene is different — that’s really unique to him. You don’t usually go and hit a mark, say your lines, do it ten times, and then turn around and do it the other way. [Laughs] This is totally different. A scene can start in one place and then you shoot the same thing in a different location, with a different costume. That’s really wild, too, because he doesn’t care about continuity, which is great. As an actor, you don’t have to worry about picking up the cup on the same line that you did last time.
I think a lot has been made of the way that actors, when they work with Malick, they don’t know if they’re necessarily going to end up in the movie or not. What effect does that have on you as an actor?
I actually felt really calmed by the fact that he cuts people out regularly, because I was like, Oh, well, if it’s really bad, he’ll just cut me out! [Laughs] That was sort of my self-consolation. I could just try whatever.
As a director yourself, what do you feel like you’ve learned from his style of filmmaking?
I learned so much from him. I learned a lot about the freedom that you get when you work with a small crew. You have seven to ten key people, and you can just hop in and out of a van and go places and get a lot done and not try and work with a huge crew all the time. I learned the freedom that you get when you’re working with natural light, because you’re not changing setups all the time. Just embracing chance and what people might call mistakes, and just going with it. I’ve been on sets where it starts to snow and they’re like, “Okay, I guess we’re shutting down for the day!” And Terry would just shoot through it. Or someone walks into shot, and instead of cutting, have the characters try to interact with the person who walked into the shot. Finding those beautiful accidents.
What was interacting with the Austin music part of the movie like?
I didn’t have to do as much as the other characters, of course, but we did shoot a few days at South by Southwest. That was so amazing. I even felt it in the film when I watched it. Musicians are such amazing characters themselves. You feel their truth and weirdness and spontaneity so strongly. It’s an amazing energy to be working off of, these people being their biggest, wildest selves. I remember the day that the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers just basically tackled Michael [Fassbender, who plays Portman’s husband], and they started wrestling. [Laughs] I think if you told actors, “Go and do something right now,” they wouldn’t have necessarily gone there. It was fun to feed off that energy.
How did you and Michael play off each other and try to indulge that experience of being able to create your own relationship?
Michael has such fantastic energy, and he’s really spontaneous. He’s a great person to work with. It was fun, because we were able to dive into these scenarios that Terry created and just play. It’s hard, because when you’re shooting on digital, the takes can go on forever, and you kind of don’t know when they’re going to end. Sometimes, you’re in a scene, and you’re just like, “Okay, what am I supposed to do now?” [Laughs] You’re improvising for these long, long takes, which is wild, because of course second-long flashes end up getting used in the film, but we did thirty-minute takes, sometimes, of improvised scenes. You’re trying to keep it interesting and dynamic but also have some sort of reality to it. Not just being wild and whimsical all the time.
What’s that experience like of seeing the final film? You must have no sense of what it’s going to be.
It’s fun to watch the movies for the first time, because you really have so little idea of what they’re about. [Laughs] I really had no clue how much or how little my story figured into the larger movie. I had no idea what the other characters’ stories were at all, and so it was a completely new experience for me. And it’s so exciting to see Terry who, after a long career, is still inventing and experimenting. I think that’s so rare for people who become established and are known as great, to take big risks and try and break the form. It’s inspiring to watch.