SAN DIEGO - Natalie Portman is no wonder woman, but sparks are about to fly between her and a certain God of Thunder.
The 29-year-old stars opposite Chris Hemsworth in Thor, which opens wide May 6. Portman follows a recent line of big-name actresses who've played leading ladies in comic-book film franchises, including Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man.
At first glance, the cerebral, Harvard-educated Portman seems like an unlikely candidate for super-hero fodder. Then again, she does have a fantasy track record with Star Wars and V for Vendetta. More important, Thor was directed by the legendary Kenneth Branagh, which promises to bring some Shakespearean flair to the world of super-powers and super-villains.
Even Portman seemed amused by her casting while promoting the film at Comic-Con, the annual pop-culture convention in San Diego. When a journalist asked her to "tell us" about the film, she was quick on the draw.
"It's about the god of thunder," she quipped in a serious tone, before erupting in a short fit of giggles. "Did you see the trailer?"
Portman plays Jane Foster, a scientist studying inter-dimensional pathways, who just happens to encounter the film's titular god after he's banished out of his own realm by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, bringing another dose of high-calibre talent to the cast).
From the outset, it was clear that both Portman and her director wanted Jane to be more than just a maiden in distress or yet another swooning love interest for a male crime fighter. Don't expect Portman's character to spend all her time being rescued or kidnapped by super-villains.
"Ken and I talked a lot before we started about how to make Jane a realistic scientist on screen - (and) not just make her (like) Denise Richards in Bond who wears . . . glasses and so she's a real scientist," Portman said. "We talked about how real scientists are like artists:They are able to imagine things that aren't there. And to give (Jane) this sense that she's sort of frazzled and she's often thinking in abstractions.
"That's where we started from, and she also has some family (issues) that echo some (parts) of Thor's situation. So there is this bond between them. . . . Obviously, they have this common quest, because he's trying to get back home and her whole interest of study is these connections between dimensions."
In fact, the film suggests that the "magic" of Thor's home in Asgard is not much different than human science.
"Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science," Thor tells Jane in the film. "I come from a land where they are one and the same."
Jane will be almost unrecognizable to fans of the comic book, where the character was a nurse and a small player in the grand scheme of many Thor storylines. As Portman put it, Jane has been "updated" for the modern era.
"Jane in the comic books is a nurse, and now she's an astrophysics doctoral candidate,"she said. "Things have been updated. Women can be scientists in different ways now."
As for the actor who plays Thor, Portman offered a gushing review.
"Chris is a fantastic actor; he has a very quiet confidence,"she said. "He is not showy or show-offy in any way, but to be able to walk into a room with Ken Branagh and act his pants off and not be intimidated and is able to shoulder this kind of responsibility of taking on this huge character with incredible grace and his feet firmly planted on ground. . . . I have no doubt that he'll be a massive star. He's just very talented and a very, very good person."
Already the envy of the worlds fanboys and male sci-fi fans, Hemsworth has summed up his romantic scenes with Portman in a single word: "ridiculous."
"Going from kissing Natalie Portman to working with Anthony Hopkins - the whole experience was like, "What the f--- am I doing here?" he said recently in an interview with the Australian edition of GQ.
Portman also talked glowingly of working with director Branagh. "He's an absolute master,"she said. "The attention he gives to character on a movie of this size is absolutely remarkable, because it's very easy to get lost in needing to do special effects, cover all of this action. People (often) forget characters, so never for one second did he let that go. . . . I can't imagine how exhausting it must have been at the end of the day."
The hero Thor faces some major obstacles in the film, including reclaiming his magical hammer, the source of much of his power, and foiling the plots of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thor's introduction into the movie realm is all part of the buildup to Marvel's 2012 super-hero epic The Avengers, which will be directed by Joss Whedon. Both Thor and Captain America, whose solo film also opens this summer on July 22, are key members of The Avengers.
Portman now knows first-hand the difficulties of adapting a long-running comic book to the big screen.
"One of the interesting things about a comic book is that they were written over several decades with different writers and artists, so there are very different stories, very different tones, very different artwork, very different places the characters go," Portman said. "The challenge - more for the writers than even us, and for Ken as the director - is finding one tone . . . choosing which of the stories to tell out of all these sagas that have gone on for decades . . . whether to include certain characters or add others, which details to keep and which ones to leave out."
While Portman won Oscar glory for her turn as a mentally unstable ballerina in Black Swan, she did give credit to blockbusters like Thor.
"Everyone always champions the low-budget independent stuff, but it's nice when people get compensated for their work. . . . Like you see an entire crew getting paid for their jobs - there is something to be said for that, because when movies are made for no money, that means that everyone's basically volunteering."
And don't expect this to be Portman's last dalliance with the hulking Norse god. If lighting strikes at the box office, she's apparently signed on to do two Thor sequels.