NEW YORK — Natalie Portman has long been a vocal advocate of women’s empowerment and political liberalism, but these days she’s piling another cause onto her heap of activism: animal cruelty and factory farming.
“It obviously can’t go on this way,” the 37-year-old Oscar-winning actress told a New York audience during the weekend premiere of the documentary “Eating Animals,” which Portman produced and narrated.
Sharing a title with the book it’s based on, a takeout on America’s meat industry by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film explores factory farming in the United States and how it affects local, independent farmers who are up against big corporations and the complete industrialization of the farming industry.
Portman, a friend of Safran Foer, had read the book in manuscript form before it was released in 2009. “I was completely changed by it,” the Jerusalem-born actress, who had been a vegetarian since she was 9 and became a vegan after reading the book, said during a Q&A session with director Christopher Quinn, who also wrote the narration.
Facing powerful industry lobbies that control much of the regulation process by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Portman and her co-filmmakers are defying a strong mainstream path. But the star of “Black Swan” and “Jackie” has never shied away from taking a stance.
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While promoting the film, Portman used the stage of the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to call her former Harvard classmate and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “supervillain.”
And in April, Portman refused to attend the Genesis Prize Ceremony in Israel so as not to endorse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; it was also a stand against violence, corruption and the abuse of power.
But when it comes to eating animals, Portman promotes a less finger-wagging approach and a more awareness-raising agenda. “From the beginning, we talked about how to make this something people want to see and not just showing cruelty,” she said.
More relatable data was carefully chosen to appear in the narrated track of the documentary, at one point explaining how genetically enhanced chickens would be the equivalent of a 2-month-old human baby weighing 600 pounds (272 kilograms).
“The meat industry has done a good job of disconnecting eating meat from killing animals. When you eat meat, an animal has been murdered,” Portman explains in the film.
Obviously, Portman admits, it’s not sustainable to raise animals in a traditional, humane way and still supply the huge demand for meat. So she’s advocating a reduction of consumption and doesn’t necessarily call on everyone to go vegan.
“It’s unlikely that people will completely change the way they live or take on a food identity,” she said. “I think if everyone will try to once a day eat a vegan meal or once a week go vegan, that makes a huge difference.”
But the issue also has much to do with availability. Portman tells the story of screening the movie in Denver schools, where the students say they’re aware of the problem and want to eat different, but in their immediate vicinity the options are almost exclusively fast-food and meat heavy.
“They were saying ‘we are in food deserts in these cities,’ so there is also this elitism of saying ‘go to your farmers’ market and buy the nice eggs from the farmer.’ Most people are like ‘yeah, that doesn’t exist where I live,’” she said.
As one of the leaders of the Time’s Up group, which battles sexual harassment in the workplace, Portman is a staunch supporter of mass movements. She believes that the animal-cruelty solution, too, will sprout from a consumer-driven consciousness combined with an industry willing to listen and serve.
“The education and culture change that is happening needs to be met with supply and availability and accessibility of these foods,” she said.