16 Secrets About Black Swan That at Least Seem to Be Real

The haunting psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman as a ballerina who's losing her mind on the eve of her big break came out 10 years ago and was as painful to make as it looks.

By Natalie Finn Dec 03, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Natalie Portman, Black SwanFox Searchlight/Kobal/Shutterstock

Not all was as it seemed in Black Swan.

Sure, there was ballet, and a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake did anchor the drama—but other than that, the perspective of aspiring prima ballerina Nina Sayers was at the center of the action.

And her version of events turned out to be highly suspect.

"Everything happens in her mind, really—that's what made it interesting," Natalie Portman, who won the Best Actress Oscar (and every other major award) for her epic pirouette as unraveling dancer Nina, explained to TimeOut in 2010. "We all have those constructs in our mind anyway and to play with how having these prescribed roles affects one woman was exciting to dig in to."

Natalie Portman's Best Roles

Director Darren Aronofsky, known for his what's-real-and-what's-not twists as well as pushing his characters to the depths of degradation, acknowledged to Collider that the film looks like one thing—almost clinical in its depiction of the all-consuming rigors of a ballet dancer's life—at first before the Repulsion-esque horror-suspense vibe takes over as Nina starts to doubt her own reality.

"The result of that is that the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it's got this very naturalistic feel, which I think is actually kind of cool," the Oscar nominee said. "It makes people think they're watching a very different type of movie that can't ever freak out the way it freaks out, yet it gives you that immediacy of being in the moment and being in this other world, with little hints. In general, it just feels like a documentary, at the beginning, before it freaks out. It worked out for us."

Watch: Natalie Portman Reflects on "Black Swan" Win at 2020 Oscars

It really did.

Black Swan, which started off art-house small with a $13 million budget, was a massive hit, taking in $329 million at the box office worldwide, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

But though the haunting film glided into our consciousness with ease exactly 10 years ago, more than a few toes were mangled in the making of this turbulent production. Here are the secrets of how they got it done, from entrée to grand finale:

Design of a Decade

Around the turn of this century, Darren Aronofsky wanted to make a ballet movie, inspired by his own sister's dance studies. He also became fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers after reading Dostoevsky's The Double. Already thinking that Natalie Portman would make the perfect leading lady, they had coffee in New York in 2000, when she was fresh from her first turn as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I and a student at Harvard.

"She says that I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie," Aronofsky told Collider in 2010, to which Portman insisted, "No, what he described to me was so close."

The director continued, "So, we talked a bit about it and I started to develop it, but it was a really tough film because getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time, when you do a movie and you say, 'Hey, I want to make a movie about your world,' all the doors open up, and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn't at all interested in us hanging out, so it took a long time to get the information to put it together."

He got involved with a script at Universal about a murder that took place in the theater world, called The Understudy, written by Andres Heinz, which Aronofsky hoped could be flexible enough to see his ballet dreams take flight. When a few drafts didn't work out, he took the production independent, eventually getting distribution from Fox Searchlight.

And in the meantime, he had seen Swan Lake. "When I saw the story of the black swan and the white swan, I decided to throw everything away and connect all the characters and myths to Swan Lake," the filmmaker told the Los Angeles Times. "The credits should really say, 'Co-written by Tchaikovsky.'"

Luckily, Portman was still onboard. Aronofsky told Collider, "Over the years, Natalie would say, 'I'm getting too old to play a dancer. You better hurry up.' I was like, 'Natalie, you look great. It'll be fine.' And then, about a year out from filming, or maybe a little bit earlier, I finally got a screenplay together. That's how it started."

Barre Workout

Portman, who had studied ballet and modern dance at the American Theater Dance Workshop as a kid, got started with her dance preparation for Black Swan while still on the set of the raunchy R-rated comedy Your Highness in England—a year before production got underway in New York.

She and her instructor, former New York City Ballet dancer Mary Helen Bowers, "would do two hours a day for the first six months, and that was really just strengthening and getting me ready to do more, so that I wouldn't get injured," the actress told Collider. "And then, at about six months, we started doing five hours a day. We added in swimming, so I was swimming a mile a day, toning and then doing three hours of ballet class a day. And then, two months before, we added the choreography, so we were doing probably eight hours a day."

Portman continued, "The physical discipline of it really helped for the emotional side of the character because you get the sense of the monastic lifestyle of only working out, that is a ballet dancer's life. You don't drink, you don't go out with your friends, you don't have much food and you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain, so you get that understanding of the self-flagellation of a ballet dancer."

However, she told Vanity Fair, "it was very intense but really fun, too."

Bowers said in a making-of featurette for Searchlight Pictures, "The idea is, if you're going to play a ballerina, you're going to have to train like one."

And for Her Encore...

After admittedly subsisting on very little for the duration of the shoot to keep her weight hovering around 98, a 20-pound drop from her already petite frame, Portman's first meal after they wrapped was pasta, "for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she told Collider. "I ate it all the time."

Aronofsky noted that, it being a small (i.e. relatively low-budget) production, they had a few delays to contend with, meaning Portman's diet lasted longer than maybe she first planned.

"[This] was a really hard film to make," he explained. "There was really no money for the film and we had to push it back a lot of times. I actually don't mind pushing because it means I get an extra two or three weeks to get my s--t together, but I only found out recently that Natalie would just be screaming at her manager that she had to live on carrots and almonds for another three weeks. She was the one who suffered the most from not eating."

Foot Abuse

"Pointe shoes are torture devices," Portman told Collider. "Ballerinas get used to it, so it was definitely a case of it being a new experience for me, but they feel very medieval."

And yes, toenails were lost in the making of this movie. "But it wasn't the end of the world," the actress told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 2010. "Real dancers dance with such incredible injuries that you wouldn't even believe. It's a nightmare for them to be replaced once they've made it to the top and they get these roles. [So] they will dance with a sprained ankle or torn plantar fascia or twisted necks just to make sure they can keep their moment."

The Truth About Ballet

"The pressure to be thin while expending so much energy" was the toughest part for Portman when it came to studying the discipline of ballet.

"I was like, okay, I'm hungry, I need fuel, and I'm not someone who deprives myself," she told TimeOut. "People would tell me all the time—the ballet coaches and Darren—'You don't really look like a ballerina yet,' which was code for: 'You're not skinny enough.'"

And in response to the "but dancers do eat though, don't they?" question, Portman explained, "I think in public they want everyone to believe that. And I think a lot of them do, a lot of them are healthy. I'm not making a blanket statement at all. But there are a lot of eating disorders. I don't know if it's more prevalent in certain companies, but when I talked to the women, they said pretty much every dancer in the company has had some bout of eating disorder. There are certainly cases of people who are healthy through and through, but, look, I did ballet for a year and just by the ballet you don't get skinny. You get fit, but there's effort required to look emaciated."

Moreover, Portman continued, "It's a very obsessive-compulsive art. There's so much ritual in it: doing the barre every day, prepping the shoes. There are so many compulsive behaviors which lead to virtuosity. I think you would see it in violinists or computer programmers, or anyone who's really wonderful at something—this obsessive repetition until you get something right. But then there are the negative manifestations, like eating disorders, which are totally connected to that."

Unnatural Diva

After dominating the big screen in the 1980s and 1990s, Winona Ryder hadn't starred in a movie for awhile when she showed up in the small but poignant role of Beth ("a wonderful little juicy hamburger of a role," she said on the U.K.'s Daybreak), the onetime prima ballerina forced into retirement when she still feels she's got it in her to dance the lead in Swan Lake.

So yes, not entirely unlike Ryder herself making way for then-newcomers like Portman as her own career hit that Hollywood gray area (though without the bitter cocktail party confrontations).

"I did relate to Beth on a certain level," the two-time Oscar nominee told Elle in 2010. "Just that thing of, you know, when I'm told I'm not the ingénue anymore. And now I'm 39. I remember when I was younger, I couldn't wait to be older, because I was always the kid on the set, I was always younger than everyone else. And now I'm older than a lot of the people I work with. I've been doing this for 25 years, which is so strange."

Ryder, a deeply emotive, sensitive actor, got so into her part as the spiteful ex-star that she actually felt guilty after her 10 days on set were over—and sent Portman an apology!

"I wrote to Natalie and got her something when I had finished filming, saying 'I'm so sorry I had to say all those horrible things,'" she revealed to Total Film

She also recalled, "The scene where I trash my dressing room was my last scene. I remember my first boyfriend used to smash everything—at 18 everything is dramatic. So I took an Evian bottle and tried to break it really meekly. I couldn't do it and then he made fun of me. And even in that dressing room scene I was like, 'Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!'"

(Meanwhile, a quick glance at the encyclopedia of pop culture infamy reminds us that Ryder was 17 when she started dating Johnny Depp, which she has called her "first real relationship.")

Birds of a Feather

Portman, of course, wasn't the only already perfectly fit actress in the cast who lost 20 pounds to look more believably like a professional ballet dancer. Mila Kunis, who played Lily, Nina's rival-frenemy-lover-figment-of-her-imagination, ultimately weighed in at 95 pounds.

Talking to Coming Soon mid-production in December 2009, the That '70s Show star admitted, "I'm so hungry all the time. I just want to eat and not work out and not do anything. I plan on doing nothing. I end Black Swan in February and I plan to be a couch potato for about a month."

Aronofsky thought of her for the role after liking what he saw in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so no audition necessary, but they discussed the character multiple times via Skype before she headed to New York to start filming the movie she called "an anomaly in every aspect of life."

"I didn't starve myself," Kunis, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, assured Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show in 2016. "I did do it in the healthiest way possible. I don't recommend anybody ever doing it."

Not being a dancer and having no previous training, "I had to get en pointe [balance in toe shoes] within three months, and so to get en pointe you almost have to fake it," she explained. And part of faking it was being super-skinny. 

"I never watched what I ate [before making this film]. Like it was one of those things, for the first time in my life, I got a food delivery service," she explained. "And I'll tell you—I'm not promoting this at all—but I used to be a smoker, and so I smoked a lot of cigarettes and I ate a limited amount of calories. It was a 1,200-or-less calorie diet a day...It's awful, 1,200 calories...And then I smoked."

Kunis reiterated, "I don't advocate this at all."

Pen Pals

Though Barbara Hershey's Erica, Nina's helicopter mom, isn't exactly a wellspring of emotional support for her daughter, Aronofsky did want them to feel invested in their relationship. So, Portman told Collider, "he had Barbara write letters to me in character, as Erica to Nina, for the first portion of the film, that he would hand to me on important days of shooting that I should feel my mother. Barbara wrote really gorgeous letters that were in character and really gave a sense of our history, our love and our connection."

Fallen Swan

Sadly, one of Portman and Kunis' coaches, Georgina Parkinson—a British ballerina who starred in Swan Lake and was later a coach at American Ballet Theatre—died of cancer at the age of 71 two weeks before they started filming.

"She worked very specifically with me on everything from fingertips to where you put your eyes on different movements, that are ballet acting," Portman told Collider. "There are little gestures you can do that really differentiate between those two characters" of Odette and Odile, the White and Black Swans.

Friends With Benefits

While in theory Nina may have been getting intimate with herself, onscreen she's succumbing to Lily's headily relaxed charms.

"At that point Nat and I were pretty great friends," Kunis recalled to Stern. "It was just one of those situations where I think we were all a little just uncomfortable enough to get through it...And Darren made a very comfortable situation, he made a closed set, he made it as—"

Seemingly she was about to say "as comfortable as possible," but Stern interrupted to ask if she was surprised the movie ended up a huge hit. 

As for Portman, she told E! News of the scene, "It was awkward and we laughed. It was strange, but it's something you just sort of throw yourself into."


Portman was open about having body doubles in the film, for dance scenes (with Portman's face digitally imposed on another girl's body) as well as for Nina's bloody showdown with Lily/herself, but according to her dance double, the extent of how much dancing Portman actually did was greatly exaggerated.

"I'm not speaking because I feel I should be heralded," Sarah Lane, who was a soloist for American Ballet Theatre, said on ABC News20/20 in April 2011, after all the awards had been doled out and the buzz had died down. "I'm just speaking because they're completely lying about the amount of dancing that Natalie did in the movie."

Lane said that, after Glamour wrote a profile about her called "The Real Black Swan," a producer on the film called her up and asked if she could not do any more interviews until after the Oscars.

"They were trying to create this image, this facade, really, that Natalie had done something extraordinary," the dancer charged. "Something that is pretty much impossible... to become a professional ballerina in a year and half. Even with as hard as she worked, it takes so much more. It takes 22 years, it takes 30 years to become a ballerina." So, Lane added, "Full body shots with actual dancing is me. That's why they hired me."

Aronfosky wrote in a statement to 20/20, "Here is the reality. I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film—111 are Natalie Portman untouched. Twenty-eight are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math, that's 80 percent Natalie Portman."

To which Lane replied, "It's possible if you're counting the close-ups of her face as actual dancing shots. I don't call close-ups of her face actual dancing."

But ultimately, Lane acknowledged, she signed a contract that did not guarantee onscreen credit—and working with Portman was actually very nice. "I think she is a really beautiful actress," she said. "I loved working with her. And she was really focused on her character every day. I definitely think she deserves, all the credit that she got with the Oscar."

Portman, meanwhile, had told E! News before the 20/20 interview, "I had a chance to make something beautiful with this film, and I don't want to give in to the gossip."

Tutu Much Coverage

Portman was a big fan of designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, founders of Rodarte, and they were lauded for their work on the ballet costumes. (The actress also accepted her Oscar in Rodarte and wore it on her wedding day.)

But when award season came around, the Mulleavys weren't eligible for an Oscar because they weren't members of the Costume Guild of America—much to the consternation of the fashion world. In response to the outrage, however, costume designer Amy Westcott said that the sisters' role in the production had been exaggerated on their end.

"I was happy for Rodarte's persistent publicity efforts at first; I'm so proud of the film and anything that brings it to an even wider audience is genuinely welcome," Westcott told Clothes on Film in January 2011. "I tried to put aside my ego while being airbrushed from history in all of their interviews, as I'm just not that kind of person anyway. But when articles were planted that attacked me personally as if I had conspired against them, I felt nothing but despair and betrayal. I don't have a publicist working for me, needless to say, and I was asked to stay quiet—'not to engage,' to avoid any bad press towards the film. Unfortunately this seems to have proven detrimental to the perception of my work on Black Swan. I didn't make the rules that the Guild and the Academy set and I am proud of my professionalism and commitment to my work, so to have my name dragged into such ill-informed gossip is galling and hurtful to say the least."

Ultimately, the Academy did not extend a nomination for costume design to anyone from the film, but Wescott was nominated for a BAFTA and won for Excellence in Contemporary Film at the CGA Awards. (Meanwhile, she and the Mulleavys were nominated together for a Critics Choice Award, because the Broadcast Film Critics Association uses their own criteria.)

Otherwise, the collaboration went okay. "I thought [Rodarte's] Vulture inspired line was wonderful and a perfect fit for the Swan Lake production at the end of the film," Westcott said. "Darren and I shared all of our research/ideas, worked with Rodarte and together approved each aspect of the design for their designated costumes." But while Rodarte has been widely hailed as the designer of Nina's iconic black feather tutu, she insisted it was a collaboration between her, the Mulleavys and Aronofsky, "a fact that is completely concealed in the press."

"In all," she said, "there were seven costumes in the collaboration with Rodarte, not the '40' that keeps coming up in the press. The core ballet was designed by Zack Brown [for American Ballet Theater], and my department and I added some feather detailing to assimilate them."

Method to the Madness

Aronofsky of course wanted a very specific tonal palette for his film, part gritty dance drama that gets up close in the characters' faces and part psychological thriller—and Westcott, who had previously worked with the director on The Wrestler, was there to oblige.

The light and shadows are there for a reason, "although the audience will happily never know how hard it was to obtain tonally," she told Clothes on Film. "Everything had to be camera-tested because there was so much color fluctuation to be fine-tuned with fabrics. Film stock can really change the look of the color, so we had to get the tones down, and go from there. We used the palette to show the evolution of Nina's character, and the awaking of her sexuality."

Mirror Scrimmage

The tussle with the black swan in her head that resulted in a very real wound for Nina didn't leave Portman unscathed, either.

"A lot of it I was doing with a double," she told Vanity Fair. "It was great but also physically hard, with all this broken fake glass and fighting and jujitsu—it was kind of insane. That was the only time I got injured. I mean, I got ballet injuries, but that was the day I got a non-ballet injury, I hit my head and had to get an M.R.I. Nothing happened, of course."

Battle Scars

Her ballet injuries, however, sounded pretty rough.

"Natalie had a rib injury from being carried by Vincent [Cassel, the actor behind manipulative ballet director Thomas], who had very little training on how to lift," the film's choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, told E! News at a screening in November 2010. "We repeated a scene so many times, the next day he couldn't walk because his back was bad, and she couldn't breathe because her rib was bad from [being] squeezed. Her rib was just out of place."

Millepied added, "There's a moment in the film where she's with a therapist who inserts her fingers in her rib. It's actually real. She was actually really working on her."

Kunis suffered her own share of battle wounds, as well, telling E! News at the AFI Fest screening of the film in 2010, "I tore a ligament. I hyperextended my shoulder. I had to go get an M.R.I. I have a couple of scars, a couple of bruises."

"He Totally Wants to Sleep With Me"

In case you forgot, Portman was pregnant for the duration of the 2011 awards season, courtesy of Millepied, who also had a memorable turn in the film as a fellow dancer who makes it clear that Nina isn't his type.

"He's the best actor, it's not true!" Portman exuberantly informed the audience while accepting her Golden Globe. Running down her list of thank-yous at the Oscars, she called Millepied her "beautiful love, who has now given me my most important role of my life."

The couple's son, Aleph, was born that June. They got married in an intimate Jewish ceremony in Big Sur, Calif., on Aug. 4, 2012, and are now also parents to daughter Amalia, born in 2017. 

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