How Was Natalie Portman Discovered and Cast in “Léon: The Professional” at Such a Young Age?


Natalie Portman kicked off her illustrious film career with her role in Léon: The Professional (1994), cast at 11 years old from a group of more than 2,000 hopeful girls. Getting there was one of those lucky situations that worked out, and introduced the world to a great talent.

Portman was discovered in a pizza shop by a Revlon modeling agent when she was 10. A very serious and determined child who found modeling to be a bore, she instead decided she wanted to act. Soon, she was appearing in local productions with the Usdan Theatre Arts Camp in Long Island. Not a year later, she got her role as Mathilda in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional. The role was intense, demanding, controversial, and has since proven to be one of the top child acting performances in cinema.

Due to her age, she was originally turned down for the role of Mathilda by casting director Todd Thaler, who said she was too young. According to HDNet Movies, “In a second audition, in front of director, Besson, she performed the scene where Mathilda laments the loss of her brother. Besson, impressed with the depth of emotion presented, hand-picked her for the role. Portman’s portrayal of the preternaturally adult child, Mathilda, is both haunting and mesmerizing, pivoting between a nonchalant attitude and a well of deep-seated emotions. The Professional is the story of a stone-cold, 12-year-old girl who finds her family murdered by drug dealers and seeks refuge with a neighbor and assassin. With this tale, Besson and Portman draw a unique, and sometimes troubling, portrait of a young girl seeking hitman training to avenge the death of her younger brother.”

Here’s her audition:

Of course, Portman was more than capable of capturing the maturity and complexity of the role. Her performance was so fantastic that the following year, audiences saw her play Al Pacino’s stepdaughter in Michael Mann’s classic Heat (1995). Within a couple years she became Luke Skywalker’s young mother, Padme Amidala, in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). Now, she’s a two-time Academy Award winner (two-time nominee), and Golden Globe winner, with many more great roles to come.

Those who would love to see a grown-up version of Mathilda in a sequel to Leon are probably out of luck, unfortunately. Back in 2007, Portman told MTV “I would work with Luc Besson again, in a second, but [not on a sequel]. When something works, you don’t touch it.”