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How Natalie Portman’s SNL Rap Changed Everything

Portman’s Digital Short marked a pivotal turning point for both SNL and the young actress’s career.
  • Natalie Portman on Saturday Night Live. (NBC)
    Natalie Portman on Saturday Night Live. (NBC)

    It was fifteen years ago this week that Natalie Portman busted out an over-the-top, profanely aggressive rap in an SNL digital short that went viral in the earliest days of YouTube, making us all wonder just how much weed she'd actually smoked at Harvard. A decade and a half later, it's been about 30 films, one husband, two kids, and an Academy Award for Portman, and countless viral digital shorts for SNL. But back in 2006, Portman's rap was just a short post-Weekend Update oddity that sent up actresses' attempts to shed their once-innocent images, which happened to allow Portman to shed some of her own career baggage in the process.

    The March 4, 2006, episode of Saturday Night Live featured Portman as the host with musical guest Fall Out Boy, if you want to triangulate its location on the pop culture timeline. Portman was promoting her performance in the Wachowskis-produced V for Vendetta the movie, for which she'd shaved her head almost immediately after making her final Star Wars film. The prequel trilogy had cbeen something of a mixed blessing for Portman's career. It allowed her to transition out of the child-star era that she'd occupied for the latter half of the '90s and gave her some box-office bona fides (as well as, one imagines, a rather healthy bank balance), but the poor reception for the prequels didn't do a ton for her reputation as an actress. By the time the third Star Wars film came out, Portman was already selecting projects to set herself apart. She had a breakout year in 2004, with an acclaimed performance in the indie hit Garden State, and in the sexually frank Mike Nichols-directed Closer, which earned her both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. V for Vendetta, a dark action-thriller based on the graphic novel of the same name, was another project that would help push Padme Amidala further into her rearview.

    This was Portman's first go as an SNL host, and right from the beginning — with a monologue in which she got to school some pretend Star Wars fans on the finer points of Jango Fett and the planet Kashyyyk — the efforts to both acknowledge Star Wars while moving past it were evident. From there, Portman was put through the paces of some of the usual mid-Aughts SNL fare: a fairly funny Jamba Juice sketch, a pretty irritating Nuni sketch, a timely impersonation of Winter Olympics figure skater Sasha Cohen. And then, a couple sketches after Weekend Update, came the digital short.

    SNL's Digital Shorts, which would come to define Saturday Night Live for a period of time, were still in their infancy at that moment. "Lazy Sunday," the breakthrough short wherein Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell hardcore-rapped about their affinity for The Chronicles of Narnia and New York's Magnolia bakery, had premiered less than three months earlier. The first "Laser Cats!" short was still weeks away. And YouTube, the delivery system through which the digital shorts would thrive, and through which consumption of Saturday Night Live would forever shift from a stay-up-late Saturday night appointment to a Sunday-morning piecemeal catch-up, was also still in its infancy. This was as close to experimental as SNL was getting in those days.

    You've likely already seen it, but it's worth revisiting the short 15 years later, if only to see how tonally strange it is compared to everything else SNL was doing at the time. It's dark, it's arch, it's a hugely over-the-top send-up of young actresses trying to use bad behavior to bust out of whatever media box they've been placed. And yet, at the same time, watching Portman throw her whole core into this aggro dark-universe version of herself is undeniably doing the work of busting her out of her own media box. Five years later, Portman would accept an Academy Award for playing a ballet dancer who tips into darkness to play the Black Swan, and while I have no actual basis to say it, I kind of want to give her digital short performance a little bit of credit for sending her down that road.

    Andy Samberg, who shows up midway through the video as a Natalie devotee in an inexplicable viking getup, co-wrote the rap along with his Lonely Island cohorts Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, and it's got all the fingerprints of what we'd soon come to see as the Lonely Island style. The low-fi aesthetics of the early digital shorts are all over this thing, which was seemingly shot in various corridors and loading docks around Rockefeller Center. But in the end, it's Portman's cranked-up-to-eleven performance that sells this, earning every single shocked spurt of laughter from the audience. Fifteen years later, it's still packs the kind of punch that would smack the sh*t outta Jeff Zucker.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg, Natalie Portman, The Lonely Island