12-year-old Natalie Portman captured the world’s attention with a standout performance alongside seasoned actors Jean Reno and Gary Oldman in 1994’s “Léon: The Professional.” How did this unknown child star book such a big film debut? After being scouted by a Revlon rep at a pizza restaurant, Portman hired an acting agent. Her very first job was as an understudy for the 1992 off-Broadway production “Ruthless!,” taking over from an equally unknown Britney Spears.
When it came time to audition for “Léon: The Professional,” Portman (who was just 11 years old when she tried out) left a lasting impression despite her limited experience. She secured the part of Mathilda, a troubled child wise beyond her years seeking revenge on the corrupt DEA agents that brutally murdered her family. She forms an unlikely bond with the emotionally detached hitman Léon (Reno) as the two navigate a world of violence and corruption. Portman’s performance was met with critical acclaim, kicking off the young actor’s career with a bang.
However, playing such a mature role at a young age came with its drawbacks. Portman’s parents had several conditions for the filmmakers, including the removal of a shower scene, but they still came in for criticism for letting her do the movie. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the film back in 1996, Portman said that there’s “nothing disgusting in the way it’s handled,” though she’s changed her tune since then. “It gave me my career, but it is definitely, when you watch it now, it definitely has some cringey, to say the least, aspects to it,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2023.