It’s an overcast Saturday afternoon, and inside a swanky, Manhattan hotel room, Natalie Portman delicately sips on a cup of tea.

“I’ve been doing interviews since I was 12,” muses the 28-year old, almost incredulously. For her latest film, Brothers, in theatres Friday, she plays a mother — and a heartbreakingly courageous one, too — for the very first time.

It’s tempting to assume the sole purpose of director Jim Sheridan’s film, the tale of Sam Cahill, (Tobey Maguire) a Marine gone missing in Afghanistan, is to exhibit America’s never-ending war. On the contrary, Brothers, which also features Jake Gyllenhaal as Cahill’s wayward and fresh-out-of-jail brother, is an unflinching look at conflict’s more intimate face — namely, the families it ravages and ruptures along the way.

“I don’t think this is a very political movie,” claims Portman. A welcome respite from the self-proclaimed “cute girl parts” that are often thrust her way, she plays military wife Grace Cahill with a tenaciousness that she attributes to her extensive research: She spent time with her real-life counterparts prior to shooting.

“I was surprised at how calm and strong these women were,” Portman says. “I guess it’s a historical feminine trait … to be able to rise to the occasion.”

Portman is certainly on the rise, though she’s getting tired of the constant shuttling that life as an A-list actress requires. “I’m a total gypsy,” she confesses, “but at a certain point, you can’t really have a life.” She has just wrapped shooting in North Ireland for Your Highness, where she’ll star as a committed princess defending her kingdom alongside James Franco and Zooey Deschanel.

“I kick some serious ass in that movie,” she says, grinning impishly.

Character building
Portman’s not the only one who did her homework for her role in Brothers. While Tobey Maguire engaged in rigorous training exercises with the Army National Guard (and dropped a staggering 20 pounds to effectively portray an emaciated prisoner of war), Jake Gyllenhaal visited juvenile halls, becoming acquainted with an inspiring young man who eventually scored a spot in the film. “I brought him to Jim (Sheridan) who said, ‘This boy’s an actor,’” Gyllenhaal recalls. “He’s in a helicopter scene with Tobey.”

• Brothers opens in theatres on Friday

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