Jeff Jensen
April 21, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers! Natalie Portman — Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the third biggest film of all time — was in the building, and nobody noticed.

It’s a hazy Southern California morning, and at the Wal-Mart in Panorama City, Amidala’s painted face adorns displays for the Menace home video, which is hotter than the scorched sands of Tatooine. On a book rack just down the aisle, there are Portman and costar Ashley Judd on the cover of 1995’s Where the Heart Is, the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed novel by Billie Letts, the source material for their new movie opening April 28.

And here’s Portman in the flesh, scoping out the too-cute girls’ apparel and searching for body lotion and Jolly Rancher Jolly Jellies while reminiscing about the Texas Wal-Mart that plays a crucial role in Heart — all without inducing a single double take. In real life, Portman, petite as a Jawa, is but a miniature version of her ingenue screen persona. Pigtail-sporting and backpack-toting, decked in two layers of baby tees, today the 18-year-old Ivy League freshman looks frighteningly like a member of the Britney Spears fan club. But for Portman, such anonymity may be preferable to the alternative.

”Surprisingly, Star Wars hasn’t changed my life at all,” she says over bottled water in the Wal-Mart cafeteria. Then she reconsiders; this is an actress, after all, who uses a stage name to protect her family. Becoming a global curiosity has rocked her world. ”I’ve started really not liking being recognized that much, just ’cause it’s a really uncomfortable feeling, being stared at. It makes me really, really uncomfortable.”

In that case, Natalie, you’re going about it all wrong. In the wake of the pop culture spectacle that was last summer’s Episode I, and on the brink of spending this coming summer in Australia, Tunisia, and Italy shooting Episode II, Portman is making the leap from supporting actress to leading lady in Heart, the first film she’s had to carry on her own (with some help from acting heavyweights Stockard Channing and Sally Field). Following up her Golden Globe-nominated performance opposite Susan Sarandon in last year’s Anywhere but Here, Portman plays a pregnant Southern teen named Novalee Nation (if you think that’s kooky, her daughter’s name is Americus), who’s forced to grow up even quicker after her good-for-nothin’ boyfriend (Dylan Bruno) abandons her at an Oklahoma Wal-Mart. Judd — who plays Lexie, an unlucky-at-love single mom who becomes Novalee’s surrogate big sister — put Portman’s budding superstardom in perspective one steamy day on Heart‘s Texas set. ”Is it hot in here,” Judd cracked, ”or is that just her career?”

Portman’s face explodes bashful red when told this story, then drains, flabbergasted, when advised of another costar’s rhapsodizing. ”When you see Natalie,” says Channing, who plays Sister Husband, one of many quirky townfolk who comprise Novalee’s new surrogate family, ”you think of Audrey Hepburn — that kind of simplicity, and variety, and intelligence that’s genuinely there. Natalie doesn’t have to do a whole lot to register something with an audience.”

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