You might know her as Star Wars’ Queen Amidala, but here on planet Earth, Natalie Portman plays a real-live ambassador of hope for FINCA International, a nonprofit group that helps women in impoverished countries start their own businesses. EW.com got Natalie on the phone to talk about her work with the group, a documentary she recently shot in Mexico about some of FINCA’s clients, and what it’s like balancing her passion for this cause with her career as an actress.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve worked with FINCA for four years now. How do you balance a cause that you care so deeply about with your career?
NATALIE PORTMAN: I actually have a very lucky profession in that it’s very intense, but for short periods, so when I’m doing a film it’s a few months or so, and then I have a lot of time off, and that actually allows more time than I think most usual jobs to do this kind of thing. It’s not like you have a 9-to-5 where you’re expected to be there everyday, you know? [Laughs] We get off for a few weeks.
What first attracted you to FINCA’s cause?
Well, I really wanted to work on Mid-East peace, because I’m from Israel originally. And I really wanted to work on something with Queen Rania of Jordan, because she’s probably the woman I admire most from my region. And so I got in contact with her and her staff, and they recommended for me to get involved with FINCA.
How would you describe FINCA’s mission?
Well, it’s a ”microfinance group” and it works in 20 different countries, and is still expanding. It’s based on a concept called ”village banking” — FINCA goes into a small village and finds clients, primarily women, who want to be involved. So that means the women insure each other’s loans. And they get small loans that usually start around $50, but can go up to $5,000 after women have been with FINCA for a while and have proven their responsibility. And the women insure each other while they start these businesses — and they make all their own rules and everything.
What the long-term effect of giving them loans?
It gives them a way to make their own destinies. What you find in these places is that women become sort of slaves to whatever jobs are available — if there’s a factory in town, there’s that one factory and that’s where they have to work. FINCA allows them to open their own businesses, which means that they can stay home with their children if they need to, and they are able to make better wages, so they’re feeding their children better, educating their children better, getting better health care, have better living conditions. All of poverty’s side effects are helped by this one program.
You just finished filming a documentary in Mexico, where you visited some of FINCA’s clients, and I know you’ve made similar trips to Guatemala, Ecuador, and Uganda. What are some of your most memorable experiences from these trips?
It’s the most amazing thing — I’ve gotten so much out of it. These women are incredible. I was in Uganda and I met this woman who had ten children and she had been in FINCA for 11 years. And she had ten children — when she started out her husband was beating her because she couldn’t have a boy. She had only girls. So he had kicked her out and she was living on 80 cents a day. With ten kids. And she was begging her neighbors to give her old laundry water just to clean their clothes. FINCA gave her a $50 loan 11 years ago, and she now has, I think it’s a $2,000 loan, and she owns a huge restaurant. She sends one of her daughters to university and she employs seven other women in her village. You just see how in one generation someone can turn it around.
What is most needed in this area — what can other people do?
Well, go onto the FINCA website, and it’s very easy to contribute to Village Bank. Fifty dollars is a loan for one woman, $5,000 opens an entire bank — so $5,000 will serve 20 women or something. Just read up on it. It’s really interesting. I don’t want to be like any sort of like know-it-all [Laughs] but I just find it to be such an amazing thing to learn about, how women live in much of the world.
What would your wish be for humanity’s future? What change would you most like to see happen in the world?
I guess just that people pay attention, look to their neighbors. I think we’ve lost so much community. I think that’s one of the things I’ve appreciated most seeing in these villages is just the sense of community, where like an entire family, an entire community — they take care of each other. And we’ve really lost that. And when you lose that on a personal level, you lose that on a global level as well.
But I see a lot of people really wanting to do positive things in the world. And I feel that it’s like a new generation. You can watch the news and it feels like it’s the end of the world, very like apocalyptic. So I just try and find people around me who are doing positive things.
For more information or to make a donation, visit FINCA’s website at www.villagebanking.org.