Naomi Watts delivers a heroic performance as a tsunami victim in The Impossible. The Oscar-nominated actress tells Marlow Stern about her new role, her own personal tragedy, playing Princess Diana—and her ‘lost decade’ in Hollywood.
When Naomi Watts is suffering, her sweet visage transmogrifies into a ghastly goulash of misery—like Picasso’s Weeping Woman or the stunned victims in her first Hollywood film, The Ring. And, whether it’s a schizo aspiring actress in Mulholland Drive or a woman who loses her entire family to a car crash in 21 Grams, no other actor can capture torment onscreen like Watts.
“I’m actually a lighter person, but things have happened in my life that have informed who I am, and there are times that it’s available to be called upon,” says Watts. “My father died when I was very young, which created some level of pain and sadness that’s been in me since an early age.”
In her latest film, The Impossible, Watts plays Maria, a woman on Christmas vacation with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and three young sons in Thailand. Their idyllic getaway comes to a screeching halt when, on the morning of December 26, 2004, a tsunami tears through the coastal region, separating the family. When the waters subside, they search for one another amid the devastation. The movie is directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and based on the true story of Maria Belon, a Spanish doctor who, along with her family, miraculously survived the Indian Ocean tsunami.
To prep for the role of Maria, Watts befriended her, spending many hours discussing everything from motherhood to mortality. She also studied the documentary, Tsunami: Caught on Camera, which contains footage shot by people of the tsunami interspersed with interviews with survivors, and spoke to several extras, crew members, and even hotel employees while they shot some of the more harrowing scenes on location in Thailand. “Everyone had a story,” she says.
The 10-minute tsunami sequence is, without question, one of the most realistic, jaw-dropping disaster scenes ever captured on film. Due to budgetary constraints, Bayona chose to shoot the scenes with the actors and miniatures instead of using standard CGI. So the actors had to act inside of a gigantic wave pool for several weeks, an ordeal that terrified Watts, who has a crippling fear of water (she was caught in a rip tide in her native Australia when she was young).
“It’s probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done,” says Watts. “It’s one of the second-biggest water tanks in the world and they had us secured into these giant, what looked like oversized flower pots, and we would go down a track. We held onto the sides of the track but at the same time tried to show our hands as often as possible, and there would be a current coming from behind us, as well as water pumps from the side, and all matter of debris.”
Watts’s road to Hollywood, meanwhile, was no picnic.
Born in England, her mother was a Welsh costume designer and her father was a road manager for the band Pink Floyd.
“They were hippies but weren’t exactly wearing a bunch of orange clothing,” says Watts, with a laugh. “It was a lot of fun and there were always great, eccentric characters around my mom. But my father died when I was seven and my parents got divorced around four, so he wasn’t around too much.”
‘In that moment, I understood it was play-pretend, and I wanted to be in that arena.’
Nevertheless, Watts says she still has a huge soft spot for Pink Floyd and, as a teen, she made their song “Money” her ring tone.
Watts caught the acting bug when she was just 4 years old, after seeing her mother onstage portraying Eliza Doolittle in a theatrical production of My Fair Lady.
“She was wearing all these beautiful costumes and talking in a funny voice, and I was sitting in the front row with my grandmother and kept waving to her and calling out her name, but she wouldn’t wave back because she was in character,” Watts says. “Finally, she gave me a little wink, and I got it. In that moment, I understood it was play-pretend, and I wanted to be in that arena.”
As a teenager, Watts acted in several television ads—“tampax commercials, laundry powder, you name it,” she says. When she was 18, she was recruited to model in Japan—where her 5’5” height there wasn’t a problem. She spent a total of 12 weeks overseas and absolutely hated it. “I’d go on castings about 10 times a day,” she says.
After a few successful films in Australia, Watts moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s—like her high school pal Nicole Kidman—to transition into Hollywood films. For the next decade, Watts shuttled from audition to audition, landing only bit parts in a string of forgettable films, like Tank Girl.
“It was pretty brutal,” she says. “You’d have to drive to an office just to pick up two bits of script paper, then you’d arrive and line up for hours, get to the casting director, and they wouldn’t even give you eye contact. It was so demeaning. Ten years of torment that’s probably made me able to play these parts where I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time!”
She adds, “I came to New York and auditioned at least five times for Meet the Parents [as Ben Stiller’s bride-to-be]. I think the director liked me but the studio didn’t. I heard every piece of feedback you could imagine, and in this case, it was 'not sexy enough.'”
Watts caught her big break when celebrated filmmaker David Lynch was casting the lead role for a TV pilot called Mulholland Drive. The director came across her headshot and invited her to meet and discuss the role(s). After two meetings—and no audition—he was sold. When television executives rejected the pilot, Lynch shot an ending and released it as a feature film. It is now considered a masterpiece.
“It was a headshot that my brother took, so I must have had an extra sparkle in my eye because it was taken by somebody who I love,” Watts says.
After the success of Mulholland Drive, and the left-field blockbuster, The Ring, Watts became a household name. She’s since received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and is possibly in line for her second for her fearless portrayal of Maria in The Impossible. She also just wrapped filming on arguably her most hotly anticipated film role to date—as Diana, Princess of Wales, in the film Diana. Directed by Oliver Hirschbeigel, the biopic chronicles the final two years of Diana’s life, including her relationships with Dodi Fayed and Dr. Hasnat Khan.
“There’s so much to read about Diana and then you find out every story conflicts with the other,” she says. “I really focused on the Martin Bashir interview, as far as emulating how she spoke, and beyond that, I just read her biographies and trusted the script. There’s a huge amount of pressure and I tried to say no a few times since this movie is going to be so open to public opinion and that’s a scary thing for an actor to subject herself to.” [She was not permitted to speak to the royal family.]
Following her copious research, Watts says she walked away with a great deal of respect for the late icon.
“I learned that she had a great sense of humor and a rebellious streak, which is always fun to play,” says Watts. “And she’s no dummy; she was smart and good at controlling things. But there was a lot of loneliness, sadness, and paranoia towards the end of her life. She was isolated because of the constant media pressure. Diana could not spend a day without calculating how she was going to get through it and never lived with any spontaneity. I can relate to that on a very tiny level but I’d never wish that kind of life upon anyone.”
Watts, meanwhile, seems quite happy living in New York with her partner, actor Liev Schreiber, and their two young boys. And the 44-year-old actress says she has “no regrets” about her lost decade in Hollywood.
“I was in Children of the Corn IV or V, and got paid $5,000 to do that whole film, but so what?” she says. “In retrospect, I would have loved to have had more time in my 20s playing different roles, but maybe I would’ve gone off course or got seduced into doing things I wasn’t good at. It was the right way.”