Hollywood Life, December 2003

High Wattage

by Martha Frankel

She tantalized with Mulholland Drive and tangled with the demonic in the hit thriller The Ring. Though Naomi Watts doesn't trust the hype, as far as Hollywood is concerned, she's red hot.

Naomi Watts, overnight sensation. Naomi Watts, hardest working actress in Hollywood. Naomi Watts, glammed up and drop-dead gorgeous. Naomi Watts, street urchin. Naomi Watts, out on the town with best friend Nicole Kidman. Naomi Watts, alone in a hotel room, cuddling with her dog.

It's hard to get a handle on Naomi Watts. Although the 35-year-old Australian had done almost 25 films--among them Flirting (with Kidman), Tank Girl and Babe: Pig in the City--before being cast as Betty in David Lynch's much ballyhooed Mulholland Drive, she remained mostly unknown to American audiences. But once Mulholland hit the screen it was "so long" to anonymity--her work was so breathtaking (people still talk about "the audition scene") that stardom seemed imminent. Like most Lynch films, it was seen mostly by Lynch cultists, but it started the Big Buzz. Then came the surprise hit The Ring, a dark, grimy frightener about a deadly videotape that also happened to be smart and fun.

Just like that, Watts was on everyone's list. She's made 10 films since Mulholland, too, and has a slew of others gearing up. And it's easy to understand why. Not "movie-star pretty" in the traditional sense, she has a luminous quality that is rare in these days and a willingness to take on dangerous roles--and make them seem like a day at the beach. On a beautiful New York day, I met with Watts at the super-trendy Soho House. She was on time, in a great mood--and willing to talk about anything.

MARTHA FRANKEL: The last time I interviewed you I said, "You're going to be a huge star," and you laughed and almost fell off your chair.

NAOMI WATTS: I'm still laughing. I remember that. And I remember thinking that you weren't just flattering me, you saw something in me. And that meant a lot. It's hard to believe that one thing, Mulholland Drive, turned into so much more.

Q: Reading your resume for the past few years is exhausting.

A: Everything that's happened since then has happened quite quickly, it's true. And it all makes perfect sense to me because who I was in my early 20s is very different from who I am now--and I don't think I then would have made the right judgments about what's right and what's wrong. I know what I like now. I'm drawn to films that are risky, that tackle bigger problems through the character.

Q: You mean like how in The Ring, she's a good reporter but a lousy mother?

A: [Laughs] Not really lousy, just a bit self-absorbed, no?

Q: I'm not really a scary movie fan, so I had to watch The Ring during the day--with all the lights on and the fast-forward button in my hand. But it was so clever that I really enjoyed it.

A: I was nervous about taking that role because I had one film out that people knew, which was Mulholland Drive, and I had about a day's notice before I had to be on the set. I thought, hmmmm, I'm going straight into this very commercial movie--am I going to lose those people that liked my work in Mulholland Drive? Will they see me as a sellout? And some of them probably did, but I think it was done really well and it's a great character piece. I thought the script was smart, and Gore's [Verbinski, the director] ideas sounded really good. Although he hadn't really done this kind of film before, I could tell from his music background and the stories about his younger years that he was a dark, interesting, moody guy. That put me at ease.

Q: What drew you to Le Divorce?

A: I go asked to do that while I was still making The Ring, and the Merchant-Ivory team has created a lot of great roles for women. The Ring was obviously very plot-driven, and this was very character-driven. Great cast, great team behind it. That, and the fact that it was being shot in Paris!

Q: Then you did Ned Kelly with your ex, Heath Ledger...

A: I did Ned Kelly because I got to go home to Australia. I wish I could work there more often. It wasn't a big role, but it was a terrific cast-Heath, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths. And it's an important piece of Australian history. I knew at the time it would do nothing to benefit my career, quote- unquote. But it was just a really lovely experience being back home and being part of that story.

Q: You and Heath have since split?

A: We were never on the same continent at the same time. We're still friends.

Q: When we talked previously, you told me your parents were hippies-

A: You know, I got in a lot of trouble with my mom for that. So let me straighten it out, okay? My dad worked for Pink Floyd, as a roadie, and they were hippies more in a trendy way, rather than the "25 people naked on a commune" kind of way. There was not a lot of money-my mother baked her own bread and made our clothes. There were always lots of people around, and it was always adventurous.

Q: Sounds like hippies to me.

A: [Laughs] But in a way it wasn't. My mother was very devoted, very much a part of our lives.

Q: Okay, I get it. Traditional hippies.

A: [Laughs] Remember I asked you if you wanted Nicole Kidman to give you a quote when we talked the last time? And she told me that she tried to call you for a week.

Q: That was the funniest thing. I was staying with some friends, and they have two young kids and don't answer the phones that often. And every time they called in for their messages, they'd say, "Oooops, Nicole Kidman called here five times!" This went on for a week, but finally I caught up with her. She was so charming about the whole thing, kept apologizing for annoying me! You've watched what happened to her, how her private life became public. Does that scare you?

A: Yeah. I don't think you really choose that. But it does come with the territory. I really admire Nic, because although there are times where she can't be bothered with it, and she won't go out, for the most part she's not going to be held hostage in her home. She wants to live her life, and if it means people coming over and interrupting your private conversations, well, you just have to live with it.

Q: Do you get recognized out in the street?

A: No, I don't think there's anything that makes me pop out from a crowd unless I'm all dressed up at a premiere or something. Which is good for me. Some people, whether they're famous or not, like to hold court. They're very charismatic. They love the attention, love to tell stories, and I find that really interesting in someone because I am so not like that. I'm one of the watchers, the observer.

Q: You've been a busy little girl, with an average of three films a year and a whopping five in 2004.

A: Is that true? [She grabs my list and reads it.] No wonder I'm so exhausted! [Laughs]

Q: I almost don't want to say too much about 21 Grams because it's one of those films that if you walk in knowing too much, it's not going to have the same impact.

A: Exactly.

Q: But your character is going through a tremendous time of loss. And you bring a humanity to her that's almost palpable. What drew you to this story, which is pretty bleak? A: But uplifting, no?

Q: Yes, it is.

A: There's something that has pulled me to almost all the characters I've done, and it's this: They're imperfect human beings, flawed, real. And they're looking for something that will make them feel better, do better. Nobody is perfect, and how does this person grow within the structure of the story? In 21 Grams, my character's got a huge soul, and she's suffering like every single one of us suffers every day. I feel that seeing that done right makes you feel okay and not so alone in the world.

Q: Your accent is always flawless. Between The Ring and 21 Grams, it's hard to believe you're not an American. And there were scenes in 21 Grams where your character is so overwrought, screaming and crying, snot bubbles coming out of her nose, and I was sure your accent would crack. But it never did.

A: I work with a great dialect coach. And for me, I can think in the dialect of the character. Does that make sense? I will say this-there's so much work that goes into it all. Not only developing the accent but the mannerisms that are American versus Australian.

Q: 21 Grams is structured a bit like Memento, where you don't know for a long time what's happening in the past or the present or the future.

A: We read the script the way you see it shot, but then they did something very smart-they gave us each a copy of our own story, told in chronological order, so I understood at which point I intersect with Sean Penn's character and with Benicio Del Toro's. That was a wonderful thing. This was some incredible material.

Q: Watching you in 21 Grams made me realize that you'd be very good at comedy. I know that sounds crazy, but your timing is absolutely dead-on.

A: Thank you. I did just do a comedy, although it's a very black comedy, called I Heart Huckabee's, with David O. Russell.

Q: Is that the way they say that?

A: Yeah. They want us to say "heart" rather than "love." He's brilliant! This movie is so out there-I don't think anything like this has been done before. He's a nutcase, but a generous one. He disarms you to the point where you're so uncomfortable, but what happens when you're uncomfortable is you're so raw and so open, and then he gives you his ideas and you're just completely open to doing new things. I definitely feel I did stuff that I've never done before. And it was this extraordinary cast-Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman. It's a very wacky film, but please don't ask me to explain the plot, because I really couldn't. All I can say is that I play this character who goes through enormous self-discovery, and it's not all good.

Q: You just produced your first film, We Don't Live Here Anymore...

A: John Curran, the director, called me up and said, "I really want you to do this," and I was like, "John, I'm tired. I just finished 21 Grams." But he begged me to read it. And it's from Andre Dubus's stories. He wrote In the Bedroom as well. It was such an amazing piece of writing that, despite my need for vacation, I said yes to it. And, as usual with me, it's very, very dark and very difficult. It's basically about two couples, and they're all behaving very badly. They're all in pain and not communicating, but to me, they're just people trying to find ways to get better. To me, sometimes bad things lead to good things and bring you to a place that starts the healing. I resisted it at first, but John talked me into it, so I told him, "Okay, if I do this, I want to be a producer, because I want to be really involved in the creative process."

Q: You have another film coming up with Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon...

A: It's a tiny, tiny role. I basically did it because Sean asked me to. It turned out to be a great piece of material, with a great actor and a lovely writer and director. It was a week out of my life. I play the wife of the man who tried to assassinate the president. In no way was this movie going to change anything for me, but I just wanted to be associated with that group and that story. God, I'm exhausted just talking about all these movies!

Q: You look good, considering.

A: I have a girlfriend who always says, "You look good for someone who's had three children in three years."

Q: Now you're in New York making Stay with Ewan McGregor and Ryan Gosling. Those are two of the hottest boys in the world.

A: I know! How lucky am I? And it's directed by Mark Forster, who did Monster's Ball. He's amazing. It's a psychological thriller. There are so many twists in it, so many things you don't see coming. I play Ewan's girlfriend, and he's a psychiatrist and I'm someone who used to be his patient. I play a girl who attempted suicide in my life. And I'll tell you, they put these scars on my wrists and a couple of times I've left the set with them on because I was in a hurry, and you should see the looks people give me. The whole idea is very disturbing to me, very frightening.

Q: Haven't you been tapped to play the girl in Peter Jackson's new King Kong?

A: I don't think it's final yet, but yes. I happen to love Peter. He's a genius-and the story of King Kong is this beautiful love story between the beauty and the beast. It's heartbreaking. Q: What about clothes? Are you a clothes hound? A: Yes, I do clothes. I've loved clothes since I was a little kid. My mom works with costumes quite a bit. Today I'm not dressed up, just cord jeans and an old cashmere sweater. I love this old Paul Smith coat. I love New York because you get to dress and in L.A. you don't bother. I love that you can put on layers and boots and scarves. One of the perks of where I'm at now is that you do get some lovely things. [Laughs] Don't I sound like an ass?

Q: Not likely.

Copyright 2003 Movieline's Hollywood Life

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