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The Fretts on Film Interview: Naomi Watts

December 17, 2012

Naomi Watts has been so good in so many movies—from David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. to David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises—that it’s hard to believe she’s only been nominated for an Oscar once, for 21 Grams. That should change soon, given her amazing performance as a mom caught in a 2004 tsunami in The Impossible. I spoke with Watts for today’s New York Daily News, and she was so passionate and articulate, I admire her even more than before. Here’s an expanded version of our talk.

What made you want to put yourself through this film?

I fell in love with that character, and also [director] Juan Antonio Bayona had a lot to do with the decision. At first, when I heard about this movie that was about the tsunami, I was not sure—the idea of being in a disaster movie and making the tsunami, which was such a terrible tragedy to so many people, into something that might be spectacular was obviously not right in any way. But I heard Juan Antonio was directing it, and instantly, I was interested. The script came to me and they told me it was a true story and I just fell in love with this character and this family and this whole story. Within 10 pages, I knew I had to do it.

Did you know how physically challenging it would be? Was it harder than you expected? Were you prepared?

I knew it was going to be a physically challenging movie, but I didn’t know that it would take 6 weeks in the water [laughing]. You never know a director’s plan quite and how they’re going to shoot it. Already, water has such a bad reputation, in terms of filming, and it lived up to that and then some.

Juan Antonio said he thought the emotional content was harder than the physical content for you. Is that true?

Well, I always find the emotional stuff—I found that to be easier. I thought it was probably harder for maybe him. I found the physical stuff to be the most difficult. But mind you, Tom [Holland, who plays the eldest son] found it to be nothing but fun. They’re both hard work. Every day was a hard day of work.

You had some rehearsal before the water period. Is that how you were able to connect with Tom so strongly?

Yes, yes. We had a great time from day 1. Juan Antonio created a good space for us to be really free to do anything we could possibly do, even if it meant falling on our faces over and over again, we could feel safe and feel open to do anything. Some of the exercises we did were completely goofy and foolish and just about nothing but cracking up and being silly, but always about being liberated enough to allow yourself to go there. And then other times we were doing stunts that we much more intense and more focused on the feelings.

And you met the woman who you were playing?

Yes, we spent a lot of time together. This woman Maria Belon has just impacted my life in profound ways, and I will always be indebted to her.

In what ways did she affect you?

Just her way of looking at life now. I wish I’d know her before. I don’t know if she was completely a different person. I get the feeling she was always a strong person and person of positivity, but this has changed her. She turned it into something wonderful. Funny enough, I’ve since met Petra Nemcova who was staying at the exact same hotel and she seems to have the same energy as Maria—a great strength and poise and just sort of fearlessness and ability not to sweat the small things anymore, just focused on much bigger things.

Being a mother in real life—did that help you access the emotions or make it harder to face what your character was going through?

Both, I think. I’ve played parents many time, well before I had children, and the imagination is powerful and you can get there, but there is no question that having children increases the intensity of how you’re feeling.  And yes, you put yourself through the “what if” scenario.

What do you remember about the tsunami? I remember when it happened, it was the day after Christmas and people didn’t seem to realize right away how extreme it really was. Do you remember your experience of finding out about it?

Yes, I do. I remember exactly where I was. I was actually in the very room that I’m in right now where I’m speaking to you. I was in on a break from filming King Kong and I just remember being glued to the news and being shocked with horror watching those numbers grow and grow. Mind-blowing and horrific. And then a couple of days later, I got a call from George Clooney and he asked if I would be part of his telethon.

04ONSTAD1_SPAN-articleLargeIn this movie, you have to get pretty beaten up. Did you have any concern about appearing on screen looking as bad as you did? 

No. In actuality, I think it’s so much easier when you take the vanity out of the equation. It becomes much more of a pressure when you’re supposed to look good. If you’ve got to have shiny, glossy hair and makeup—I don’t know, I think you’re constantly aware. And there is no vanity in moments like those. When you look at the obstacles—people walking around in virtually nothing. Do you think they were worried about that? No. They were worried about the next moment of their life—if they were going to survive, if they were going to find their brother, sister, mother, father, child, whatever. I remember actually when we were filming some scene in the hospital and someone said, ‘I want to adjust your makeup, it looks like you’re getting a double chin or something.’ And it made me really angry because I suddenly become aware of my vanity and I don’t want that, when I’m acting dead, or almost dead.

In general, it seems like you’re attracted to these very challenging roles, whether it’s physically or  emotionally. Why is that?

I don’t know. I just find it more fun. The character is the thing that really stayed with me. And yes, it’s a big story about the tsunami, which touched so many people, but inside of that was just this beautiful story about a woman and her need to survive and that relationship, that dynamic between her and the son. It’s so powerful. It’s always about getting interested in the characters and I can’t explain it a lot of the time—it either hooks you in or doesn’t.

Has any role ever been too scary for you to take on?

To the point where I’ve said no?

Yeah.

I’ve tried to say no to things, but then I’ve ended up doing them. I don’t really have any regrets of anything I’ve said no to. There’s been things that I’ve had to say no to because of scheduling or whatever and that’s been disappointing, but no, for the most part, I feel like I’ve never regretted saying no.

Juan Antonio said he thought you’ve never done a movie just for the money. Is that true?

Um, I would say 98% true [laughing].

That’s a good percentage!

Maybe I’m lying. Maybe I’m stretching it a bit. There’s been a couple I can think of, two, which I won’t name, where I thought, ‘It’s going to be quick.’ And I still believed in several aspects of the film. But most of the time, there are things I would do for free that I burn to do. There have been a couple of times where I could’ve easily said no, but I’ve said yes because money has played a factor in it and it’s been like a quick, easy job. But I still liked all the other actors or I still liked the director or the character. I’ve never done something that’s purely for money. I would say that’s true.

You had a pretty long period—a decade or so—where you were working before Mulholland Drive really put you on the map. Do you think those years helped you build character?

Yeah, it must have. Who knows what would have happened if I got a job the first time I went out for auditions? I think it just all happens the way it’s supposed to. I think it was great that it happened the way it did. I think I would have been talked into doing the wrong projects and would have not been good at them. And in fact, when I have done things that money has been part of the equation, I think I’ve failed.

It seems like you’ve attracted to really strong directors. Is that a big factor in terms of picking projects for you?

Yes, absolutely. A very big factor.

What made you connect with Juan Antonio? He’s relatively new in this game.

I had seen his first film [The Orphanage] and I loved that and I thought the characters were great. But then meeting him—he and the producer came over from Spain and we met in New York, and I was just seduced by their vision and the way they were talking about this story. There was so much emotion and so much commitment, and it was very seductive.

You’ve said that most romantic comedies don’t interest you. Is that correct?

I don’t mean to say it like that—that sounds negative. I think that romantic comedies have a great place. If I could find a great one, I would love to do it. But I think they are very few and far between. How many can we say we really remember well? And certainly, I’m not that first person they come to for the great ones so I just haven’t got my hands on a good one. If I do comedy, I prefer the more twisted kind—something that’s a bit off the wall—but I certainly would love to be in something lighter.

How are you feeling about the Oscars—the film’s chances, your chances? Is it something that focused on?

I mean, it’s impossible not to think about it because so many people keep bringing it up and reminding me. It’s like that carrot being waved in front of you and you can’t turn your back on it, isn’t it? But I’m trying to not to think about it because I have been down the road a few times where people say that and then you sort of start reaching for it in some way, and it doesn’t happen, and you just feel disappointed. So it’s better not to think about it. But having said that, it’s always nice to be recognized by your peers.

Does Naomi Watts light up your world? Post a comment!

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