Naomi Watts: Flirting With Disaster
“I came to the realization that Elizabeth is trying to expose people,” says Naomi Watts, referring to the character she plays in Mother and Child, Rodrigo Garcia’s three-stranded narrative about motherhood and adoption. Speaking for Elizabeth, the 41-year-old actress says, “You think you’re normal and I’m crazy? Well, guess what, honey? You are married to a fucking fraud. And he wants my ass!”
Watts is doing what she does best: getting inside the mind of a difficult character. And Elizabeth, a ruthless attorney who was given up for adoption at birth by Annette Bening’s frosty and tortured Karen, is nothing if not difficult. Emotionally stunted by the absence of family in her life (her adopted parents both died when she was young), she travels as a teenager to Mexico to have her tubes tied; she seduces married men, leaving behind worn panties as evidence for their wives; she shuts down around anyone brave enough to look beyond her icy veneer. Elizabeth faces a crisis when, despite her surgery, her much older boss, Paul—played by Samuel L. Jackson—impregnates her, the ultimate challenge for a woman who has spent her adult life isolating herself from others.
One might think that this role couldn’t be further from the real Watts, a humble, sane, Oscar-nominated mother of two who spends her free afternoons at parks and in petting zoos. One would be wrong.
Scene: The doctor’s office. Dr. Stone, Elizabeth’s gynecologist, enters the room. Dr. Stone tells Elizabeth that she is pregnant. Assuming she knows what Elizabeth wants, Dr. Stone suggests she make an appointment with the receptionist to schedule an abortion. Furious, Elizabeth curses the doctor and trashes her office before storming out.
“Did I do the right thing by coming here?” asks a slightly breathless Watts, running her left hand through a mess of blonde hair, her face dewy from the rain, unrelenting this afternoon in late March. “That episode just then was awful. I turned my back on my child.” Moments ago, Watts, dressed in a plain cashmere sweater, tight, dark jeans and a pair of Ray-Ban aviators, walked away from her crying, screaming, 16-month-old son, Kai. She looks out the window from inside Vaticano, a gaudy Italian restaurant lifted straight from the now-defunct set of The Sopranos, but he has already disappeared with his nanny, carried away into Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood.
“Every single day, I second-guess myself as a mother,” says Watts, dragging her spoon through a steaming bowl of lentil soup. She exhales slowly and smiles through the self-doubt. “I chose to be a mom. It’s something I’ve always wanted, but I feel torn between two worlds. I am not reaching the same depths and heights that I used to reach in movies because I’m a parent of two small children who desperately need me. It’s frustrating because I feel like I’m failing a bit on both ends.”
Watts, also the mother of Sasha, almost 3, relocated her children to a rental apartment in Canada to film Jim Sheridan’s upcoming thriller Dream House, which also stars Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig. Meanwhile, the father of her children and her partner of five years, actor Liev Schreiber, is back home in New York receiving critical acclaim for his Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge alongside Scarlett Johansson.
Although Watts is still negotiating her career and her responsibilities as a mother, she would like more kids. “I would love to have an endless brood of children,” she says. “I grew up in chaos. I feel comfortable in chaos. Whether or not I’ll ever adopt remains to be seen, but I totally believe in adoption.”
Scene: Elizabeth’s apartment building. Elizabeth and Paul exit the elevator on her floor. They bump into a cheerful couple from down the hall. Inside her apartment, Paul comments on how pleasant they seem. Elizabeth is annoyed. “Who knows what they are?” she asks. “They’re too busy reinventing themselves to everyone’s liking.”
Watts was born in Shoreham, England, a twee village best known today for its annual duck race, where she lived with her mother, a costume designer and onetime aspiring actress, and father, Pink Floyd’s tour manager and sound engineer. Her parents divorced when she was 4, leaving her mother to raise Watts and her older brother, Ben, now an established fashion photographer, on her own. Shortly after her father’s death by suspected drug overdose, Watts, then 7, moved with her family to Wales. At 14, she was uprooted again when her mother moved them to Sydney, Australia, a decision the actress now applauds, but admits was “against my wishes. Looking back, it was the best thing she could have done.”
Today, Watts embodies a unique mix of English pragmatism and Australian ruggedness, the result of her transitory childhood. Her ability to adapt to different cultures was perhaps the first indication that she would also be able to jump, as she does so deftly, between disparate characters. Over the course of her career, she has taken on a wide range of parts: a bereaved drug addict that earned Watts an Oscar nomination for best actress in 21 Grams, a simian-loving starlet in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and, perhaps the greatest proof of her astonishing versatility, dual roles as a wide-eyed ingénue and a twisted depressive in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Watts so wholly escapes into the characters she plays that she is hard to pick out from a crowd. “I never get recognized,” she says. “I’ve literally had people come up to me and say, ‘You look just like that actress Naomi Watts.’ And when I’m with Liev, who is so unmistakably him, girls will push past me shrieking, ‘Is that the guy from Scream?’” (Sure enough, when she exits the restaurant after lunch, our waiter walks over and, looking at her empty seat, asks, “Was that Naomi Watts, or did that just look like Naomi Watts?” It was, I tell him, Naomi Watts. “Huh,” he says, and then shrugs his shoulders, as if disappointed by the news. “I thought she’d be taller.”)
Her dexterous hop-scotching between night-and-day personae will only increase with her next batch of films: Doug Liman’s Fair Game, a thriller based on former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s memoir of the same name, in which she stars alongside Sean Penn for the third time (“I was so nervous the first time I had to share a scene with him. Now it’s like, let’s get on with it already!”); Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger with Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin (“Woody has this reputation of not talking to his actors, but we never stopped talking,” she says. “I kept thinking, Does this mean he’s never going to work with me again?”); and Sheridan’s Dream House. Weisz, Watts’ co-star in that film, says of her performance, “Luminous is an overused word with actresses, but Naomi really does radiate light. She is incredibly sensitive to the slightest shift in mood or tone in another person and is able to portray the most delicate of moments, without words, as they flit across her face.”
Before becoming an actress, Watts endured less luminous days, attending a private all-girls boarding school in England. She ran with an older crowd, sneaking out at night and getting into trouble as a self-described “lackey” who was happy to follow orders “just to hang out with the cool kids.” She quit school before graduation. Prior to dropping out, Watts had enrolled in an intensive acting program, and had already gotten some roles on television series and in commercials.
At 18, she moved to Japan on a three-month modeling contract. “I was never a model,” she insists. “With good lighting, I could pass, but I never had that fashion edge, that je ne sais quoi.” She was disheartened by her experience overseas, isolated, lonely and exhausted from the constant rejection. “I wasn’t used to going around from person to person, and being rejected by everyone based on the way I looked. It’s not the same as getting turned down for a job at the bank. It’s so personal.” When I suggest that perhaps it was a gift—suitable preparation for what she would next encounter in Hollywood—Watts looks down at her empty soup bowl. “No,” she says, shaking her head. “Nothing prepares you for that.”
Scene: A nice restaurant. Dim lighting. Elizabeth arrives to a dinner held in her honor after accepting a position at Paul’s law firm. Paul is there, alone, dressed in a fancy suit. With a mix of obvious intrigue and irritation, Elizabeth says matter-of-factly, “This is not a date.”
Watts moved from Sydney to Los Angeles, in her early twenties, with big dreams. And why not? Her best friend, Nicole Kidman, whom she met on the set of the 1991 film Flirting, had done that very thing. But when Watts arrived, the same agents who promised her stardom on an earlier visit now refused to answer her phone calls.
Cementing her insecurities as a perennial Hollywood bridesmaid, Watts starred in an Australian commercial for lamb roast dinner, as an office worker who passes up a date with Tom Cruise in favor of a home-cooked meal. When reminded of that odd twist of fate, she says, “Who knew my friend would end up married to him? We’ve all since joked about it. Everyone thought it was funny and silly. But, hey, I got paid something like $10,000 for that one, which allowed me to get over the humiliation pretty quickly.”
The few people who did show an interest in Watts proved to be drawn in not by her talent, but by her beauty and the faint whiff of desperation common to all aspiring actors. “As soon I got to L.A., I remember some guy at a bar being like, ‘I work in TV and I can get you a show.’ It just felt grotesque,” she says and then adds, joking, “In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have slept with him!”
She recalls one experience more insidious than some sleazebag at a bar with a ludicrous pickup line. “There was a very powerful agent, whose name I won’t mention, who took me to dinner one night to discuss working with me,” she says. “It seemed weird, but I thought maybe it was how things were done. He kept asking me if I had a boyfriend, and then insisted on driving me home where he tried to kiss me. I felt mortified, stupid and totally bamboozled.”
While Watts was fighting for parts in movies such as Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering, Kidman was establishing herself as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, in films such as Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. But despite being evicted from her apartment, and seriously considering a return to Australia, Watts says that rumors of her working for Kidman are untrue. “That was never, ever the case,” she says when asked if she’d ever been the nanny to Kidman’s children. “I wasn’t even her assistant. I stayed with Nic for a few days during the week that she and Tom split up, but that was it—nothing more than a case of broken telephone. But there were times when I thought, Shit, I’d love to earn some money not doing anything.”
Six years after the release of Tank Girl in 1995, a movie that lived up to the promise of its title, Watts was plucked from anonymity when David Lynch invited her to audition for a part in Mulholland Drive, then intended to be a television pilot. Leading up to her first meeting with Lynch, Watts had been rejected for almost every part she wanted—and even the ones she didn’t. “I was so afraid of judgment that I had diluted myself into an intense ball of nothingness and neediness,” she says. “I was so desperate to please everyone: You want funny? I’ll be really funny! You want sexy? I’ll be sexier than you could ever imagine!”
It was under these circumstances that Watts, a woman with nothing to lose, walked into a room for an audition that forever changed her life. The part of virginal, wide-eyed Betty Elms, an actress who lands in Los Angeles with show business in her heart, quickly gives way to the part of her dark doppelgänger, Diane Selwyn, a jaded, despondent shell of a woman. Watts, with her combination of girl-next-door optimism and down-on-her-luck pessimism, was the perfect casting choice. “David asked me questions about my life and where I came from,” she says, her smile betraying obvious fondness for the experience. “I was still so desperate for a job when we met. Maybe he thought that was right for the part?” Whatever the reason, the screening of Mulholland Drive in Cannes marked the birth—as long, slow and sometimes painful as it had been—of a movie star.
Scene: Elizabeth’s apartment. Elizabeth fills a glass of red wine and instructs Paul to drink the entire thing in one gulp. She then directs him to her bedroom, where they begin to have sex. On top of Paul, straddling him, Elizabeth is in control. She never removes her clothes. She tells him what to do. After Paul climaxes, Elizabeth says to him, sternly but affectionately, “Good boy, Paul. Good boy.”
Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” echoes inside a dark, high-ceilinged photo studio in Manhattan’s West Village. Watts stands in one corner of the room, shaking her head when asked to try on a few of the more outré fashion pieces that have been pulled for today’s shoot. “I can’t put that on,” she says, apologetic but unwavering in her refusal to wear a Coco de Mer horsetail belt. “I’ve got two kids. I can’t be doing this bestiality stuff.”
In one of Mother and Child’s more explicit scenes, she appears on her balcony wearing a white robe, which she then removes while her married neighbor watches from next door. “I’ve never done full-frontal nudity before,” she says. “It was so hard for me to do that. I had just had a baby, so my body was completely different. But I thought that if I was going to play this ballsy woman, I needed to go for it. Someone in the crew tipped off the paparazzi and now there are photos of me on that website—what’s it called—Perez Hilton. Isn’t that awful?”
Sasha and Kai arrive with their father midway through the shoot to find Watts, dressed in a tight leather bodysuit, lying backwards on a mattress covered with crumpled white linens. At the sight of her, Schreiber says, “Okay, guys. Let’s get out of here. This is way too R-rated for us.” They make their way to the nearest park, the children returning with their nanny once the shoot has wrapped for the day.
Later, Watts sits in front of a large mirror, while two beauty stylists comb her curly, buoyant hair back to normal, and wipe the dramatic makeup from her fair skin. At the sight of her, Sasha squeals with delight: “Mommy’s back!” Watts leans in to give him a tight hug and, laughing, says, “Yes, baby. Mommy’s back.” A discarded dominatrix cap sits next to her on the floor.
Photography by Ruven Afanador. Styling by Christopher Campbell.