by Stephanie Bunbury, Sydney Morning herald
June 4, 2010
Naomi Watts finds a career-defining role as an adoptee in Mother and Child.
Everyone knows there are hardly any decent movie roles for women, especially those over 40. Naomi Watts's current slate suggests that, at 41, she may be playing all of them.
Recently Watts was at the Cannes Film Festival to promote two new films: Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Doug Liman's Fair Game, in which she plays the betrayed CIA agent Valerie Plame. There is a Jim Sheridan film in the works; next up, she will play Marilyn Monroe for Australian director Andrew Dominik.
All this, however, followed the role that may have proved something of a turning point in a relatively small film, Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child. Garcia, son of the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has written all his films for women; he says this simply comes naturally.
''Rodrigo isn't somebody who isn't fascinated by women, like a lot of great men,'' Watts says (Mother and Child's male stars include Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits). While his two previous films were omnibus collections of short stories - Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives - Mother and Child is three women's stories whose lives have been touched by adoption in which Watts's Elizabeth, an icily ambitious lawyer, is a linchpin.
''From the first reading, I felt this really meant something,'' she says. ''I just wish there were more Rodrigos.''
Garcia writes his scripts over years, way too far ahead of the actual filmmaking to write for particular actors. Watts, he says, was the exception; she was in his head, filling Elizabeth's smart shoes, for four years. One wonders why. He could only have seen her in films such as Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams and King Kong; films in which her pale yellow hair and fine features make her seem instantly girlish and vulnerable. In Mother and Child the same characteristics seem frosty and pinched, her little face hard.
''Watts, so notable for her emotional availability as a performer,'' wrote the critic in the trade magazine Variety, ''has never shown anything near the steeliness of her characterisation here, a quality later set off by an extraordinary calm.''
That hardness comes through again in Fair Game, where she is playing a cool operator - a real woman, moreover - convinced she has no breaking point. ''I'm a lot more fragile,'' Watts says, with regret; she worries too much and is shy. ''People think actors are very confident people who enjoy attention. That's not me. A lot of actors might be like that but I prefer to sit on the outskirts and watch and learn.''
Press scrutiny upsets her, no matter how much she tries to cultivate a thick skin. ''The most they can say about me is that I gave a lousy performance or something about my hair but it still ends up hurting.''
And now there is Mother and Child's Elizabeth, armoured against any feeling, ready to exploit and then punish any emotional weakness in others. In spite of everything, Watts sympathises with her. ''Elizabeth is immersing herself in her career for one obvious reason: she doesn't want to face the pain,'' she says in one of the lush gardens of San Sebastian, Spain, where the film is screening. ''She doesn't want to stop and look inside and her work is something that she can control.
''I can identify with that. When things were taking off for me in America, I was on a treadmill. I didn't want to have a relationship, particularly. I didn't have such a troubled childhood but there has been some sadness and perhaps I didn't want to face that. I think now I've changed a lot. I've slowed down and have a family.
''When I met Liev [Schreiber], that changed what my life is.''
Now, for example, she is not sure she would want to make Funny Games, her 2007 film. ''But the whole concept is science fiction. I still can't believe it when I look at my children, that they came from one little moment and they're people who will learn and figure out all these things and have problems. Now they are just like innocent little beings that are learning and growing and soon they'll be all f---ed up like us!'' She laughs, the culmination of a creeping grin. ''Sorry! I didn't mean to go there!''
She says in Cannes that she is considering American citizenship. ''I've spent more time in that country than England or Australia, I have American children and an American partner. And I'm proud, today, to live in America.'' She wasn't so proud two years ago? She shakes her head - she is not so expansive amid the commercial hustle of filmdom. ''That was my answer,'' she says with an attempt at ice-maiden decisiveness and then, inevitably, loses it in a little giggle.