Interview: Naomi Watts
Sep 2, 2012 by Brigid Delaney, Daily Life
It's evening and Naomi Watts is in a car on her way home after a 15-hour day on the set of her new movie, Diana. She sounds tired; her voice – like that of many actors deep in a role – is sliding all over the place, from Sloaney Princess Diana tones to private-school Sydney before rolling into long American "r's".
Listening to Watts talk is like drinking a complex wine and trying to detect its geography and history. She's an international blend. Born in the UK, she moved to Australia when she was 14 and later to LA to pursue film roles. She now lives in New York and currently she is filming the role of Diana, Princess of Wales, in London. Prior to that she was on location with her family in Australia and Thailand.
Driving through the streets of London in the early evening of a summer that never was, she sounds wistful when talking about Thailand. "I was filming The Impossible. Thailand was a great environment for my kids – they were collecting hermit crabs on the beach, and it was a fantastic experience to be able to take my children with me."
It's a busy time in her life. Aged 43, Watts is engaged to fellow actor Liev Schreiber and has two small children, Alexander, or "Sasha", born in 2007, and Samuel, born in 2008. In Diana, of the film's 270 scenes, there are only three she doesn't appear in. "This is the hardest schedule I have ever done," says Watts.
The Diana movie is a risk. If done well, it will illuminate our understanding of the most iconic figure of our age – one whose story we have never properly settled on. Who was Diana, really? But if the movie's bad, vulgar or insensitive, it's the sort of thing an actor can be crucified for.
The British press are already a major presence outside the set, acting like wardrobe monitors – comparing and contrasting Watts in her Diana shift dresses and ankle-skimming gowns to the real thing. In website photo galleries, Watts dressed as the princess seems slighter than Diana, almost frail compared to Diana's buxom, robust athleticism. Otherwise the resemblance is close but not uncanny. And then there is the princess's family to consider. "It's tricky because they are here, the boys [Princes William and Harry]. I think about that a lot," Watts has told reporters.
But Watts had made peace with the role and all the tensions that come with it. "Diana is a story that has to be told at some point," she tells Sunday Life. "It will inevitably be something that people will want to understand. It certainly has its risks but mostly the good stuff comes with risk. It's a very good script – she's a fascinating woman, multi-layered, with an interesting life. Diana was such an interesting and complex personality."
Both Diana and Watts came into their own when they hit their 30s, with Watts finding stardom (after a long slog in mediocre movies) when she appeared in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, aged 32. Princess Diana found love, style, confidence and activism in her mid-30s. It's this empowered, in-love Diana that Watts will be portraying.
"The film focuses on the last two years of her life. There's a lot of material out there to read and I have met with people who knew her. It's difficult to know what the truth is – and often it conflicts from one story to the next, from one person to the next. But it's their truth. We are not making a documentary but we want to get as close as we can."
Watts plays her cards pretty close to her chest – she doesn't open up to journalists, she doesn't send dodgy tweets and there isn't an archive full of photos of her falling out of nightclubs, or exiting limos sans knickers. (There is that dodgy paparazzi shot of her naked on a Sydney hotel balcony, sadly.) Yet for a little over a decade she's been close to the white-hot centre of Hollywood - best friends with Nicole Kidman before, during and after her marriage to Tom Cruise, and the girlfriend of the late Heath Ledger from 2002 to 2004. She must know a lot, but she never gives much away.
Although she has rarely mentioned Ledger since his death in 2008, she told American television: "Good times ... we had a beautiful relationship, only a couple of years, but he was a man who was completely full of joy, and there was a lot of laughing and affection. He was really a very special soul and made a great impact on my life."
The spillage, the big emotions, the rawness, pain and ugliness is in her work; the distraught mother in 21 Grams, the ambitious actor in Mulholland Drive, the unhappy wife in The Painted Veil. In an upcoming film, The Impossible with Ewan McGregor, she plays a mother caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami. True to form, her character in The Impossible endures loss and suffering. "I'm looking forward to seeing how people receive it – it's a very moving film, the kind of film that makes you want to hug your children extra hard at night," she says.
Motherhood has been the realisation of a long-held dream for Watts. She told Good Weekend in 2005, "I'll have children no matter what." She was single at the time, having broken up with Ledger the previous year, and was not ruling out adoption. Now she has two sons, born when she was aged 39 and 40, and is relishing motherhood.
Watts is not disingenuous enough to pretend that her experiences of managing work and family are typical. "Of course we have help," she says when asked how she copes. "But we are very careful who we have assisting us. I have a great nanny and I have a great assistant and we do weekends on our own, plus there are long stretches of time when we are not filming. There are women who are doctors, lawyers, all sorts of demanding jobs, and they are working 60 to 90 hours each week, every week. I might also get six months off in a row, so I am there doing all the school runs and play dates."
Watts and her family live in Manhattan, but they travel a lot. "We've been pretty lucky – at the beginning of year I was filming in Australia then Liev was filming in London so I was able to go there and do prep for Diana. We had our boys in a great little preschool and we have taken our family on the road. Pretty soon we have to get more serious and root ourselves in one place. But this is the nature of our beast and what's important is that we are all together as much as we can."
Watts admires Cate Blanchett's ability to manage motherhood, travel and a global acting career. "Cate's got an extra boy in the mix – she is amazing how she has managed her career and motherhood. It is a juggling act – but every woman seems to second-guess their decisions, whether they chose the heroic road of being a stay-at-home mum or working and bringing up children. No matter what, it ends up feeling like it's never enough. It's important that we [mothers] can be supportive of one another."
There are no plans to live in Australia but Watts would like her family to return every year at Christmas and for her boys to develop a connection to the country. In February, Watts filmed the movie Two Mothers on the NSW mid-north coast and is enthusiastic about that part of Australia. "We shot in Seal Rocks – it's just divine. I would love that my kids would be connected to Australia and see a lot of it."
Otherwise the future is "pretty open", she says. "Every time I ever made a plan it always changed, so I stopped trying to make a plan. A day at a time, and a year at a time."
Naomi Watts is the ambassador for Beautiful Lengths, a Pantene campaign designed to encourage women to grow, then cut their hair to make wigs for cancer patients.
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