My fear over Diana role: Naomi Watts reveals her concerns about playing Princess of Wales in controversial new film
By Jane Gordon, MailOnline
30 Dec 2012
Naomi Watts’s new film tells the real-life story of one woman’s struggle to survive the Boxing Day tsunami. And, as she tells Jane Gordon, its overriding message is one that’s close to her heart…
For an actress of her stature, Naomi Watts is incredibly small. When she enters the Claridge’s suite in which our interview takes place – still radiantly beautiful at 44 – it is difficult to imagine how someone so tiny (she claims to be ‘5ft 5in in the right heels’ but looks closer to 5ft 2in today in her Tabitha Simmons brogues) can appear so dominant on the big screen.
We meet to talk about her new film The Impossible – a haunting and harrowing true story of a family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (directed by the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker J A Bayona), which has earned Naomi a Golden Globe nomination.
But we will chat too about her role as Diana in the controversial film charting the last two years of Princess Diana’s life (which, as yet, has no release date). Both roles have been challenging for Naomi.
In The Impossible she plays Maria, who’s on a Christmas holiday in Thailand with her husband Henry (played by Ewan McGregor) and their three sons.
But their idyllic vacation is savagely interrupted – on 26 December – by the giant waves that caused one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent memory. Separated by the wall of water from her husband and two younger sons – whom she believes to have been killed – Maria and her eldest son Lucas (played by talented newcomer Tom Holland) find each other, and their fight to survive forms the central plot of the film.
Their terrifying experience is a faithful re-creation of what Spanish couple Maria Belón and Quique Alvarez (portrayed as British in the film) endured. Naomi became close to Maria – who was present throughout the filming – and is full of admiration for her courage. Some of the most moving scenes involve Naomi’s portrayal of Maria – a doctor who knew that her injuries were life-threatening – struggling to stay alive for the sake of her son.
‘Maria hates to be referred to as heroic because she was aware – as we all were in making this film – of how that might seem to the families of all the people who didn’t survive,’ says Naomi. ‘The hardest scene for me was when Maria was sure she was dying and she told her son how good it would be if he could go and help other people lost in the chaotic hospital to find their families. She sent him away for two reasons: because she didn’t want him to see her die and because she was imparting her final life lesson to him – to help others.’
The Impossible is also an uplifting portrayal of the importance of family – ‘It makes you realise that family comes first,’ says Naomi – and the special relationship between a mother and son. Something that Naomi – who has two sons, Alexander (known as Sasha), five, and Samuel Kai, four, from her seven-year partnership with fellow actor Liev Schreiber – understands.
‘The mother-son relationship is special. I became very close to Tom, so portraying that bond was no great leap. Tom is brilliant and I know he will go on to great things. In fact, I got really close to the whole Holland family and when we were casting Prince Harry in Diana – which is only a small role – I suggested Tom’s younger brother Harry for the part; his was the best audition, and Harry Holland became Prince Harry,’ she says with a grin.
Taking on the role of Diana was a difficult decision for Naomi for all sorts of reasons, not least because – although she spent her teenage years in Australia and now lives in New York – she is ‘English at heart’ and aware of the sensitivity and affection in her home country for the ‘People’s Princess’.
Naomi was born in Sussex. Her mother Myfanwy (known as Miv) is Welsh and her father Peter, a road manager and sound engineer who worked with Pink Floyd, was English. Naomi and her brother Ben (who’s a year older and now a successful fashion photographer based in New York) had a nomadic childhood. Their parents divorced when Naomi was four and their father died of a suspected drug overdose when she was seven. After his death Naomi’s mother took the children to live with her parents in Wales. Highly creative and ‘a bit of a hippie’, Miv was determined to establish a career and took on a variety of jobs – from dealing in antiques to designing costumes – that involved frequent moves with her children to different parts of the country.
‘Liev is great – we still hold on to our romance. It was love at first sight for me’
When Naomi was 14, Miv moved the family to Australia, where she become a television stylist (and later an interior designer). It was in Australia (where she met her great friend Nicole Kidman) that Naomi developed an ambition to become an actress. But success was a long time coming. ‘Retrospectively, it was probably good that I didn’t break through when I was younger. But it was a real struggle during the early years of my career. Going for auditions and being rejected feels so personal – to the point where you are in pieces.’
Her breakthrough came in 2001 – when she was 33. She was cast by David Lynch (who said that in Naomi he ‘saw someone with a tremendous talent and a beautiful soul’) in his cult film Mulholland Drive. Her performance not only gained her critical acclaim, it also gave her the credibility that would lead to her winning starring roles in a clutch of films – The Ring, King Kong, 21 Grams (for which she gained an Oscar nomination), The Painted Veil – that have established her as a brilliant actress who can move seamlessly from the challenging part of Maria in The Impossible (for which she is tipped for another Oscar nomination) to the emotional and controversial role of Diana.
‘I am not just nervous about how Diana’s sons Prince William and Prince Harry will feel about this film, I am also concerned about how the whole country could react because we all have such strong, emotional memories of her death. I remember it vividly – I was in Canada working and my then boyfriend and I had had dinner with Rob Lowe and his wife. We went back to their apartment and sat transfixed, watching the news together. When they finally revealed that Diana had died I remember shrieking, letting out this almost guttural moan. It was so shocking, such a tragedy.’
The film – a biopic of Diana’s last two years – will feature her alleged affair with heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan (played by Naveen Andrews) as well as her last days with Dodi Fayed (a role played by Cas Anvar). During the making of the film – directed by German Oliver Hirschbiegel (responsible for the award-winning Downfall, charting the final days of Adolf Hitler) – Naomi was photographed re-creating some of the most iconic images of the later years of the princess’s life looking uncannily like Diana. Did the way in which the paparazzi pursued Naomi during filming give her an added insight into the role she was playing?
‘Nobody I can think of – past or present – has had to deal with the kind of intrusion Diana had to live with. There was never a private moment for her, ever, unless she closeted herself in her home, and that must have been incredibly lonely,’ Naomi says.
In her own private life with her partner Liev and their children, Naomi is no stranger to being pursued by the paparazzi. Indeed, one of the most endearing things about the couple is their determination to lead a normal family life in New York, braving the possibility of being constantly ‘papped’ with their children – bicycling them to school, playing football, eating ice cream.
‘We want to have a normal life and if that means walking out of the house in a rush looking a mess and being photographed, then so be it. We refuse to be imprisoned, trapped in our home, for fear of being photographed. There were times when the children were tiny that both Liev and I lost our tempers with photographers, but we try not to let it affect us now.’
Naomi – who doesn’t seem the slightest bit vain or concerned about the ageing process (no sign of lifts, peels or Botox) – points out that when she is out on her own she is able to make herself almost invisible. ‘As you noted when I walked in I am small, and normally I don’t look anything like I do now. Believe me, it’s taken two people two hours to make me look this good. I don’t have distinctive features and how I dress and look on the red carpet and how I look when I am shopping for groceries are completely different. Sadly, Diana could never be invisible,’ she says, running her left hand through her sleek blonde hair and revealing what looks like a wedding ring.
Nervously (there has been some speculation as to whether Naomi and Liev have secretly married) I remark on it. ‘It’s not a wedding ring. Liev gave it to me – it’s beautiful, it has his name and the names of our children engraved on it – but we are not married,’ she says.
Married or not, the Watts-Schreibers are a very positive celebrity role model for modern family life. Paparazzi pictures also reveal that the couple’s romance remains very much alive, with a shot – (left) snatched this summer in St Tropez – of Liev and Naomi kissing passionately.
‘Liev is great – we still hold on to our romance. It was love at first sight for me. In fact I had a big crush on him before I met him at a ball. We had friends who had been trying to set us up for ages, but it was never the right time until that night. We exchanged numbers – I was in LA at the time and he was in New York – and at first we got to know each other through emails and phone calls. Our life is good, Liev is a brilliant dad, but like any family we have had our struggles and a relationship between two successful people who travel and are passionate about what they do takes work – it’s not all a bed of roses,’ she says with a smile.
They ‘pretty much’ stick to the rule that they don’t work at the same time so one of them can be at home with the children. Naomi loves motherhood. She says she can’t remember life before children – ‘What did I do?’ – and when she is away she uses the modern working mother’s most brilliant aid, Skype. ‘At bedtime I am there – maybe on the other side of the world – on Skype while Daddy is reading a story. And it’s just natural. If you phone your children they never say very much, but with Skype they can see me and in the middle of the story Sasha might suddenly say, “Oh, by the way Mummy, today I painted a dinosaur just like the one in this book” and it’s great,’ she says.
In the past Naomi has said that she would love to have another child if she could guarantee having a daughter. Might she adopt a girl? ‘I would love a daughter and it would be great to adopt but I kind of feel that my boys are finally getting on so well – so is it the right time?’ she says wistfully.
The family spent four months of this year living in London (Liev filmed Last Days on Mars and then Naomi shot Diana) and the boys attended exclusive nursery school the Acorn in Notting Hill. ‘I was incredibly lucky to get them in and they adored it – it’s divine. I would love to live in London for a few years, because I’d really like the boys to be educated here. Liev is such a New Yorker but his new TV show [he is the star of prestigious new 12-part series Ray Donovan] will involve the family moving to Los Angeles in January for at least a year and I am hoping that getting him away from New York will open up his mind to our moving to London in a couple of years,’ she says, pausing before adding, ‘after all, as I say, I am English.’
The Impossible will be released on New Year’s Day
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