Jan 20, 2013
Naomi Watts is sitting in a Toronto hotel suite reflecting on the challenges of filming her new drama, The Impossible. The film role strips away any semblance of the glamour sitting in front of me today, as the 44-year-old Oscar-nominated actor sits on a plush sofa in a black leather sleeveless dress by Row and a Sara Beltran necklace, her crystal-crusted Pierre Hardy black sandals kicked off in the corner.
The film depicts the incredible true survival story of a Spanish couple with three sons who were swept away in the 2004 tsunami off Thailand that killed more than 230,000 people. Watts spends a good chunk of the film in the water, caked in mud and blood. And she's dealing with a subject most parents don't want to think about: losing a child.
Yet the actor, a mother of two boys, Sasha, 5, and Kai, 4 (her partner is actor Liev Schreiber), downplays any suggestion she's fearless.
''I'm never afraid of 'going there' when it comes to work but my performances are not necessarily me, and I felt much braver in my work than my own life.'' (...more after the jump)
So what does she fear? ''I don't like to talk about myself, I don't like to be judged and I have a fear of abandonment - these are all huge fears, and now, of course, my fears are about my kids' safety,'' she says. ''But at work I actually enjoy facing my worst-possible nightmares because hopefully I'm going to learn something.''
Born in England, Watts lost her father - a sound engineer for Pink Floyd - when she was only seven years old. Four years later, she emigrated to Australia with her mother and older brother Ben and had a stopover in Bali. This was where the star of films such as Mulholland Drive, The Ring, 21 Grams, Eastern Promises, King Kong and Fair Game developed a more immediate fear. ''My mother, myself and my brother got swept out in a very, very bad rip which is apparently famous in Bali and claims a lot of fatalities,'' she says. ''It was terrifying. I didn't really even understand what was going on, only that my mum, who is meant to be the strong person, was panicking and then you know something bad is happening. We got really lucky and eventually found our way back to the sand, but I've always had a little bit of fear about the water since then.''
Although much of The Impossible was shot in Thailand at the site of the rebuilt resort where the family actually stayed, the water scenes were shot in a tank in Spain. ''They had everything mechanically worked out so it was a safe environment but I would take a big breath and shoot underwater, with the scuba divers waiting with regulators nearby in case something went wrong, so that was scary,'' Watts says. ''There were times I panicked and had to get out of the water, so it was incredibly challenging for me.''
With the permission of the Alvarez Belon family who survived the tragedy, Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona (The Orphan) cast Watts and Ewan McGregor as English versions of the parents, Henry and Maria. Maria and her oldest son, Lucas, were swept away in the tsunami and separated from Henry and their two younger sons. Watts spent a lot of time with Maria, who was a consultant on the film.
''I can't imagine what it would be like to live through a tsunami and have that stretch of time not knowing where your other family members are, so it was crucial that I met her,'' Watts says.
Her performance earned her first Golden Globe nomination and a second best-actress Academy Award nomination, 11 years after her nod for the David Lynch drama Mulholland Drive. When we speak again, the morning after the announcement, it is sinking in. ''I woke up yesterday and felt like, 'Wow, it happened,' and I had that one exhilarating moment where you're really in touch with the surprise and joy and I shared a big tight squeeze with Liev and then the rest of the day was a whirlwind,'' Watts says. ''I didn't really get to feel the reality of it until this morning and, I have to say, I feel pretty good today.''
It's two decades since Watts got her first significant film role, alongside friend Nicole Kidman in the John Duigan-directed 1991 Australian film Flirting. As Watts gears up for another big year with the release of her highly anticipated performance as Princess Diana in the drama Diana, she reflects on her far-from-overnight success. ''I pretty much floated under the radar or was quietly sinking, maybe, for a good 10 years before Mulholland Drive,'' she acknowledges with a bawdy laugh. ''I remember that time and it feels just like yesterday; I'd be driving from one end of town to another just to get pieces of paper for an audition the next day because those pieces of paper couldn't even be faxed to my house at that time because I didn't own one. So I really appreciate the great gift of being invited to work with great people and tell stories worth telling.''
''There were many coincidences that took place to get this story told,'' the soft-spoken Belon says over breakfast in a Toronto hotel, the morning after the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. ''What are the chances she was listening the only time I told my story?''
Belon is a trained doctor and a soulful woman who introduces me to her now-grown sons and husband as she talks calmly about the reaction of the audience at the screening the night before. She's more nervous doing interviews than reliving the worst day of her life with an audience of strangers. ''The story is finished and we are alive,'' Belon explains, philosophically. ''It's been tough, but I cannot let myself be weak, because many thousands died and nothing happened to us.''
The Impossible opens nationally on January 24. Until February 4, Hoyts will donate $1 from every ticket sold to UNICEF.