Jenny Cooney Carrillo/Brisbane Times
"Now you've had a Bill Murray moment too," Naomi Watts chuckles conspiratorially about our recent encounter. The Aussie actress had been set to talk to me before Bill Murray, her co-star in the new film St. Vincent, took the cast on an impromptu adventure, leaving the media waiting for hours during the Toronto Film Festival.
"I'd got this message that he wanted to take us all to breakfast and I figured it would be in the hotel restaurant during a break in our press interviews," Watts recalls when she finally returns three hours later, looking like a breath of fresh air in a sleeveless ruffled dress swirling with pinks, blues and purples. "The next thing we were all getting into a car with him and driving 20 minutes to his friend's house and we were all like, 'aren't we supposed to be back in 10 minutes?'
"The thing with Bill is you just go with it,because he's got such an incredible sense of adventure and never gets in any trouble for any of it. There's always a party trailing behind him, just waiting for a Bill moment."........
Coming off her Oscar nomination for the heart-wrenching 2012 drama The Impossible, the 46-year-old has bounced back from last year's critical drubbing for her role in the royal biopic Diana to appear in two highly touted supporting roles in very different films: the quirky comedy St Vincent (out on Boxing Day), in which she plays a pregnant Russian stripper in a relationship with a misanthropic widower played by Murray; and the darkly comic Birdman (out on January 15), in which she plays a theatre actress sleeping with her egotistical co-star, played by Edward Norton.
Both films have great pedigrees: Birdman is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who guided Watts to her first Oscar nomination in 21 Grams (2003) and also stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor mounting a theatre production in a bid to reclaim his past glory. St. Vincent, from first-time director Theodore Melfi, boasts two comedy stars, Murray and Melissa McCarthy, the latter in the more subdued role as Vincent's neighbour and concerned mother of a boy who befriends him.
"Coming off The Impossible, I definitely found myself actively searching for light fare to exercise my comedic chops, if they're there at all," Watts volunteers. "But I'm used to everybody thinking of me for the serious roles so when I got this script, I assumed the part Melissa plays was 'the Naomi role' and I was thrilled to discover they were thinking of me for the other role instead."
Watts has brought her cute white yorkie dog Bob into the Toronto hotel suite for a last cuddle before reluctantly handing him offto her publicist. "He got kicked in the head by a donkey last week at a friend's farmso he's a bit shaky and needs some extra attention."
In person, Watts is very funny, wickedly playful and disarmingly self-deprecating. The first time we see her in St. Vincent, she's sitting astride Murray on a bed, ordering him to "giddyup, cowboy", so, not surprisingly, she says it was "seriously scary" acting opposite Murray as a bossy stripper who hangs out with his Vincent.
Birdman was a very different challenge, she acknowledges, since the film is presented as one seemingly long continuous take, following actors in and out of rooms, corridors and scenes.
"When Alejandro told me the process of how this was going to work, it was intriguing to me but excruciating as well," she says. "He would often say after being 12 hours into the day that he had nothing usable for the film, and that's a very frightening experience, because there were a few times I had only a couple of lines at the end of a very long scene and I knew if I messed up, I would be letting the entire team down."
In November, Watts calls for a follow-up chat.She has just returned from a five-day Thanksgiving break to resume filming the indie drama Three Generations and is excited about the coming holiday season she's spending at home in New York with her partner, Liev Schreiber, and their two boys; Sasha, 7, and Kai, 6.
"I'm a bit of a sucker for Christmas and all the imaginary stuff, like the elf on the shelf," she says. Wait the elf on the what? "Oh, it's an American thing I think, but it's this little elf that is like a desk toy and you put it on the shelf in the kids' room and it's a great discipline tool when you can say, 'The elf has seen you and noticed you didn't clean up your room yesterday because he hasn't moved since last night!'"
If you look at Watts' filmography, she appears to be working non-stop: three films in 2014, four films to be released next year and three more in pre-production. But she insists family comes first. "Birdman was a maximum of like 16 days spread out, so it is doable. I know it feels like, 'Oh my God, she never stops' but there is breathing room and there is a lot of time with the kids, like this movie I'm working on right now that shoots three blocks from my house.
"I was able to drop them off last week every single day at school, even though I worked four days in that week, and I'm there for mealtimes or putting them to bed. I've turned down a lot of films that took me away for too long or didn't work with Liev's show [TV drama Ray Donovan, which films almost half the year in Los Angeles]."
Watts and Schreiber met in 2005 at a gala connected to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art: she saw him leaving and asked if he wanted her phone number ("it was a lot more ballsy than I would ever normally be", she told Allure magazine). They've been engaged for eight years, so she's not surprised when asked if marriage plans are finally in the works now that holdouts like George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have capitulated.
"We don't have a plan yet," she says. "But we also don't have a plan not to. We have a great family and it feels like we're married. We just haven't done that official blessing or walk down the aisle because it hasn't been a big need for either of us."
Next year, the adventurous star wants to dip her toe into untested water. "Theatre is the one thing that I need to make room for that I haven't really done yet," she says. "Cate Blanchett and I have been talking about it for a while and I'd love to do a play in Australia, so she's been encouraging me and maybe that's something that will happen in the not-so-distant future."