Australian actor Naomi Watts: ‘It’s my year of comedy’
by Clare Press, Sunday Style, March 01, 2015
ALL the really gifted actors are chameleons; shapeshifters who completely disappear inside their characters on screen or stage.
Naomi Watts is one such actor.
There’s a kind of alchemy when she inhabits her roles, so totally transforming that we often fail to recognise her when she comes out the other side.
It was 2005 when I first interviewed Watts for an Australian Vogue cover, and the accompanying pictures were shot on the bustling streets of New York.
No one batted an eyelid as the poses were struck and the camera clicked – even though Watts had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (for 21 Grams) and was poised to steal
scenes atop the Empire State Building in the palm of King Kong’s hand.
“I blend easily into a crowd,” she told me at the time, with a shrug.
Today she reckons little has changed – despite the fact she’s made at least 20 more movies, with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Woody Allen, Edward Norton and Matthew
McConaughey, become a red-rug dazzler (consensus: faultless!); and had two kids with fellow Hollywood big-timer, Liev Schreiber.
The pair met on the set of costume drama The Painted Veil a few months after that Vogue story was published, when Watts was 36 and Schreiber one year older.
They are engaged but not married.
Their first son, Alexander, known as Sasha, was born in 2007, followed by Sam, 18 months later.
“I always knew I’d have boys,” says Watts.
“I’m a tomboy myself; I am very sporty.”
The family live in New York rather than LA, although they’ve been spending time in Hollywood recently so that Schreiber can film hit TV series Ray Donovan.
Is it stressful, the work/life/location juggle?
“It is a balancing act. The biggest thing I struggle with is the guilt,” she says.
“But I think every mother has that, even stay-at home mums.
“Guilt is a given: am I doing enough? Should I be doing more for myself? The good news about being an actor is, even though, yes, I’ve got four movies coming out, I only work six months
of the year.
“The rest of the time is at home with the kids.
“I do gravitate more towards supporting roles [now] because of that. Luckily, last year [my film shoots] all took place in New York.”
Travel, she says, with two small children is “doable, but you do have to think ahead”.
Four years ago, the whole brood went to Thailand and Spain for several months so Watts could make tsunami drama The Impossible.
“But now I can’t do that [sort of thing] because the kids are in school.”
Watts was born in England and raised in Australia.
She moved to Sydney when she was 14 (that’s how she came to be best mates with Nicole Kidman; they were in high school drama Flirting together).
“I feel very influenced by both England and Australia, connected to both countries equally,” she says.
She famously slogged for nine years in LA before her 2001 breakthrough role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
If she had to pick, she says, it is New York that feels like home now.
When they’re there, in their Tribeca loft, she and Schreiber do things like walk the kids to school, ride bikes together and go on play dates to the park.
Ask Watts how she’s kept the hounds of mega-fame at bay, and she puts it down to having “really narrow shoulders”.
Perhaps she’s joking, but I don’t think so – although comedy is her new thing (more on that later).
The shoulders, she explains, mean she avoids dramatic avant-garde fashion.
“I like quiet, chic, classic clothes,” she says – precisely why she’s the A/W ’15 face of Sportscraft.
“Naomi exemplifies sophisticated and timeless Australian style,” enthuses CEO Adrian Jones.
Watts loves the new-season pieces: “We shot a bunch of very ‘me’ sweaters – chunky rollnecks, great cashmere – for the campaign. I stuffed a couple in my bag on my way home,
actually.” Now that is a joke.
Watts is no more likely to shoplift than she is to keep up with the Kardashians.
She insists the secret to retaining her privacy is “partly because I’m small” and “I don’t look like I do on the red carpet when I’m [off duty]. I don’t have an entourage, don’t have the fuss
some people might. I’m low-maintenance; I get on with it.”
Even when paps ask her for a picture, she says passers-by often scratch their heads.
“They go, ‘Who is that they’re photographing? Why are they photographing her?’”
Mrs Ordinary? It’s a cute idea, but it’s not really true.
The real reason Watts can slip under the radar is that when we see her mug blown up on the big screen – in dramas, comedies, sci-fi blockbusters, whatever – it has simply ceased to be
Sometimes, on set, even Watts forgets that she is not her character.
OK, so she sidesteps the method acting extremes of some of her co-stars – Norton, for example, who joins her in Birdman, the biggest deal of Watts’ current comedy crop.
He famously put on 15kg of muscle to play a buff psycho in American History X, working out for three months until he reached ripped toughness.
Norton is an intense performer – a perfect choice to play the self-absorbed star in Birdman.
This is the pitch-black comedy written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who brought us 21 Grams.
In Birdman, Watts and Norton play stage actors cast in former-superhero Michael Keaton’s debut Broadway play – the latter’s attempt to make something of the twilight of his career, so
that he won’t forever be known as the comic book movie guy.
In one excruciatingly funny scene-within-a-scene, Watts and Norton must enact a lovemaking sequence on stage, and Norton’s arrogant actor character decides it might add to the
intensity if he, well, doesn’t act, if you get my drift.
That’s method gone mad.
If Watts had taken Norton’s cue, she’d have gotten pregnant and become a stripper to play Russian good-time girl, Daka, in the second of her recent comedy feats: the Bill Murray vehicle
Thank heavens study is more her style – Watts’ process starts with observation.
“I went to a strip bar out in the ’burbs and watched the girls, who work very, very hard,” she says, about the search for her inner Daka.
“They were all committed and on their way to better things, their degree or whatever.
“They were strong girls and no nonsense – really impressive.”
In St. Vincent, Murray plays the title role, a drunken misanthrope.
When a woman (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son move in next door, together with Watts’ tart-with-a-heart, they set about proving Vincent is not such a bastard, after all.
What could easily have tipped over into schmaltz ends up being a heartfelt and extremely funny film.
Watts is a crack-up as Daka, whether vacuuming in heels or struggling up from a squat during her preggers pole-dancing routine.
“People had stopped coming to me with comedies, so I had to be proactive about it.”
Once she had Daka’s moves down, Watts had to nail her accent.
“There’s a lot you can find on the internet: videos of young Eastern European women in search of a better life, talking to the camera about their hobbies, their talents.”
She noted their “straight faces and stern [delivery while] talking about how much fun they are – they didn’t actually look like they ever had any fun”.
Then Watts “found this cute Russian spa down the road in New York, and I would go in and get manicures and tape the ladies on a weekly basis”.
Was this a covert operation or did she admit she was on assignment?
“Yes, yes,” says Watts.
“They were fine with it; they loved it.”
Watts put on Daka’s Russian accent at the start of filming each day (along with her white thigh-high boots), and kept it on – partly, she says, to stave off the jitters.
Murray, “one of the comedic greats”, made her nervous, given that comedy was a genre “I had not yet proven myself in. So I stayed in character [the whole time] because otherwise my
fear would get the better of me. So I just pretty much stayed Daka until the end.”
That Watts makes a convincing stripper in the movie isn’t surprising; that she’s laugh-out-loud funny is.
“It’s my year of comedy!” she says.
She’s on a roll.
Her Noah Baumbach movie, While We’re Young, comes out next month. She plays Ben Stiller’s wife.
“There’s this younger couple we meet who are very fascinated with us, and obviously we’re fascinated with anyone who is fascinated with us. The youth culture is a big part of [the fun],”
She actually says the youth culture, like how old people say the Twitter.
Or call the internet ‘the worldwide web’. Is she joking or is this method stuff, too?
“Um, that sounds awkward,” I say.
“Oh, yes! It is. It’s brilliant.”
I point out that, for a serious actor, that sure is a lot of comedy, and she says: “Yeah, it’s something I was actively trying to do.
“Having done quite a few intense dramas, some that went very well, some that didn’t…”
She trails off and the spectre of Diana shimmers between us, then pops.
Even Watts’s skills couldn’t save the 2013 biopic about the ‘people’s princess’; it was a shocker.
Anyway, all that drama left Watts “feeling drained. I’d done as much as I could in that line of work, and I really wanted to change it up,” she says.
“People had stopped coming to me with comedies, so I had to be proactive about it.”
St. Vincent was always going to be a laugh, but there were no guarantees with Birdman, despite Iñárritu’s best intentions.
His back catalogue (to 21 Grams, add Babel and Amores Perros, with their themes of betrayal, fatal accidents, gut-wrenching grief) is about as funny as piles.
Much of Birdman, which Variety describes as “his first full-fledged comedy, albeit one with a strong undercurrent of existential despair”, was shot in continuous takes, in the claustrophobic
backstage corridors of a real-life Broadway theatre.
As Iñárritu explained to The Hollywood Reporter: “We told the actors, ‘You are going to walk on this highwire, and you have to make it seem like a walk in the park.’ We told them, ‘If you
fall, you will fall to your death.’”
“Alejandro doesn’t approach anything lightly,” agrees Watts.
“He was going for such precision [with Birdman]; he went to painstaking lengths to get it. Sometimes you would be in the 12th or 13th hour of the day and he hadn’t achieved what he
wanted, but all he needed was one take.
“It was really a 50-50 chance that it was going to work.”
Birdman was nominated for nine Oscars; although none of those nods were for Watts this time, she did share in the ensemble cast gong at this year’s SAGs.
“It was such a great experience, collaboratively speaking, because we were so dependent and reliant upon one another that we became this team – you don’t necessarily feel that on a
conventional film set,” she says.
It must feel great, I say, when a project really flies.
“It’s a nice thing; you put a lot into your work, so you always hope for the best.”
Ah, to be the best.
Is that what drives her? What she’s looking for in a script? What makes her read out dialogue to Schreiber? The possibility of The One?
Watts laughs and says she thinks I’ve got the wrong idea of them as a Hollywood power couple.
“We’re not sitting in bed reading scripts on Saturday mornings, you know! We’ve got kids jumping all over us wanting to do things.”
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