Not to be confused with the 1995 action film of the same name that featured Cindy Crawford’s first (and only, thankfully) starring film role (and topless scene), Doug Liman’s action flick FAIR GAME stars Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame Wilson, the undercover CIA operative who was outed by former George W. Bush White House official Scooter Libby.
In case you’re not familiar with the background, here goes nothing. On July 14, 2003, Washington Post journalist Robert Novak wrote a column revealing Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative. He was given this information by senior ranking White House official Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was eventually convicted of was of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and two counts of perjury. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but George W. Bush commuted his sentence. The incident has popped up in the news recently as Bush makes the press rounds for his new memoir, “Decision Points.” In the book, Bush recounts that a furious Dick Cheney told him, upon learning that Bush would only be commuting Libby’s sentence and not foregoing the $250,000 fine and two years of probation,” I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.”
The film, based in part on Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir “Fair Game,” is directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) from a screenplay by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. Naomi Watts stars as Plame Wilson, while Sean Penn stars as her husband, Joe Wilson.
Watts immediately established herself as an elite actress following her stunning breakthrough role as a schizophrenic in David Lynch’s 2001 film, “Mulholland Drive.” Since then, she’s also appeared in a wide range of films, including the horror flick “The Ring,” earned a Best Actress Oscar nod for the intense drama “21 Grams” (also alongside Penn), and appeared in Peter Jackson’s Hollywood blockbuster, “King Kong.”
Like Plame Wilson, Watts strikes a balance between work and motherhood. Since 2005, Watts has been in a relationship with fellow actor Liev Schreiber, and the two had their first child – a son, Alexander “Sasha” Pete, in 2007, and their second son, Samuel “Sammy” Kai, in 2008.
MMM attended the press conference for the film Fair Game, where the talented Naomi Watts chatted about embodying Valerie Plame Wilson, her post-baby boot camp, and how she balances work and family.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Naomi, obviously you getting into the skin of someone that is alive, available, how much do you take advantage of that or not take advantage of that, and then how much do you concern yourself or worry in the process of them seeing it?
NAOMI WATTS: I think when you play someone who is a true, living person it definitely ups the ante and the pressure is tenfold. Everyone in America is familiar with this story, so I felt an extra amount of pressure that I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. And the fact that Valerie was not only alive but very involved closely, she was acting as one of our CIA consultants, she was on the set frequently as the BS barometer and saying, “This is how this scene would work,” or “We wouldn’t have those signs there,” or “You wouldn’t address someone like that.” She was very hands-on. It’s not every day as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who’s truly impressive to me so I was nervous. It felt like a big undertaking, and because of her injustice, because of that level of betrayal, it was deeply important for me to somehow serve her story in the best possible way. Our relationship was formed in a very quick and small amount of time. Basically, I had a baby on December 13, I read the script on December 28, and we were filming in February. We did like a little mini-shoot to catch the end of winter in February. So it was so little time, and so many facts. Obviously, we knew the story, but it was told through the media in a fragmented way. It was about piecemealing it together and then sort of letting go of the facts and concentrating on the character and really learning her story. Who was this woman and how did she deal with this betrayal? How did her marriage, her family function; how did her lifestyle change; who did she become? It would be so easy to assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or come undone, and she did neither. And then with Sean, he actually went to Santa Fe and stayed with them for a couple of days. I couldn’t do that; I was nursing a child.
MMM: And I heard you were sent to boot camp?
WATTS: Yeah, Doug [Liman] sent me off. He was like, “No, you’re too soft and maternal. You’re going to boot camp.” I did some paramilitary training for three days.
MMM: You said one thing that Valerie certainly didn’t do is hide away or retreat or deny. I kind of think that’s exactly what she did. It’s almost like the instant the Novak story appears their whole world is transformed instantly into a battlefield. Her view seems to be, “I really don’t like these bullets and bombs. I’ve got my kids in the bunker, I’ve got my way of doing things, and I don’t want to do this.” And then she wakes up after she talks to Sam Shepard. That’s just the way it felt.
WATTS: Well I think the thing about Valerie is that if you meet her you learn very quickly that she’s not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s not an emotionally driven person. She was a brilliant covert agent and that is who she is to this day. She’s very controlled and reserved and quiet and warm, but you don’t get her all at once and she’s not easy to read. Yes, at times in playing this character it was difficult for me to wrap my head around that because I would handle it very differently than someone like her. But that’s who she is, that’s who she is through and through and she talks about it in the movie. Nothing ever broke her; she’s the one person in her training class that got through. She’s not a victim or a martyr. She absorbs things slowly and learns how to deal with them in her own way.
MMM: Naomi, could you talk about how you related personally to Valerie in terms of that you’re both mothers and you have to divide your time between a very intense career and also motherhood?
WATTS: Yeah. I had the utmost respect for her because of that and how she managed with twins and traveling all kinds of places all over the world and outrageous hours week in and week out. My job can be like that but then there are also incredible breaks. So I talked to her a lot about that, how she managed to be a professional and a mother and be really good at it. In fact, that was one of the things I learned about her just recently because I’d never really got to see her with her kids but obviously I heard her talk about them endlessly. But when she came into my hotel in Cannes and how she related to my children it was very clear in an instant that she is a natural mother, because my kids don’t really pay attention to people unless they’re holding some great, fantastic toy or something. So that balance was interesting to me, how she managed that, and definitely something that I can relate to.
MMM: Naomi, Liev told us he was also in research mode for “Salt” since he played a CIA supervisor. What was it like in your household during that period of time?
WATTS: It was very funny and very strange to have first of all, two of us shooting at the same time – that’s the first time it ever happened with us – and second of all, that we were both playing spies. But they couldn’t really have been more different; one was the classic spy story and one was based in truth and facts. So we were laughing about it; there were a lot of moments where we shared our research and watched documentaries on the CIA and compared notes, and I was talking about NOC. It was quite funny and unusual and good timing in a way, because he helped me and I helped him.
MMM: Naomi, how much did you actually know about Valerie’s story before you got called, and what were you thinking when you got to the end of the script?
WATTS: I was familiar with the story and was not following it as avidly as I wished I had at the time had I known this was going to be going on. But I was interested in it, and then it sort of just went away after the Libby trial. The next thing was getting that email from Jez Butterworth, who’s an old friend, and I said, “Listen, I just had a baby, I don’t think I’m going to read a script for a while,” and he went “Well, this is about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe and their story. Just read the first 10 pages.” Of course he was very smart, as he always is, because you couldn’t just read 10 pages of the script. It all came back to me but there was obviously a lot more information that I discovered, and again, didn’t know quite the level of responsibility in her position. Then I read her book, which the script is based on, and went into more research, and then meeting her. So I learned a lot kind of on the job, basically. But I did know the story before I got closer.
MMM: Naomi, can you talk about meeting her for the first time and what surprised you about her? And also what was this boot camp, especially after just having a baby?
WATTS: Well meeting her it took a while, because as I said, I’d just had the baby. We worked out that Santa Fe and New York door-to-door travel was 12 hours and it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. I would have liked to be able to do what Sean did and just show up and hang out for a couple of days. Be inside their home and see how things functioned, but it just didn’t happen. But what was funny, and I realized I’m really talking to a spy when she said, “Well okay. How about we meet halfway? Let’s meet at Chicago airport.” I’m who meets at an airport? Oh, a spy does. But even that became hard to do, and eventually she came to New York and we had dinner. And again, like I said before, you don’t get her all at once, so it takes time, and I’m kind of like that too. I like to read a person before I give myself away or something; I don’t know. She’s obviously someone who that’s her training. So we just were careful and easy with each other and we slowly went into it, and then finally it was like crunch time and I just presented her with a list of very confronting and personal questions. All the facts were available but really what I wanted to get into was her mindset and her psyche and how she dealt with this. And yeah, how she was almost kind of just unbelievably consistent and strong. I wanted to learn about who that person was and how she managed to function in every part of her life. Oh yeah the training. That was intense
MMM: Did Valerie speak about how she felt about having to leave her agents out there and not being able to protect them and their families?
WATTS: Well, yeah. This is what the film is about. I think it’s very strange how her life evolved. She never expected to be in the position of exposing her life story and having it turn up into a film. She loved her job, she loved what she did, and would have that back in a second if she could. Obviously deeply involved with a number of different families, assets, whatever, that she was emotionally attached to. So it was really hard for her. This is why it felt like such a huge betrayal, and going into her job as a covert agent she expected, or there’s risk of being exposed by another government, but to have it done to you by your own is such an injustice.
MMM: As you know, Valerie lived a double life. As an actress you sort of have a double life as well – your home life and your public persona. What do your kids think of what Mom and Dad do for a living? Do they understand?
WATTS: Well her kids were very young at the time.
MMM: Oh no, your kids.
WATTS: Oh. They don’t really understand it yet. There have been times when they see a photo or a flash of us on tv or something and they’ll go “Oh! Mommy!” or “Daddy!” And then we try to explain Daddy’s got to go to work or Mommy’s got to go to work now. “But I want to come!” They can come to the set and they see you. They think our work is in a trailer; that’s our office. And then actually I’m shooting a film right now called “The Impossible,” which is another true story that we all know of based on the tsunami. This one was quite difficult then coming to work for the first time because they saw Mommy in quite a bad condition. So I had to explain that these owies were just pretend, and it took a little while. We prepped it days in advance and then showed them how you can put a little bit of blood on and then you can rub it off, and now they like it too.
FAIR GAME is now playing in select theaters nationwide.
Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman, is the cinematic interpretation of the Valerie Plame story, starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson. The film’s flaws are many, but they share the same root cause: the film’s creators forgot to dramatize the narrative.
Scooter Libby outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent is an amazing story in itself. In the time leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration was paranoid over what might have happened in the First Gulf War had things gone differently—Saddam had allegedly been only six months away from building a nuclear weapon.
The film is partially a study of paranoia—the presence of Scooter Libby at the CIA signals that the White House doesn’t trust other departments to go about their business, and later in the film, when a former Iraqi military scientist is asked whether Saddam has or is developing WMDs, he responds in the negative, adding: “They know this. They must know,” referring to the American government. The film also features a fair amount of carefully chosen television news, including speeches by President Bush and highly pixelated clips of Al-Jazeera.
While the allusions to media saturation and paranoia are relevant, neither can make up for the lack of a dramatic plot or interesting characters. The film is set up as a thriller: from the get-go we go through successions of short cuts. Watts’ interpretation of Plame receives minimal screen time aside from her too-perfect responses to questioning while undercover and unmoving exchanges with her husband and her father.
Joe Wilson writes an op-ed in the New York Times calling out the Bush Administration for trumping up charges against Niger in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Penn plays an outspoken, albeit patriotic man who is often telling the truth. The problem is he’s not interesting and becomes difficult to listen to over the course of the film.
Films should be evaluated on their own terms. As an adaptation of the news, Fair Game succeeds as a slow recollection of some of the hysteria that preceded the Invasion of Iraq. This will be a great film to show our children in history classes, but frankly, I’d prefer if they read about it instead. In its final act, the film morphs into a kind of patriotic-let’s-together-for-ourselves piece of American pride complete with Sean Penn lecturing passionately to a group of college students.
After Plame is outed by Libby, the CIA shuts down Plame’s operation leaving an Iraqi military scientist to die, along with practically everyone else in the young doctor’s family. When the doctor’s sister, played by Liraz Charhi, confronts Plame about the whereabouts of her family, she reacts unconvincingly with minimal emotion to the news that nearly everyone in her extended family has been butchered, completing the half-baked subplot.
Earlier in the film, Charhi’s character asks Plame how she is able to lie. Plame responds that one must always know why one is lying and to never forget the truth. Despite a valiant effort to stick to the facts, there is little truth to be taken from Fair Game.
Yes, we’ve already heard Woody Allen’s whine incessantly about how shooting in New York is too expensive, despite the new incentives offering $420 million per year in tax breaks for films shot here and the fact that he shot the underwhelming black comedy “Whatever Works” in the Big Apple a little over a year ago. Woody’s big “return to New York City” following his trio of London films – “Match Point” (solid), “Scoop” (awful) and “Cassandra’s Dream” (awful) – and pleasant return to form “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” was a dud, grossing just north of $5 million domestically.
So, the tireless Oscar-winning writer-director has opted to cross the Atlantic one more time in search of that “Match Point” magic. Shot in London, Allen’s latest is the heinously-titled YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER. The film continues along the nihilistic path laid forth in “Whatever Works” and premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Initially, Nicole Kidman was cast in one of the lead roles, but she dropped out in favor of the film “Rabbit Hole,” and was replaced by relative newcomer Lucy Punch. “Stranger” also landed in the headlines earlier in the year, when it was reported that a brief cameo by France’s first lady Carla Bruni took 35 takes to film.
STRANGER follows two married couples – Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and husband Roy (Josh Brolin) – whose various anxieties lead them astray. Alfie leaves Helena to romance a younger prostitute named Charmaine (Lucy Punch), Helena starts seeing the recent widower, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Grifiths), Sally starts crushing on her terribly handsome art gallery owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas), and Roy becomes smitten with a mysterious woman named Dia (Freida Pinto). Naturally, all these affairs spell trouble. Entertainment Weekly said of the film: “The film is notable, if that’s the word, for being the first movie Allen has made in London that is every bit as bad as his most awful New York comedies, like ‘Anything Else’ and ‘Melinda and Melinda.’” Yikes.
MMM attended the New York press conference for Woody Allen’s latest, where the celebrated filmmaker chatted about nihilism, filming in Europe, and his desire to make a classic film.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Somebody once asked what “Interiors” was about and you said: “The spiritual turmoil, the floating unrest that can only be traceable to their choices in life, and how a lover can posses the loved one as an object to control. There’s something of me in all the characters.” Does that apply to this film?
WOODY ALLEN: This film was an attempt to deal with the same subject but to deal with it in a more comic way than “Interiors” was. The subject matter is still the same thing, it’s still the inability of people to relate to one another, of people needing some kind of certainty in life, people deluding themselves into some sense that there is purpose to life or that there is some extra meaning to life when in fact it’s a meaningless experience, and yet in the end even faith in anything at all is better than no faith at all. These are all the same subjects as “Interiors,” but here the characters play them with more humor. It’s still serious but it’s played with more humor. I was reminded, I was talking to someone just before, years ago I was on television with Billy Graham and I was taking this bleak outlook position and Billy Graham was saying to me that even if I was right and he was wrong and there was no meaning to life and it was a bleak experience and there is no god or no afterlife or no hope or anything, that he would still have a better life than me because he believed differently. And that even if he was 100% wrong our lives would both be completed and I would have had a miserable life wallowing in bleak outlook, and he would have had a wonderful life, confident that there was more. So that was one of the main themes of this picture, that someone like Gemma could be deluded as I felt Billy Graham was deluded, and that she would have a better life than someone like Josh, who’s more scientific minded and had a more realistic view of life but was going to have a more miserable life.
MMM: What do you think are the basic elements that turn a romantic comedy into a classic?
ALLEN: A classic is a de facto experience. You find that over the years that certain comedies, romantic comedies or comedies last, they endure, they remain fun to see 10 years later, 20, 50 years later. And other romantic comedies which were delightful for people at the time are not. When I was a boy I went to see many films that were delightful romantic comedies with June Allyson, Esther Williams, and Gloria DeHaven and all these people, and they were delightful and I loved them and they were fine, but they’re just kind of gone, vanished. And there were others that I saw, “Shop Around the Corner,” something like that, which year after year remains just a wonderful film to see. And you look up after many years and you find that the thing has become a classic because it’s meaningful to people and alive decade after decade.
MMM: When you’re filming in Europe, when you’re filming in Spain, when you’re filming in England, I wonder how much your choice of location changes your writing process or the way you view your characters.
ALLEN: It does, it’s meaningful because it’s a movie and you’re watching it, and when you’re sitting in the room writing the script you’re alone in your bedroom and it’s nothing. But then you get out there and I’m constantly rewriting the script for the locations. A good example of that is “Annie Hall.” I wrote the character lives in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, and his father’s a cab driver, and then I was with my art director and we were scouting in Brooklyn and we saw this apartment under the Cyclone, under the rollercoaster, and I thought it was great. And so I quickly rewrote that he was born in an apartment underneath the rollercoaster and his father was not a cab driver, his father worked in Coney Island and had a concession, and the whole thing was changed completely. I’ve done that a hundred times over the years because you can’t anticipate in the room the riches that you come across when you’re location hunting for a movie.
MMM: First of all, could you talk a little bit about Antonio Banderas? It’s rare that you include a Hispanic actor in some of your movies, and it looks like you’re very excited about having him in the movie. And then number two, I was reading in the production notes that Naomi Watts had never met you until she walked in and I think you just exchanged a brief hello and then she began acting. Do you feel that’s the best way to bring the best performances out of the actor, or at one point would you want to do some rehearsal beforehand?
ALLEN: First Antonio Banderas. I needed someone for this part that was European, charming, very good looking, of a certain age, and inherently sort of a nice guy, a lovely person who projected that, and he came to mind. We talked about it and he came to mind as someone that would be perfect for that part because he’s exactly that; he’s charming, he’s a lovely person, he projects that niceness, that decency, and he’s a lovely actor. It was a very fortuitous choice for me.
MMM: And the other question?
ALLEN: The other question. I myself don’t like to speak to the actors at all. I like to hire great people and let them do their thing. I don’t like to speak to them, I don’t want to have lunch with them, I don’t want to have to socialize with them, I don’t like to hear their ideas. Josh wanted to play this part in a wheelchair. He called up and asked – this is what you get when you’re the director. So of course he can’t play the part in a wheelchair, but when you talk to actors they’re thinking about acting. They decide to play it as a hunchback and they’re going to grow a beard and they’re going to do all kinds of things to affect a limp, so the less I speak to the actors the better. And I always hire great people and I don’t want to impose my preconceived notions on them. They know how to play it; Lucy knew how to play it, that was a character she created. I wrote the character but what you’re seeing on the screen is her creation; she moved like that, spoke like that. I didn’t know the nuances of that when I wrote it, I just wrote the cold lines in the room. The same for Gemma; these people infuse it with what’s made them wonderful actors and actresses, and so the less I have to speak with them the better. I didn’t know Naomi Watts at all. She was a wonderful actor for years in movies, beautiful, and I saw no reason to meet her. She had nothing to say to me and what am I going to tell her? She knows how to act and she read the part, she said she was going to do it so she must know what it is, and she came in that morning and said “Hello,” the usual exchange of insincerities, “I’m a great fan of your movies and I love all your films,” “Yes, and I love all your films,” and all that nonsense, and she had her hardest scene in the picture. She just started off cold and did the scene when she confronts Gemma and wants the money for her business and Gemma’s not going to give her the money because the medium has advised her not to. And that was a very, very strongly acted scene between the two women. Gemma I had worked with for the prior week or two but Naomi I hadn’t even met her. And she came right in and did it, she was completely professional and great, and for me that’s the best way to work. I don’t like to meet the actor and have a lot of conferences and talk about their sub-life and their off-screen life and their back stories and all that nonsense, because it never means anything and they never know why they’re good. They think they’re great because they’re doing all this extra work when in fact when they wake up in the morning they’re Jack Nicholson or they’re Robert De Niro or they’re Josh Brolin and it’s built in. But they think it’s all this other stuff but it’s not; they’d be great if they didn’t think about their part or if they did think about it. I hope you’re digesting this.
MMM: With regard to location, were there any changes in the script here because of locations you found? With regard to the input of the actors, were there any changes because of what the actors provided you with? And then with regard to your initial statement on nihilism and Billy Graham, if in fact there’s nothing to believe in why make films? And in your own particular career, after all you’ve achieved, is there anything that you have a burning desire to achieve in the future?
ALLEN: The first thing is in this picture there were instances where we would see locations and rewrite for those locations. We didn’t change the script as radically as that “Annie Hall” example I gave you, but we would change things depending on the neighborhoods that we found in London where the characters lived. We’d find a pretty place for them to walk and we’d switch the scene for that, and this happened fairly frequently in the picture. The characters evolve in the picture and I wanted and encouraged them to improvise. Lucy very frequently would want to say what she wanted to say and she’d make up her own joke or make up her own line and it was always better than mine because it was organic, it came from the actor who feels the character. And Josh would want to talk like Josh a lot, like he felt the character was at the time, and I encouraged all the performers to do that and they did in the movie. And sometimes some of the best moments are contributed by the actors being creative on their own with their own improvisations. I work all the time because it’s a great distraction and it keeps me from sitting home and obsessing morbidly. If I just got up in the morning and had no place to go and was retired or something I would be sitting there and I would be thinking of the same thing that Anthony Hopkins thought of when he woke up in the middle of the night. You start thinking gee, what is the purpose of life, and why are we all finite, and why do we get old and die, and is there nothing out there, and why is it so tragic, and why do our loved ones perish, and why do we degenerate? So who wants to think about that stuff? So I’m thinking about gee, if I call Josh Brolin will he be available for this? I don’t know Lucy; will she be able to do this as great as I think she will? And is Gemma the perfect person for this? These are all problems that you can solve and it makes you feel that you have some control of your life, and if you don’t solve them, if it turns out that one of them is wrong and Josh is wrong for the part, or Lucy’s wrong, or Gemma’s wrong or something, that’s the worse that happens. You have a bad movie but you don’t die. So that’s why I keep making movies.
MMM: And if there’s a desire to achieve something you have not yet achieved?
ALLEN: Yeah, I’d like to make a great movie. I’ve made many movies, I think I’ve made some good movies, I never felt I’ve made a great movie. If you think about the truly great movies, if you think about “Rashoman” and “The Bicycle Thief,” and “8 ½” and “Grand Illusion,” I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that could be on a program with those films. I’m not saying this out of false modesty or self-deprecation or anything; realistically, those are really enormous achievements and I’d like to make something like that, that would be fun. But you can’t set out to do that; you get lucky and if you work enough maybe one of them turns out to be terrific. But so far that hasn’t happened.
MMM: You mentioned uncertainty as a theme and one family has a lot of financial problems, the other, the Hopkins-Punch relationship has some extreme class contrast, and I was wondering if the current economic crisis was on your mind at all?
ALLEN: It hasn’t been on my mind because I haven’t been in the cross hairs of it. I’ve been in show business. I’m not a poor factory worker who’s been laid off. My mortgage hasn’t been foreclosed. So I haven’t really been affected by it as profoundly as many people have tragically been. But I felt that the movie was about uncertainty. Josh’s character wrote a book in the movie called “The Uncertainty Principle,” based on the Heisenberg Principle, and I felt everybody was searching for certainty. Gemma wanted a certain certainty; she wanted to know what the future held. Anthony Hopkins wanted certainty; he wanted to know that he was not going to get old, that his life was not over. And Josh was uncertain as to whether that guy would ever get up out of his coma or not. Was he going to be unmasked as a plagiarist or was he not? All the characters in the movie were constantly searching for certainty, and I thought originally of calling the film “The Uncertainty Principle,” but I felt that would sound too much like homework to the audience and they would not show up. So I called it “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” which I felt was a juicier title. Oddly enough, in foreign countries they don’t have that phrase and it’s been a problem to translate the title in European countries because they don’t have the cliché, it’s not a fortuneteller’s cliché. And in Russia, I’m told, the death figure, the tall dark stranger, is a woman. In Russia, the grim reaper figure is a woman, and so “you will meet a tall dark stranger” certainly has no meaning there, and we’ve been changing the title in various European countries, coming as close as we can.
MMM: Woody, you have it down to a science that you write half the year, you shoot half the year, and you come out with a new movie each year. I was wondering what are the advantages and disadvantages of that routine and also if you’ve ever fanaticized about pulling a Stanley Kubrick and spending years obsessing over one project.
ALLEN: I don’t know. I’m a completely different kind of person. Kubrick was a great artist and a perfectionist, and he always wanted the exact right thing, he did a million takes, and everything had to be perfect. I’m an imperfectionist. I don’t really care that much about the work. I write quickly, I’m careless, I shoot carelessly. If the characters are working and I have a dinner engagement I don’t do 20 takes, I do five takes and go home, I want to go to dinner. I don’t have the same dedication to my art that he has, so I would never do that. But there is an advantage in having a routine, in working with the same people with you can, and writing as a regular thing, and filming as a regular thing. That routine pays off for you; you get a lot of productivity that way, rather than just sitting around just waiting for inspiration and waiting for the perfect thing to happen. I would be much less productive that way.
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is currently in theaters in limited release.
British-born and Australia raised, Naomi Watts’ early years were characterized by heartbreak.
The daughter of Myfanwy Edwards, a Welsh costume and set designer, and Peter Watts, a road manager and sound engineer who worked with Pink Floyd, Naomi’s parents divorced when she was four, and her father passed away soon after. Following her father’s death, her mother, a hippie, moved the family all around London and Wales, usually to follow boyfriends. In 1982, when Watts was 14, the family finally made roots in Sydney, Australia. She first began acting in Australian television and soon segued into American films. But finding roles in Hollywood proved difficult for Watts. She appeared in numerous B-movie productions like “Tank Girl” (1995) and “Children of the Corn IV” (1996). Watts finally made her breakthrough in the 2001 David Lynch surrealist film “Mulholland Drive,” winning her the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Actress and the National Board of Review award as Breakthrough Performance of the Year. The film has gone on to become a cult classic.
Ever since “Mulholland,” Watts has established herself as one of the finest actresses in Hollywood, appearing in a diverse array of films like “The Ring” (2002), “21 Grams” (2003), earning Watts her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the ensemble comedy “I <3 Huckabees” (2004), the action adventure epic “King Kong” (2005) and David Cronenberg’s seedy crime drama “Eastern Promises” (2007).
Watts’ partner has been the actor Liev Schreiber since the spring of 2005. The couple’s first son, Alexander “Sasha” Pete, was born on July 25, 2007, in Los Angeles, and their second son, Samuel “Sammy” Kai, December 13, 2008, in New York City.
Her latest film is, fittingly, Mother and Child. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”), the film follows three very different women, each of whom struggles to maintain control of their lives. There’s Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a smart, successful and manipulative lawyer who starts a romance with her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and seduces her married neighbor (Marc Blucas). Karen (Annette Bening), meanwhile, is a bitter health care professional who gave up her daughter for adoption at the age of 14 and has never gotten over it. Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is an infertile woman who has failed to conceive with her husband, so she attempts to adopt a child.
MMM sat down with the lovely Naomi Watts to chat about her latest film, shooting intense love scenes with Samuel L. Jackson and how motherhood’s changed her.
NAOMI WATTS: This [points to tape recorder] looks like my sound machine for my children to sleep with. So forgive me if I pass out. I travel with mine and I’m now slightly addicted.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: As a mom can you talk about the emotion of your character and thinking about your kids as you were going through this difficult situation in the film?
WATTS: Yeah. It just sort of brings up – I don’t know, I was trying to articulate it before. My feeling is that the minute you make the decision to become a mother you sort of bring on a lifetime of second guessing yourself. Everything that happens, the most minor things in everyday, you’re like, “Should I have done that? Should I have given him the present before I did that? Is that bribery?” That’s what comes with motherhood. Men seem to be absolved of that. No matter how invested or hands on they are as parents they just don’t get involved in all that guilt or second guessing themselves like women. It can hit in all different types, Kerry’s [Washington] character who isn’t able to have children. Once you make that decision, “I want to be a parent, a mother,” it just brings on all that stuff. I didn’t really have many ways to relate to Elizabeth. She’s quite a complicated woman and we’re not really that much alike. I was kind of afraid of her.
MMM: Annette Bening said her character wasn’t a weirdo but she was difficult. Is your character difficult AND a weirdo?
WATTS: Yes, I think, but I’m not sure that she wasn’t a weirdo either, that character. She is, definitely. But she also thought that her next door neighbors, that they were the weirdos, that they were the people that really don’t know what they’re doing. They have no conscious life in her mind. “Oh, hi! We’re from next door and lets all be friends!” She’s like, “Who are you? What planet did you just come from?” In all the things that I tried to sort of work out about Elizabeth the one issue that I had a problem with, I’m sure you know, the underwear in the drawer. I was just like, “Wait a second, is she truly evil?” Rodrigo said, “No. I just think she’s trying to get a spark out of people, trying to get them to see who they are and they’re not the people that they behave like.” “You think your husband is really that special? Well, guess what, honey, he was looking at me on the balcony the other day and he wants me.” I think she just had a low opinion of men – and not just men but human beings in general, because she’s been so hurt that she wants to expose their flaws. In her own kind of weird way she felt that she was giving her neighbor a gift.
MMM: She was helping a woman?
WATTS: Yeah, to see what a lie she was living.
MMM: Did you draw from anyone or anything, any situations in your past to actually help you project this character?
WATTS: You always take things from people you know or experiences you’ve had because it’s all about trying to get to the most truthful place and you have to connect with something that you’ve seen yourself and not that you’ve just read about it or imagined.
MMM: Did Rodrigo give you a format about where to go with this or did you take the character in this direction?
WATTS: He’s such a brilliant writer and he understands women in this unbelievable way. I have so much respect for him. He’s not a conventional guy in any way. He’s prepared to write women that are that complicated. I mean who goes off and gets their tubes tied at seventeen years old [like my character]. Lets think about who that woman is who had to do that. I think he’s really interesting. He’s got a great sense of humor and just a great understanding of human beings. As complicated and difficult as they are, they’re interesting and the way that he explains them you forgive them for being that way.
MMM: We don’t often see Samuel L. Jackson doing love scenes in movies. He’s usually the tough guy or the bad guy. What was it like working with him in those emotionally vulnerable scenes? Also, I read that you had your second child while you were filming this. What advice would you have actresses who have to film those kinds of intimate scenes when they’re in that vulnerable state of just having had a child?
WATTS: It was very difficult and it was very close. Basically they put the whole film on hold because of my pregnancy. We were supposed to do it back before summer, and I was like, “Okay, we’ve got to shoot this now,” knowing that I was pregnant and when I would start showing and what we could get out of the pregnancy. Then also the timing was bad because there was a SAG issue, a possible strike, and I think that Annette’s dates weren’t great. So we decided to shoot it at the end of the year and they would shoot Kerry and Annette and I would’ve had my baby in December and come to the set in February. So it was eight weeks old, my baby. He was eight weeks old. It was just kind of unheard of. But you have to remember that it was exciting for me to come back to work because I’d had a whole year off with Sasha. It was sort of fitting but sort of not fitting, the content of this material. Incredibly difficult. I had boobs like this [moves hands outward]. I just literally met Samuel. I think that we had one table read and then the second scene that we shot I was on top of him. So it was just odd, slightly odd. But he could not have been more soothing and just gentle and exactly what I needed. He’s amazing. What you said, I so didn’t think [of him]. He’s just not what I thought of first of all when I read that character. I just thought, “Oh, Samuel Jackson. That’s odd.” But he’s a brilliant actor and I’m so glad that he said yes to it because it was such a nice surprise to see him like that. He’s a really intelligent and gentle and sophisticated man. Just because he wears a different color tracksuit every day of the week doesn’t mean to say that he’s not highly distinguished. I loved every second of working with him.
MMM: Your character isn’t very sympathetic up until her pregnancy. How has pregnancy changed you in your real life?
WATTS: I love being pregnant. I feel my most strong and my most virile. The second time was actually harder and I think it was really because I was chasing a toddler at the same time. There was no putting your feet up and getting foot rubs, that sort of thing. But I do feel strong and alive and you’re just amazed what your body can do. I think that, yeah, Elizabeth allows no room for surprises in her life and finally when one happens it moves her into a real state of shock. I just think that she starts growing. It’s not just the baby inside. It’s her whole growth, her emotional growth.
MMM: After you had children did you have a realization that you had changed?
WATTS: Oh, everything. This is something that I feel guilty about because I go to work now and I’m getting paid to do something that I always feel that I’m not doing as well. In some ways, yes, I am because I think deeper. I feel things differently. I feel much more of a mindful and aware person, but I find it hard to live and breathe my work in the same way that I used to. I just feel that I’m desperate to get home. It’s as simple as that.
MMM: The scene in the doctor’s office where she finds out that she’s pregnant she’s very hostile to the doctor. He thinks she’s going to have an abortion. How did you go through that scene and that moment where a woman has to consider those kinds of choices?
WATTS: I think it’s so shocking to her that she reacts in such a way and I think she’s created her life in such a way that there are no surprises in it and it’s just so deeply controlled. She only gives this one version of herself to everyone. So, for someone to assume something about her makes her really angry because it’s not something she thought through.
MMM: She’s also reckless in some way because even though she’d had her tubes tied she wasn’t practicing safe sex in terms of AIDS and STD’s and things like that.
WATTS: Yeah, that’s a good point! [Laughs]
MMM: Are you and David Lynch ever going to get back together?
WATTS: I hope so! I’d like to know that myself! He’s just fantastic.
MMM: Has the baby been to Australia?
WATTS: Well, the first one, it was such a big deal for me, like going down to Bondi Beach where I have so many memories and dipping his feet into the water, despite the fact that it was freezing cold. I’d had my baby such a long way away from my home and then getting there, it was like, “This is my water, my country and now you are that, too.” It was really a big deal for me. But Kai, Samuel Kai, he came to Australia for the first time just this last Christmas and it was great. We stayed in Bronte Beach which is a beach close to Bondi and they can just run naked.
MMM: What are your thoughts on seeing Liev [Schrieber] onstage again in “A View from the Bridge?” So many people have been raving about his performance.
WATTS: He’s just magnificent as he always his and he just seems to keep getting better and better. I don’t know how that’s possible because I believe he’s the best-reviewed theatre actor there is in New York and he just keeps blowing everyone else away. It was so wonderful to see him play a brilliant character who’s got a great strength but vulnerability at the same time. I wept in that play. I must’ve seen it five times and every time it got me.
MMM: Which of your sons takes after you or Liev more?
WATTS: I think that Sasha looks more like his dad and Kai looks probably more like…actually I think he looks more like my brother. But in terms of personality, who knows, they change everyday.
MOTHER AND CHILD opens on May 7th in limited release.