Monday 18 November 2019

Watts the story...

New mum Naomi Watts talks to Will Lawrence about her admiration for the heroine of her latest film, coping with sleep deprivation and pushing herself to the limits for a role

Sleep deprivation and CIA boot camp are all in the line of duty for Naomi Watts
Sleep deprivation and CIA boot camp are all in the line of duty for Naomi Watts

Will Lawrence

The life of a working mother is never easy, so just imagine the complications thrown up when that mother works as a covert operative for the CIA.

The forthcoming thriller Fair Game, which reveals the real-life scandal that unfolded over the exposure of American spy Valerie Plame in 2003, and the subsequent indictment of White House aide Scooter Libby, reveals the enormity of this challenge.

Directed by Doug Liman, who kick-started the Jason Bourne franchise with 2002's Bourne Identity, the film stars Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts in the leading role, the British-born Australian delivering a typically nuanced turn as a woman whose life is turned upside-down, and then shaken about, and then poured all over the pavement.

"It's hard for a mum to imagine saying goodbye to her kids and knowing she is going somewhere where she's going to be confronted with really risky situations," begins Watts, 42, recalling her experiences in bringing Plame's story to the screen. "I feel the juggling of my career and my kids is pretty hard, but for her it's amazingly difficult, and you get that in the set-up of the film."

The film is a well-paced piece, exploring the difficulties Plame encounters when her life is running normally, and then the chaos that ensues when her husband (played by the ever-excellent Sean Penn) writes a piece in The New York Times that upsets members of the US government. In the firestorm that rages in the aftermath, Plame's covert status is leaked to high-profile Washington journalists. Is it an unfortunate coincidence or a deliberate move to retaliate against her husband for his very public disagreement with the government? Whatever the answer, it is Plame and her children who suffer.

"As you see in the film, Valerie is highly trained and is not someone who loses control; she's very level-headed and consistent and composed. But there was a day when the cameras and reporters came and scared her children; they were talking to the kids and that freaked her out."

Watts, who first came to attention with a winning performance in the 2001 thriller Mulholland Drive, met Plame several times before, and after, filming. "When making the film I'd just had my second baby and flying down to see Valerie in Santa Fe wasn't an option." Watts laughs. "We tried meeting halfway, in Chicago, and she suggested meeting at the airport. I thought, 'That's weird, who would meet in an airport?' Then I thought, 'Oh yeah, d'uh! A spy would meet in an airport!'"

As a working mother, Watts, who has both a three and two-year-old sons with actor Liev Schrieber, empathises with Plame's situation, especially when confronted with the former spy's full back-story. "The decision to have kids when you have that lifestyle is a big decision," offers Watts, "and she also had postnatal depression to contend with. She is someone who has their life in such a state of control and suddenly with the leak it's like, 'Whoa!' How do I deal with this?'"

She deals with it remarkably well; Plame may look delicate, but the former White House aide is made of steely stuff, as is Watts, according to her director. "Naomi has that fragile quality and, yes, is amazingly resolute," says Liman. "If you're Valerie Plame it's not that different from being Naomi Watts in a Doug Liman film!" The director exposed his star to the rigours of shooting in the Middle East, even though she was still nursing a baby. "Naomi was out there, on her own without a protective ring around her."

Watts has established herself as a top-drawer actress, building her career slowly, eschewing big-money blockbusters for more subtle fare, building on Mulholland Drive with films as diverse as the hit horror The Ring (2002); her first two collaborations with Penn, 21 Grams (2003), for which she scooped an Oscar nomination, and The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004); King Kong (2005), The Painted Veil (2006), Eastern Promises (2007) and The International (2009).

Born in Kent, she grew up in England, her parents separating when she was a child, before her father died when she was just seven years old. In the aftermath, she lived in Wales, spending a lot of time with her grandparents, before moving to her grandmother's native Australia, when she was 14. Her first breaks in the film and TV industry came with soap operas Home and Away and Hey Dad..! before she shot the acclaimed 1991 Australian film Flirting, starring fellow up-and-comers Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton.

For all her experience, however, Watts was not prepared for what her Fair Game director had in store. The director bundled off his leading lady to a CIA boot camp. The svelte star pretends to shudder at the memory. "It was a case of doing self-defence with one man, then cut to half an hour later and I'm in a room with loud music and five men attacking, and you don't know where they're coming from," Watts recalls.

"So it was difficult, but necessary; Doug had the right instinct to make me do it, though, because I was at the height of my maternal state. The only person in my world right then was my baby."

Once she'd shot Fair Game, Watts spent three weeks working on the forthcoming Woody Allen movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, an ensemble with Antonio Banderas and Josh Brolin, and then devoted herself to her family. "Having two little boys, there are surprises but nothing really bad," she offers. "People talk about the sleep deprivation, and I'm just -- knock on wood -- getting out of that."

She looks fantastic, her slim form wrapped in black trousers and a short-sleeved top. "That's a lot of make-up," she laughs, modestly. "Seriously, for two solid years, though, it was solid broken sleep, absolute maximum of six hours a night, and now we're just getting through it, although you go to another country and come back and it's all messed up again." She smiles. "But the good thing is that you can be really grumpy and tired and suddenly your kid does something or says a little line, and there's nothing more wonderful."

Does she feel re-energised after her break? "I do, but you get nervous," she concedes. "You think, 'I'm so wrapped in this other world, with my kids and family, I'm not going to be any good at this any more'. You've been totally involved in something else. When you're a dancer or an athlete you could still dance or train, but when you're an actor and you stop acting, you stop acting.

"The kids and me don't go and practise a few scenes from Shakespeare! It's all-consuming with children. When I'm with them, all that I'm thinking about is what they're going to eat, is there enough milk in the fridge, whose birthday is it next week, and do we have to get a gift for that child's party. The usual stuff."

Over the coming months, she'll need to juggle parental responsibilities with professional ones; she's set to star in Clint Eastwood's biographical drama J Edgar, in which she will play American civil servant Helen Gandy, and then in Blonde, an adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel, about Marilyn Monroe, from writer-director Andrew Dominik. She may have to gain a few pounds to mirror Marilyn's voluptuous shape.

"It's going to be busy and quite tough, I'm sure," she says, "and our version of Blonde is going to be very dark. However tough it is, though, it'll be nothing compared to what Valerie went through."

Fair Game is out on March 11

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