When Naomi Watts accepts the Montecito Award at this year’s Film Fest, not only will it be a celebration of her career, it will also be an affirmation. Since first sharing her talent with American audiences in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., Watts has graced films as diverse as The Ring, 21 Grams (which got her an Academy Award nomination), I ♥ Huckabees, and King Kong. Not only has the English-born Australian explored the emotional spectrum; she has delivered a series of standout performances fueled by determination and passion. And, as we shall surely glimpse on February 4, it all stems from the simple desire to partake in a little emotional sharing.
A lot of your career development took place out of the American spotlight, so there are probably a lot of people who aren’t quite familiar with the way your career has developed. When they told me just how far back they were going in terms of the retrospective, I started to get nervous! The highs have only come in the last five or six years and, because of that, it’s the struggle that’s probably more familiar to me. That just makes me appreciate where I am now all the more because I’m so in touch with the fact that it has been a long road. But I’ve seen the list of what they’re going to show on the night and thankfully they didn’t go off course as much as I thought they were going to.
What’s the attraction of film for you? When I go to the cinema, even if it’s just a fleeting moment out of an entire film that makes me feel something, then I’m happy to be there. I think if we can identify with a story or an idea or a feeling then we’re a little less alone in the world. And this probably sounds horribly pretentious, but it just comes down to emotional sharing. … And that’s what I like to do. That’s why you won’t see me in too many popcorn-type movies. Because when you go to those movies it’s more about turning the brain off. Some of them are done so well that they’re a form of genius in themselves, but a lot of them just make you completely braindead and that’s not what I want to do. I want to at least attempt to pull at the heartstrings — not in a sentimental way, but in a truthful way. I want to make someone feel or think or be shocked.
Given the intricacies of the roles that seem to attract you, how much consideration do you give to a script and how much to the director? It’s a combination of many things really. If I get a phone call saying, “You’ve got to read this script,” but there’s no director attached, I will be really lazy in getting around to reading it. But if I am told that it’s not a great script but “so and so” is attached, just because I have loved his work before, I then tend to read it quicker. A great director can make a mediocre script really work, whereas a mediocre director can spoil a great script.
You have worked with a number of outstanding directors — John Duigan, David Lynch, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Peter Jackson — what have various directors afforded you and your craft? Working with Alejandro [in 21 Grams] was one of the greatest experiences of my career. Not only because of him, but also working opposite Sean Penn. Both of them gave me so much inspiration. Alejandro created a theater-like workshop whereby we were able to cut loose and indulge in any emotion we could summon. He is Mexican, so he was very willing to embrace drama! But he also wanted us to try everything and to explore the extremes. So we would also go to the opposite end of the spectrum and use a huge amount of restraint. David Russell [I ♥ Huckabees] was wonderful, too. He basically opened me up in the comedic sense. I felt very afraid of comedy, but, in the time we worked together, he allowed me to be as silly and free of inhibition as possible. I loved working with him for that reason.
And Peter Jackson, a past Santa Barbara Film Festival honoree — how did his seemingly boundless enthusiasm for King Kong influence your decision to be involved with the film? After our initial meeting that movie was, as Americans would say, an absolute no-brainer. He had such a wonderful sense of passion and such a clear vision. When you see an artist who is that talented, and has that kind of passion, you just want to be part of it. It was very infectious and got me excited very quickly.
In King Kong you undertake quite an iconic character — Ann Darrow — and somebody who has been interpreted previously. Was that a daunting prospect? I was nervous about undertaking such an iconic part, especially one that has been done so well before. But from the first meeting I had with Peter and the other writers, I heard them talk about their ideas and what would stand this film apart from the rest. I trusted Peter because he was the perfect person to create not just this film but also this character. He is the king of the effects world but, in addition to that, he made one of my favorite films: Heavenly Creatur