Interview : Naomi Watts – Le Divorce

Naomi Watts joins that flurry of Australian actors, bound for Hollywood fame and success. Little known in the US until Mulholland Drive and The Ring put her on the map, now the beautiful blonde Aussie is working harder than ever, with close to 6 films at or near completion, but as she confessed to PAUL FISCHER whilst promoting Le Divorce, she’s ready to take a year off.

Naomi Watts looked relaxed in a Los Angeles hotel room where she was promoting the Paris-set Le Divorce, the first of several major Hollywood films that Watts has either completed, shooting or is officially attached to. The beautiful 34-year old British-born Australian actress has come a long way since 2001’s Mulholland Drive put her squarely on the international road to stardom, and she is milking her spate of success for all it’s worth, even if it means working virtually non-stop in the process. “I think the panic of not working for ten years is still very much alive in me, and I’m now starting to trust it a little bit and thinking, okay, I’ve got a little bit of a shot at this.” Watts admits that she is finally “coming to terms with the fact that I really need to have some time off and slow down a bit.” The actress says after completing her next film, she will spend a few months in Europe “trying to spend time with my boyfriend,” fellow Aussie Heath Ledger. Naomi is trying to maintain a degree of normalcy in her frenetic life, and though reluctant to talk much about her personal life, she admits that she is househunting when she has the time, everywhere from Los Angeles to Sydney. “I’m always house hunting, but, you know, it’s not a constant search, but rather late nights on the web looking at apartments,” she says, smilingly. The higher her profile, the more likely it is that stardom will encroach into her privacy. Watts says that she doesn’t go out of her way to protect herself from the unwanted celebrity aspects of her profession. “Nobody asks for that, and nobody says: I want to be some famous entertainer. In my case, I try and turn off to it, and stay away from reading stuff about myself. On the other hand, I don’t censor myself, and say well, I’m not going to go out today? What if this photographer or whatever is following you?”

In the meantime, the actress’s film schedule heats up with the release of the romantic comedy-drama Le Divorce, directed by James Ivory, as it tells of two American sisters discovering the joys and pains of love and sex in the City of Lights. Watts is would-be poet Roxy, who had been living in Paris for several years with her French husband, who inexplicably deserts her while she is pregnant with their second child. Watts was partially attracted to the film because “it meant a free trip to Paris and eating all that wonderful French food”, she says laughingly. But it was clearly more than that. “I think every element of this film is quite beautiful. The Merchant Ivory team has created so many fantastic roles for women in the past, and the script was great, with this beautiful merging of both comedy and drama, and it’s about life.” Watts adds that there are certain aspects of her character she can relate to. “In the most specific way, I would say that the fact that she’s an outsider no matter where she is, in her own family and in France, and I’ve moved around a lot, having grown up in England and then going to Australia and even within England I went to many different schools. I know what it is to try to be the one person who’s not quite fitting in, but also enjoying that a little bit at times, being quite different, and so I can relate to her in that aspect. But she’s also in a terrible crisis, and I still haven’t experienced that terrible crisis as yet,” she says, referring to her character’s pregnancy. Though playing a lot of mothers lately, playing a pregnant character isn’t suddenly bringing to the surface Watts’ own maternal instincts. “My maternal feelings are already there and so it didn’t change that. I know that I’d definitely like to have children and I often start wondering when,” she says. “I played mothers a lot lately, and the children are getting older and more abundant,” she adds, laughingly.

Currently shooting David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabee’s, alongside the likes of Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg and Dustin Hoffman, Watts has completed 21 Grams with Sean Penn, We Don’t Live Here Anymore with Mark Ruffalo, is about to shoot a small role in another Sean Penn film The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and is in pre-production on Stay, with Ewan McGregor, not to mention her attachment to The Ring sequel. Although the actress says that is selective about what she chooses, she doesn’t maintain a fixed formula as to how she chooses a project. “I think it changes all the time and sometimes it’s not so clear. You can read the script and one scene can pop out to you or a lot of the time lately it’s been about the director for me because I think you’re really safe with a really good director.”

Following the release of Le Divorce, a different side of Watts will unfold in the much anticipated 21 Grams, which will probably premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Not one who allows roles to linger, the actress says that shooting this intense drama was tough. “With 21 Grams I basically cried everyday for a month, and that really depressed me.” From the Mexican writing-directing team behind the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros 21 Grams interweaves stories about Christine, a single mother and former drug addict (Watts); Paul (Sean Penn), a terminally ill professor, who was (or still is) Christine’s lover; and Jack (Benicio Del Toro), a reformed ex-convict. “I’m not going to talk too much about that film yet because I don’t want to give too much away, but it deals with grief, loss and a lot of other emotions.” It was not an easy film to leave behind, she adds. “At the time that you’re making a film like that, it does tend to take over your whole mood. I was very devoted to the film and the character, and in order to make it authentic you do really try to get into the psyche and soul of that person, so It’s hard to not let it live inside you,” Watts confesses.

Watts was initially raised in England, going from school to school. Her interest in acting began watching British films such as Darling and Don’t Look Now. “I grew up loving Julie Christie and that was who I grew up watching.” She was about 14 when her widowed mother relocated the family to Australia and a new life. She made her screen debut in the Australian film For Love Alone in 1986, but didn’t really work again for another five years in friend Nicole Kidman’s Flirting. The Australian miniseries Brides of Christ garnered her attention the same year, and her film career took off in fits and starts. Early film and TV roles in both the US and Australia included Gross Misconduct, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Tank Girl, Children of the Corn IV, Under the Lighthouse Dancing, The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer and Strange Planet. But 10 years following Flirting, critics truly noticed Naomi’s depth of talent, and the roles poured in. Still close friends with the likes of Kidman and Russell Crowe, she knows precisely why Australian actors are all of a sudden taking Hollywood by storm. “I definitely think the training has to do with it. We’ve got government run drama schools, people take it seriously and they’re encouraged,” Watts says.

After her European break, Watts will begin shooting Stay and says that she is committed to The Ring sequel, and not simply for contractual reasons. “I really liked that role, and it seemed to do well so, I’d be thrilled and excited to do it probably next year.” And will she find time to work in Australia? “All of us expatriate Aussies go back.”

LE DIVORCE OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE ON AUGUST 8