Interview Magazine November 2001

Naomi Watts

Three Continents Later, An Outsider Actress Finds Her Place

By Graham Fuller, Photographs by Ben Watts

Actress Naomi Watts pulls a fast one in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Introduced as Betty Elms, an impossibly sweet and perky blonde trying to make it in Hollywood, she reinvents herself as a lesbian Nancy Drew who, in partnership with mystery brunette Rita (Laura Elena Harring), discovers the rotting corpse of a failed and embittered actress whose alter ego was ... Betty Elms.

With its dream logic and baleful satire of the movie business, Lynch's recently released thriller-cum-conundrum, which originated as a pilot for a TV series that ABC balked at, has the trace marks of both mid-50's Hitchcock and Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon (Dell). A 31-year-old Anglo-Australian with 15 years' worth of credits, Watts demonstrates remarkable range as she negotiates this dank world; her performance shimmers, in different moments, with innocence, lust, goodness and sadomasochistic humiliation.

We talked at the Toronto Film Festival the day before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and then again a week later.

GRAHAM FULLER: Are we from the same English town? I'm from Shoreham in Sussex.

NAOMI WATTS: (laughs) I'm from Shoreham in Kent.

GF: The next county along - close enough.

NW: I lived there until I was eight. My father worked as a sound engineer for Pink Floyd so there was a lot of that rock 'n' roll lifestyle; I hardly ever saw him. My mum raised my brother Ben (Watts, who photographed Naomi for this story) and me on her own because she split with my dad when I was four. She had no money, so we lived with her parents and her sisters. There are a lot of strong-willed matriarchs in my family. I'm the youngest woman and the shyest of them all. Mum had a series of bad boyfriends, and we moved around with them. There was talk of my mother and father reuniting at one time, but he died when I was about nine and it freaked my mum out. I think she felt she couldn't bring us up alone and she passive-aggressively threatened my grandparents, saying she would send us to a foster home, so that they would take care of us, which they did.

GF: Where did they live?

NW: They had moved to northeast Wales and we went to live there with them. We took Welsh lessons in a school in the middle of nowhere while everyone else was taking English. Wherever we moved, I would adapt and pick up the regional accent. It's obviously significant now, my being an actress. Anyway, there was quite a lot of sadness in my childhood, but no lack of love. My mum is a very demonstrative, loving person, but she's had a really hard life.

GF: Did she remarry?

NW: yes. Then she went on holiday to Australia and felt it was the land of opportunity, so we all emigrated. I was uprooted again, this time to a whole new culture, one that took me a long time to fit into. At school, I hung out with the dorks because I knew they would accept me. It took me a while to find my way to the cool group.

GF: When did you start acting?

NW: Mum put me in drama classes when I was about 14. I'd been going on about it for some time, so maybe it was a way to shut me up. Then I started taking more serious classes. I'd had the desire to act even back in Shoreham.

GF: Do you think it was related somehow to your father's absence?

NW: Maybe I was lacking some kind of support and needed to be accepted or appreciated. My father had not only left the family, but he'd died, so perhaps as a child I felt doubly abandoned.

GF: Flirting (1991) was the film that got you noticed, right? Along with Nicole Kidman, Thandie Newton and Noah Taylor.

NW: Yeah, though I'd had other parts here and there. I'd taken a break from acting because I'd had a terrible experience modeling in Japan and I swore I'd never be in front of any camera again. Back in Sydney I got a great job producing fashion shoots for a big department store when I was 19. Then I was poached by Follow Me, and Alternative fashion magazine to Vogue. A friend I'd done acting classes with begged me to come to a weekend workshop. I resisted at first, but I did it and had a great time. That was it. On the Monday morning I quit my job and told them I had to follow my dream. Two weeks later I ran into (director) John Duigan at the premiere of Dead Calm (1989). We got to talking and I told him I was an actress and he said I should audition for Flirting. I thought, This could be one of those bullshit lines you hear at a party. But I called, auditioned and got a part. After that I was offered a role in a soap called A Country Practice, but I turned it down.

GF: Why?

NW: Naivete. I felt I didn't want to get stuck on a soap for two or three years. Everyone thought I was mad. I probably should have done it, but it doesn't make any difference. Eventually I got a few more high-profile jobs and then I came to Hollywood - again naively.

GF: Which is exactly what your character, Betty, does in Mulholland Drive.

NW: People keep mentioning that, but it never occurred to me. When I came to America there was so much promise of good stuff and I thought, I've got it made here. I'm going to kick ass. Then I went back to Australia and did one or two more jobs. When I returned to Hollywood, all those people who'd been so encouraging before weren't interested. You take all their flattery seriously when you don't know any better. I basically had to start all over again. I get offered some things without auditioning today, but back then they wouldn't even fax me the pages of a script because it was too much of an inconvenience. I had to drive for hours into the Valley to pick up three bits of paper for some horrendous piece of shit, then go back the next day and line up for two hours to meet the casting director who would barely give me eye contact. It was humiliating.

GF: How did your character in Mulholland Drive evolve between the ABC TV pilot David Lynch originally shot and the subsequent movie version?

NW: In the most brilliant way possible. I saw the pilot and I was really unhappy with it because a lot of Betty was lost. In the beginning you think she's a one-dimensional character who should be on the side of a cereal box. She's got stars in her eyes, dimples in her cheeks, bounce in her step - you want to slap her. But the paying off of the character was gone from the pilot; it was sabotaged.

GF: But then Lynch turned it into a movie with an expanded script...

NW: Yes, and I got 18 more pages.

GF: And we see how Betty is actually someone else, Diane. By the same token, the amnesiac Rita, who Betty befriends, is also someone else, Camilla.

NW: Everyone's got a different interpretation of it. But I had to make something up for myself so I could make some solid, coherent choices. I thought Diane was the real character and that Betty was the person she wanted to be and had dreamed up. Rita is the damsel in distress and she's in absolute need of Betty, and Betty controls her as if she were a doll. Rita is Betty's fantasy of who she wants Camilla to be. In the end, though, all the characters are little conduits of David and what's going on in his stream of consciousness. The hardest part for me was playing Betty, because she was less naturalistic than Diane. I needed to make her human somehow. When I see her now, I go, "Oh, my God, you're a psycho." But there were places where I tried to show that she had deeper dimensions, for example, when she turns detective.

GF: Presumably, too, in the audition scene where she suddenly steps out of her goody-two-shoes persona and shows her seductive side.

NW: I love that scene. It just comes out of left field. Betty's definitely a thrill-seeker. I saw her as this completely innocent young girl from a small town who suddenly finds herself in a world she doesn't belong in and is ready to take on a new identity; even if it's somebody else's.

GF: Were you thinking of Doris Day or Grace Kelly?

NW: Yeah. And Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak.

GF: Novak seems right because her character in Vertigo (1958) also starts out as someone else. Was playing Betty the key to finding Diane, or vice versa?

NW: I couldn't have done Diane without doing Betty. Knowing that things once went well for Betty is what caused Diane's depression to emerge. Everyone's experienced some degree of depression in their life and I definitely have, but not to the point where I didn't get out of bed or shower for days.

GF: What the film's really about, though, is the trampling of dreams in Hollywood, isn't it?

NW: Yes, and how it can stifle creativity. David must have experienced some of that when the network refused to finance the Mulholland Drive series.

GF: What did you learn making the film?

NW: David helped bring me out of my shell. My spirit had been broken a bit over the years by my having to work on films I didn't love. Hollywood's a surreal place, and it really is an assault on your spirit. David saw me for myself and was OK with my self-doubts. And I give him the part of myself I felt I'd been hiding for so long, that didn't need to be hidden. But he's an artist and he knows that creativity, humor and sexuality all come out of a dark place.

GF: Do you have a partner?

NW: Yeah. We've been together a year and a half.

GF: How do you balance work and love?

NW: My work is the only thing I've been able to depend on. I've never been completely secure in a relationship to the point where I've felt like I'm going to be completely taken care of emotionally.

GF: Do you want to stay in Hollywood and make a life there?

NW: I have been making a life there, yet I've never felt like it was home. I need to leave L.A. every three months for the sake of my head.


GF: What were you doing in Toronto the morning of the terrorist attacks?

NW: I'd had my hair and makeup done and was doing a magazine interview when someone walked in and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We turned on the telly, but we had no idea it was an attack at that point. It just seemed like something had gone horribly wrong. I finished the interview, which was hard to concentrate on, because I wanted to get out of there and watch the rest of the news. I think I did two or three more interviews, but after the first one I realized I didn't want to be beholden to whatever I was saying because who the fuck am I to comment on such a big tragedy? David (Lynch) and Laura (Elena Harring) and a couple of the publicists and I stayed in the hospitality suite and watched it all on TV for about two hours. We were all crying and shaking. My brother, Ben, lives in New York, so I was trying to call him the whole time and I was thinking the worst because I couldn't get a hold of him for three hours.

GF: How did you feel after the initial shock?

NW: Like an idiot who just needed to be told what to do. I wanted to be in New York with my brother, somehow getting actively involved and helping. But I felt unequipped so I had a massive depression. I felt, How do I fit in? I'm just using up space here. I was addicted to watching the news and drawn to hearing people's stories, so I also felt weirdly voyeuristic. My mum, who was in France, was hysterical when she finally got hold of me on the phone. She was like, "You've got to leave America! You're not safe!" And I said, "Mum, calm down, I live in America and I'm feeling this in the same way as any other American." And it became really clear to me that this is my home (cries briefly) and I'm not walking away from it. I didn't know how to express it to my mother because she's conflicted about her children being in America. But right now I feel like going out and holding up an American flag. I've always felt different from Americans, but we are in this together. It's not about defining what culture you're from - we are all human beings on the one planet.

GF: How did you leave Toronto?

NW: I went by bus to L.A. on the following Friday. I was on it for 50 hours! We didn't stop except for refueling and getting disgusting meals. (laughs) I'm a vegetarian and I ended up eating my first burger in 15 years. We couldn't even shower. But for some reason I felt safe, like I was in some kind of bubble. I was coming down with this cold and had all these mixed emotions so I took NyQuil and knocked myself out for 24 hours straight.

GF: What's it like being back in L.A.?

NW: Weird. I've been trying to make calls and get on with things but everything seems frivolous and mundane. You feel guilty for trying to bounce back, but the truth is we have to. I am trying to move forward. If it feels right to get on the phone and drum up business, then that's your way of dealing with it, and if you just want to be a heap on the floor, then that's another way. I guess I'm a mixture of both. But watching the way people are coming together now...I mean, that's pretty wonderful.

© 2001 Brant Publications

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