BY INGRID SISCHY PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELLEN VON UNWERTH
INGRID SISCHY: Some seismographic events occurred during your childhood—the kind of things that can really be formative.
NAOMI WATTS: Yes. They really shape you. Mine was not your conventional upbringing, but it was exciting and adventurous. It was by no means painful, though there was a lot of sadness. My father was not around a lot, and he died in 1976, when I was seven.
IS: Wasn’t he with the rock band Pink Floyd?
NW: Yes. He was their sound engineer and also the road manager. I have very few memories of experiences with him—I’m sure it’s psychology 101 that I blocked those out. There are certain things that can act as a trigger, though, like a photograph or a person that I run into, but for the most part, where he’s concerned, I remember big stages and lots of equipment—just fragmented stuff. I have a fantastic photograph that my brother, Ben, printed and framed for me of my dad at work. All this equipment is just piled everywhere. During the shooting of 21 Grams I had it mounted in my trailer.
IS: Your parents separated when you were four. I’m always puzzled when people say that they remember everything from that age or earlier.
NW: I don’t get it, either. Memories from the crib? Not me. My parents’ separating is not in my conscious memory, but I know it would have affected me. My father remarried, but towards the end of his life, my parents were very much in communication and thinking about rekindling their relationship, which obviously made his death a lot more difficult, especially for my mom. It was very sudden, and very shocking and upsetting. My mom was still young and did not know how she would cope with two small children.
IS: What made you happy as a kid?
NW: I just loved that there were lots of people around. My mother hates it when I say that she was a hippie because now she’s not that at all. She has two shops in England, in Norfolk—House Bait I and II. They are full of eclectic stuff—anything from chandeliers to Indian slippers or Moroccan rugs. Growing up, we weren’t living in communes or anything, but she was baking her own bread and making her own clothes. There was pot smoking, and you know, it was the music world. It was hippies in their prime.
IS: And your brother, Ben—he’s a photographer, and the two of you are obviously close. Were you always?
NW: Yes. There’s only a 19-month separation in our ages. Basically, since we could walk or talk we’ve been at each other’s throats. We hated and loved each other, beat the shit out of each other [laughs], competed with each other, and stole from each other—all those things that brothers and sisters do.
IS: Tell me more about your mother. Did she ever want to perform?
NW: She had tried being an actress and wanted to do more—that was definitely her dream. And I believe she would have been very good. But she had us when she was still very young. There were no nannies, so she had to look after us herself. We were lucky to have a roof over our heads.
IS: That roof was in England and Wales initially. The next stop was Australia. Why?
NW: Although my mother was doing quite well in London, after a while it became tough. By the early ’80s, London was in a recession, so she decided to move to Sydney. She felt that Australia was the land of opportunity, and indeed it was. It was there that she started doing costumes and sets for movies. So, much to my brother’s and my chagrin, we were shipped out there. She had remarried by that point— my stepfather was also in a band.
IS: She did it again.
NW: Yes. [laughs] His band did really well in Australia. My stepfather actually featured pretty heavily in my life. He comes from good English stock, and he was really careful about our education— which was still not that great—but while we were living in Britain he put us in the right boarding schools in England. It was a good thing that Mother married him. I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, though—they divorced and it wasn’t the best parting. Now she goes out with a fishmonger who is the greatest man. He has really high-end fish shops—he smokes his own salmon and makes his own Thai fish cakes—and he’s completely gorgeous. But she won’t live with him— she’s like, “No, no, no . . . not with your Wellington boots!” Her house is decorated like a film set.
IS: It sounds like you were always surrounded by people living some sort of creative life. But what about you?
NW: In fact, I really felt as if I was the only one in my family who wasn’t creative. When my brother was a child, he was always doing these comic strips and wild drawings for hours. And my mum could draw as well, and my stepfather was a musician. So I was like, What’s my thing? What was my creative voice, and how could I find it? I always felt like the outsider in my family because I wasn’t creative. Even when I went to acting classes, it just felt like a hobby more than, you know, “This is art.” It wasn’t until much later that I started to really understand what my particular creativity was and to identify with it.
IS: Tell me about the evolution of all that.
NW: Well, the first time I got an inkling of the magic of theater was when we were living in England, in a small village, Shoreham. I was about four or five years old, and I was sitting in the front row watching my mum play Eliza Doolittle in the local theater group’s production of My Fair Lady. She was decked out in all these beautiful costumes and a wig and makeup, and talking in this funny perky voice, and I just remember thinking, Wow! I kept waving to her, and she wasn’t acknowledging me. I kept thinking, Why won’t she notice? I wanted to be up there playing with her in that world. Obviously, she was very committed to her character and not thinking about her child at that moment, till it came to the point that I was waving so much that she had to give me some sort of sign. And as soon as she did, I understood that it was pretend. And that just seemed so fascinating to me; it was like a little secret that I was let in on, and it just transported me into that world of make-believe. Somehow I thought, That's what I'm going to do one day. In fact, I eventually became a part of that theater group and did lots of different skits and plays with them.
Is: What kind of student were you?
Nw: Bad. The school reports were always, "If she could just concentrate, she'd do so much better. She's smart but she's always looking out the window, dreaming." At boarding school I got grounded a lot for sneaking out in the middle of the night. I always hung out with people older than me, and I would break out with them at night. I was just craving their experience, their wisdom.
Is: Sounds like the perfect experience for Flirting . To me, it's the great classic of girls' boarding-school movies. You, Nicole Kidman, and Thandie Newton are a riot in it. Which brings up your tight friendship with Nicole. It's been discussed so much that I think we should give the two of you and the readers a fresh approach by not rerunning the same famous story of how you met. Clearly, you still adore and support each other to this day, but it seems like in Australia, it's a very small community of actors and eventually everyone knows everyone else.
Nw: Yes. It feels very intimate when you compare it with America. And if you didn't know each other back there, you tend to find each other over here. In fact, a lot of the Australian friends I have now are relationships that I've formed in this country. Because you crave that connection with like-minded people.
Is: Did you graduate from high school?
NW: No, I didn't. My mum was very upset about it, but it's not like she was of an academic mind. By that time I was in a drama program; it was pretty intensive, and I was very involved in it. In retrospect, I wish I had stayed at school too, though! But anyway, when I left, I went to Japan as a model, where I had possibly one of the most depressing experiences. I found it to be a real attack on the spirit, one that I wasn't prepared for. It was a very strange, disappointing time in my life, but a learning experience. It was after that that I made the decision that I didn't want to be in front of the camera ever again. So I started to work in advertising in a department store back in Sydney. I was only 19, and I had a position of real responsibility. They wanted to bring youth into their style coverage; I'd gone in for the interview and said I could do it, so they gave me the job. I kind of enjoyed it even though it was very stressful. Then I got poached from there to go to this arty fashion magazine called Follow Me as the assistant fashion editor. I worked there for about a year when I was offered the fashion-editor spot at another magazine.
IS: And during this time you stayed true to your vow to never go in front of the camera?
Nw: Yes, but then a friend from my drama-class days talked me into going to this weekend drama workshop. I said, "No, no. I'm not doing that anymore." She said, "Please, I know you're not interested, but we really need the numbers-we don't have enough girls." So I said okay. By the end of the weekend I realized I had been living a lie, that this was my dream, and I was asking myself how I could walk away from something that truly excited me-all things they were saying to me in the workshop as well. So I was very high and charged up on that experience, and on Monday I walked into my boss's office and said I was quitting to become an actor. Everyone thought I was crazy to give up the position I had at 20, but two weeks later I went to the premiere of Dead Calm , because one of Nicole's and my mutual friends invited me, and I met the director John Duigan there. He said, "I'm doing a movie, Flirting, and you look like the perfect type for it. Would you call the casting director and maybe we can read with you?" So I did, and I got the part. It was this fantastic experience.
Is: So as the first blush of success was happening, was it your intention to go to Hollywood? In fact, did you view Hollywood the way a lot of writers, directors, and actors do-as either the place that can kill vision, or the place where it all happens?
NW: I just wanted to work. I mean, sure I had artistic dreams and people I wanted to work with, but those were so far-fetched at that point. Just working on a dreadful TV series was enough. I didn't delineate between what I should do or shouldn't do, I just wanted to work. It's only been me, is way beyond what I ever dreamed of-to have that privilege is mind-blowing. Now I'm able to say, "No, that's not something I want to do," or "That's a sell-out movie," or "That's not going to bring me happiness."
Is: So what made you decide to check out L.A.?
Nw: I don't know-naivete, I guess. By Australian standards I was probably ambitious.
IS: And did you have friends who had come to America and had started to make it?
Nw: Well, only Nicole.
IS: With Nicole being married to Tom Cruise by that point, did you feel like you could jut call her up when you arrived in the States?
Nw: No, but a mutual friend of ours, Becca, who went to school with Nicole and who I was very close with said, "I'm going to call and say to expect your call." So I phoned, and Nicole was so great. Sh invited me to Montana, where she and Tom were shooting Far and Away -I think I flew there on a private jet with Emilio Estevez to hang out for the weekend. I thought, Oh, my God, this is freaky. But we had a great time. What was so beautiful about it was that Nicole was excited by her life, but also pinching herself, realizing that it was really quite charmed and unusual.
Is: It wasn't long after that trip to L.A. that you made the decision to leave Australia for real and go for it in Hollywood. And that's when your now well-known story of struggling to make it began. I know there was about decade of hard times, blips of success with plenty of rejection, but you hung in there.
Nw: [laughs] Boy, did I hang in there.
IS: Where did you find the emotional resources to keep trying?
NW: I don't know, Ingrid. I just wanted to be a working actor so much, and I was quite resolved in that goal. And the thing is, I did have bites along the way. There were moments when it looked promising, but it didn't quite turn out. I never had to take another job, though I did go through periods of being incredibly broke, getting kicked out of my rental apartment, and losing my health insurance. It's just that when I was working, the highs were so great, and the intimacy and surrogate family you become part of was really worth everything. It was like the gypsies joining together.
Is: What would you do during these periods when you weren't working?
NW: I would go on auditions, I would go to yoga, I would go back to drama class-I went to lots of those. The worst thing about it, though, was the fact that rejection was coming so much, I started to believe it. I do ask myself how I managed to hang in there. I've always had this survival mechanism though, as does my brother-in fact, it runs all through my family. We all work incredibly hard, and it comes from having had no money.
IS: I read that at one point your agent told you that a lot of the people you were meeting with were picking up an air of desperation from you, which must have been hell to hear.
NW: Yes, it was. Mulholland Drive  was in the can at that point. I was pretty sure it was good and would make some noise, but I wasn't trusting my instincts because I'd been through that before. So my agents were continuing to send me out for pilots. I had no money, no health insurance, and I was going on all these auditions for things I didn't believe in but that I was desperate for because I needed the work. As a result, I was shaky and intense and nervous and laughing or smiling too much, and I was making people uncomfortable. It was awkward. So my then agent called me in and sat me down-and in some ways it was great that she did this, because it put me back into a take-charge-of-this-situation mode-but she said, "Honey, you're a great actress and I believe in you, so I took it upon myself to ask these people what's going on because you should be working. They're saying that you're too intense, that you want it too much." And then she asked me, "Are you worried about your age?" And that was like, "Come on guys, leave my age out of it," and I just started sobbing uncontrollably, like I'd reached absolute rock bottom. So I went back to my tiny little apartment in Venice [California], and my mom, who was staying with me at the time, was like, "Do not believe these people, Naomi. They cannot define you, they don't know you. So what if you're desperate and strange in the room. Of course you are-you're human!" And she just absolutely went off into protective mother mode and said, "Don't you take this on. You're in a situation that's taking control of you, so cancel it out."
Is: How great.
Nw. Yeah, and I was like, "She's right." In retrospect, all those disappointments were the perfect thing because if I'd gotten one of those parts I'd auditioned for, I would probably still be on some TV series today. I wouldn't have had the freedom to pursue the things I've been able to do over the past few years. In a very obscure way, I was looking after myself, because it was only two months later that Mulholland Drive premiered at Cannes.
Is: And boom-a star is born! Were you surprised by the reaction to the film?
NW: Yes, beyond shocked. Making the movie was just fantastic-I'll never be able to say David Lynch's name without expressing my gratitude. I keep thanking him, and he keeps saying, "Shut up, Naomi; that's enough already. You did it." And I say, "But David, you took a chance on me, you noticed me, you unveiled every single mask I've ever put on." And there were a lot.
IS: And so now there are a number of films about to come out with you as a feature player, such as Ned Kelly, and of course, 21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film with you, Sean Penn, and Benicio Del Toro. First, hats off on your performance in it. I attended an early screening of 21 Grams, and when it was over, people just sat there unable to move. Everything about the movie breaks formulas, starting with how the narrative unfolds almost from the inside out. Watching you pull off the unbelievably painful part of Christina-a woman who is hit with tragedy after tragedywith such depth and without a lick of phoniness, I couldn't help thinking about how you have used your life for your art. Of course, I don 1 mean that this, or any other film, is literally your life-just that your ability to use experience gives your work a particular power. Also, you seem to be pulled toward directors who want to break formulas, such as Lynch and Inarritu.
NW: Yeah, I do enjoy that. I tend to gravitate toward those kinds of projects. I had seen Alejandro's film Amores Perros , and it had blown me away and had stuck with me for days. As for the content of 21 Grams, we're all experiencing our own turmoil and pain every day, and even if we're happy, we don't have to look very far to find pain around us, so why should we think of it as negative? That's one of the things that Alejandro would always preach to us-that pain is power because it keeps you alive, it makes you ask questions, and it moves you forward. Though don't get me wrong-I love a good comedy, too.
Is: 21 Grams is meant to be the amount one's soul weighs, right?
NW: Allegedly. It's the difference in body weight between life and death-some pragmatists would say it's the weight of things like breath and fluids, others would say the soul. When we first spoke, Alejandro told me the movie was about love and revenge and guilt and redemption and loss and grief and all those things, and I got more and more excited about it. Without even reading the script, I said, "I'll do it." Christina is the most beautiful character I think I've ever played.
Is: Why do you think he came to you?
Nw. He'd seen not only Mulholland Drive, but also this short film I had made with a friend, Scott Coffey, called Ellie Parker, that's sort of a documentation of my experiences in L.A. It's heightened beyond, but there's definitely a lot of my own voice and frustrations. Scott wrote and directed the film, which cost nothing. It's very raw, and that's what I think really sold Alejandro on me.
IS: How did you get ready for the part?
Nw. I did a lot more research than I've ever done, finding grief support groups and substance-abuse support groups in L.A., and talking to the people in them. To play Christina in the most truthful way possible I needed to get as close to all that as I could, and that meant really, really exploring grief. Obviously, I had my own stuff come up on the shoot. It's funny, every time you choose something-now that I am choosing-at some point you find the reason why you're there. And this was obviously stuff about my father. In preparing for the role I read all this literature about what people go through in their recovery or in their grieving, and being so young when my father died-and my mum being so young-we did not know what you need to do to grieve, or what you need to allow in yourself or others. But when I began reading these books I started thinking, Oh, my God, that's exactly what I thought growing up. I think death is a subject that should be explored. We're so afraid of death in our culture, but I think if we understand it then we'll appreciate the life we have more, rather than just existing.
This is actually something I experienced during the screening of 21 Grams as well. It's a very powerful film, and it brings up all kinds of stuff. When I first saw it I didn't want to talk much. In fact, I walked out and went straight to the bathroom and burst into tears. Anyway, we came out of the screening, and everybody was around and some people were talking and some people wanted to hold you-whatever it is, the reaction is always intense. And my mom was there, and I could see she was in a place where she needed to be alone, so I thought, I'll let her come and talk when she's ready. And then I saw her just sitting there, and I thought, Oh no, I hope she's okay, or maybe she didn't like it. And then about an hour later she came up to me and hugged me and just started sobbing, and I said, "What, Mom? What is it?" and she said, "I'm so sorry, Naomi." I asked her what she meant, and she said, "I always thought you were the resilient one because you expressed your emotions when your father died, but your brother didn't. And it's obvious you've experienced such pain. I am so sorry. But I am so proud of you for turning that into something meaningful." That was unbelievable acknowledgement from her.
Is: Your mother would have a real laugh if she'd seen you at our photo shoot. The way you made that caviar picture your own was a riot. Conceptually, you knew what our photographer, Ellen von Unwerth, wanted. You were right there, but you added your own thing so you weren't a puppet. You told us that you hate caviar, and that inspired Ellen to do something iconoclastic with it.
Nw. [laughs] I never really got into it. Baked beans is my thing. I grew up on them. There were times when it was all I could afford. Now I can afford caviar, but you won't see me chowing down on it. Baked beans turn me on a lot more.
Is: It's funny, I've been noticing them on menus lately. You're clearly not alone. But I want to go back to what a sport you were with the pictures that we did that day.
NW: Well, I could imagine this world that Ellen was creating, and I just wanted to tap into it with her. I wanted to show her that I was totally willing to take on the character by throwing the champagne all over myself. And then there was something about working with her because she is a woman. I don't think I would have done those pictures with a man. They were humorous, irreverent, and not something I'd done or entered into before, and it seemed like, Yeah, this is fun; this is a ride, and I want to be a part of it. Taking on a character is the only way I can have my photo taken. I can't stand against a white backdrop and just look pretty. I have to assume some kind of world, and it's all set up with the photographer. If I don't connect with the photographer I'm bored senseless and I want out of there quickly. It's up to them to create their world and their vision, but it's my job to give back so they're surprised. Otherwise it's just following instructions, and who wants to do that?
IS: What I liked was that it was a day when I got to see the side of Naomi Watts that your friends know, but that the audience has only guessed at. Another favorite moment for me was at lunch. There it was-the healthy grilled chicken, the healthy grilled salmon, the salads. And all of a sudden, in walks a couple of people with a Yorkie and a cake box. It was clear they were aiming for you. Soon I saw you digging into a cupcake from Magnolia, the most popular bakery in the West Village. You'd clearly made sure there were enough cupcakes for whoever wanted them, but you weren t waiting. That chocolate cupcake was gone in a jiffy.
NM: [laughs] As a matter of fact, I just came back from Magnolia right now. I took my dog for a walk, and we stopped there on the way.
Copyright 2003 Interview
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