Though she appeared in John Duigan's 1991 coming-of-age comedy Flirting, which launched the careers of Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton, Naomi Watts spent years in the wilderness before finally getting her due. Throughout the '90s, she struggled to find footing in Hollywood, but she was mostly limited to bit parts, save for a lead turn in a straight-to-video Children Of The Corn sequel. But after David Lynch plucked her photo from a stack of headshots for 2001's Mulholland Dr., Watts' star ascended in short order. Renowned for her willingness to take on roles of great emotional intensity—and for a strange propensity for appearing in remakes—Watts earned an Oscar nomination for her bruising turn in 21 Grams, and has extended her career with carefully selected parts in We Don't Live Here Anymore, I Heart Huckabees, The Painted Veil, and Eastern Promises. She's also proved herself a bankable Hollywood actress with lead performances in The Ring, The Ring Two, and Peter Jackson's King Kong remake.
In Michael Haneke's new English-language remake of his controversial 1997 thriller Funny Games, Watts gives another full-barreled performance as a bourgeois wife and mother who tries to will her family to survive a home invasion. Watts recently spoke to The A.V. Club about her humble beginnings, her propensity for remakes, and the impact emotional roles have on her psyche.
The A.V. Club: What experience did you have with Michael Haneke's work before agreeing to star in this movie?
Naomi Watts: I had seen three of his films, starting with The Piano Teacher. That screened in Cannes the year that Mulholland Dr. was in competition. I didn't get to see it in Cannes, but I did later on my own, and I found it incredibly powerful. I saw Code Unknown because Alejandro [González Iñárritu] had screened it for Sean [Penn], Benicio [Del Toro], and myself, because it was an inspiration for him when we were making 21 Grams. And then I saw Caché. So I was very familiar with his work, and that was my initial interest to work with him. Then I saw [the '97 Funny Games]… and that's when I started struggling with the idea of [starring in a remake of] it, but I felt compelled to do it, because I had such a strong reaction the first time I saw it. It really was one of those films that stays with you and gets under your skin. At the time, when I saw it, it brought up so much, I had to discuss it. I couldn't believe how [Haneke] played with us as an audience and tricked us, and commented on his trickery the whole time. Once I spoke to him, I understood what he was trying to do. The [remake] is risky and controversial. Is this going to land well with an American audience? Are they going to get it? Ultimately, I wanted to work with Michael, and I believed in what he was saying and doing.
AVC: Given how closely this film hews to the original film, how did that figure into your preparation for this part?
NW: The preparation was quite simple. We [Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart] were being led by these two boys [Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet] the whole time, and we had to react to the situation they put us in. We talked about this American family being different from the one in the original. We wanted them to be warmer and busier, and that meant talking over the top of each other and more noise, like the kid having a Game Boy in the back of the car. Little things like that. I had endless discussions with Michael privately about how I would deal with this situation myself, and putting myself in that woman's shoes. I'm so sure that I would have been able to defend my family. I know that I'd be capable of doing whatever was necessary in my family's defense. But you just don't know, do you? You don't know if you're going to become stronger and more powerful because of your fear, or paralyzed because of it.
AVC: How did your performance exist in relation to Susanne Lothar's in the original film? Was that on your mind at all?
NW: I've done a few remakes now, as you know. And my philosophy is, you see the [original] film once, and that's it. You have to do whatever you can to shut it out, because you don't want your performance to be tainted. You don't want to fall into the trap of comparisons, basically.
AVC: But given that the film is almost a shot-for-shot remake, how did that figure into the way Haneke directed actors?
NW: It was difficult. The blocking was dictated by the fact that he was doing a shot-for-shot remake. That was a great challenge. And that's when you did go, "Oh my God, I'm going to end up giving the same performance, because I have to move here and I have to move there." That was quite scary, but Michael had such passion for what he was doing, and he gave such attention to every single detail. He knows what he wants, and ultimately he's the director, and he's the man to follow.
AVC: Haneke's films have a very cold, precise quality. Is the man different than the movies? What was the mood on the set?
NW: Well, it was a very tense subject, and it made for a tense feeling on the set. We were all affected by what we were doing. At times, we were having to get off the set for a while just to break away from it. And other times, we would just stay right there, crack some ridiculous jokes, and work our way through it. Fortunately, Tim Roth has a fantastic sense of humor, and he'd do whatever he could to create some kind of reprieve. As for Haneke, he's a very gentle man. He's very soft-spoken and sweet, but incredibly intelligent. He knows so much about everything. Ultimately, I trusted him at every turn, even if I struggled with the material or had different ideas about it. I did my best to give him whatever he wanted.
AVC: This Funny Games is essentially the same movie it was in '97, but how does the context of today's time make it different? How might it be different than in '97?
NW: Well, the horror genre has had such a kickstart in the last 10 years or so. Though Funny Games isn't quite a genre film—it had a foot in and a foot out—it speaks to the audience that might be interested in seeing films in that genre. So I think it has great relevance now.
AVC: How about for you? You said you struggled with whether to do the movie. What tipped the scales for you?
NW: Again, the main reason was to work with Michael. I feel that film is a director's medium, and I want to work with great directors. And I think Michael is one who will be remembered, and his films will be studied in the years to come. In fact, when I was wrestling with the decision, I spoke with a couple of other director friends of mine—some that I'd worked with, others that I hadn't—and they all said, "You've got to do it." Whenever a film allows you to think and feel and take it beyond the moment, I think it's achieved something. And Funny Games does that.
AVC: Have you watched this film with an audience? Do you have a sense of how it's working on them?
NW: No, I haven't seen it with an audience yet.
AVC: I remember seeing the original film in a sold-out festival screening, among 800 other people, and it felt like the air was getting sucked out of the room. Are you nervous about what kind of response this new film is going to get?
NW: You're always nervous about how a film lands with an audience. And this one especially. It's a very controversial film: Will they get it, or will it just aggravate them? But I think it was always Michael's intention to get under the skin of the audience. He says, very matter-of-factly, "This is hard work. I dare you to go there."
AVC: Michael Haneke and Alejandro González Iñárritu have espoused similar philosophies on film violence, and 21 Grams and Funny Games both address that to a large degree. Is it fair to say that your appearance in these movies means that you share their concerns?
NW: Yeah, I do. The use of violence in movies is a subject that's worth addressing. I'm not standing on a soapbox or wagging a finger, but I'm interested in those subjects for sure. And they're both very responsible in how they go about it.
AVC: Your role in Funny Games requires a lot of emotional intensity, and you're well-known for taking on such parts. What sort of toll does that exact on your psyche? And what do you do to cope with it?
NW: Some movies are the kind you take home with you at the end of the day, and some, you can let go. This was one of those that did get under my skin making it. It was very powerful, but I can turn it off. At the end of a shoot, that's it. I'm done. But I don't mind doing that with my work. I don't mind taking it home. It's not like that's all I am, and everything in my life is part of that. I am able to have moments of lightness and laughing my head off. For instance, if it's not too much information, my son was conceived during the time of filming Funny Games. [Laughs.] So it can't all be bad.
AVC: You talked about film as a director's medium. Does that figure into your philosophy as far as how you choose the roles you do?
NW: Absolutely. Directors are our teachers, and I'm always craving to work with a great director. They're pretty much the first thing that interests me about a project. Let's put it this way: It'll take me a lot longer to read a script if there's no director attached.
AVC: Are you aggressive in seeking out filmmakers you'd like to work with, or do you pretty much let the work come to you at this point?
NW: I've definitely made it known to a few directors that I'd like to work with them. Not necessarily calling them at home or stalking them, but if I run into them, I can sometimes be pretty vocal about it. I don't know if I've done anything beyond that, though.
AVC: What's the most challenging role you've taken on to date?
NW: Probably this one and 21 Grams, because they required so much of me emotionally. In a way, King Kong was also very challenging, because it was physically demanding, and it was a long, long shoot.
AVC: With King Kong, you also had to act against a green screen. Did that take some getting used to?
NW: Oh yeah. That was extremely challenging. Once you get used to it, it's not so bad, but it took me a lot of time to get there. [The filmmakers] devised a lot of different ways to make it easier, like having Andy Serkis [the model for Kong] to act with, which was pretty great.
AVC: He isn't a very imposing actor.
NW: [Laughs.] No, he's not. But he's a brilliant actor, and he can get you to some pretty believable places. You'd be surprised how convincing he could be.
AVC: Now that you've achieved a level of mainstream success with the Ring movies and King Kong, do you feel obliged to sustain a certain level of fame by appearing in more commercial projects?
NW: I'm not obliged, hopefully, to do anything with my work. I don't think that I could survive that. I have to be able to do something that I could act with. I couldn't do what's expected of me.
AVC: What was Hollywood like for you when you first arrived? How well did your expectations meet the reality?
NW: I got the sense pretty quickly that there were some people who were overly enthusiastic, and not in an authentic way. It seemed to be a cultural thing. People were so full of promise, and saying, "Yeah, it's gonna be great, and you're incredible…" and it seemed to me that they were saying that to get rid of you quickly or something. [Laughs.] They think that's what you want to hear. I slowly understood that they didn't really mean what they said. They were just being polite and moving on to the next thing.
AVC: Were you able to cobble together enough roles to make a living?
NW: I came to America with some savings, and I think I got pretty close to having nothing left before Mulholland Dr. During that time, I'd get to the point where I was just about to throw in the towel, and then I'd get a job that would hook me in and keep the money flowing a bit. I was never completely destitute. I think I borrowed money once off a friend, but I've always been quite careful with my money, having come from not much of it.
AVC: What was your involvement in Mulholland Dr., from its origins as an ABC pilot to a feature film?
NW: Well, it was supposed to be a television series, as you mention, but [the network] panicked at the last minute and felt it was too weird or something. So the project sat around doing nothing for a year and a half. And then finally the French producers of some of David [Lynch]'s earlier work made him an offer and he pieced it all together. I think he had a great meditation one day, and he found a way to make it work, and that was that. In terms of my role, it was always about myself and Laura Harring, and he wound up expanding the female roles a bit more in the rewrite. I'm not sure why, but I'm obviously very grateful and lucky because of it.
AVC: What's next for you?
NW: I don't have anything in place that's definite. I'm talking to people about a couple of different projects, but I'm not sure which ones will fall into place first. For now, I'm just enjoying being a mom, and I probably won't work for the next few months.