By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Naomi Watts arrives for an interview looking glamorous in a champagne colored top and matching pants, accented by a sheer jacket. It is a sharp contrast to the muddy mess she is in for most of “The Impossible,” in which she plays one of the survivors of the 2004 tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand, killing thousands of residents and tourists in a matter of minutes and decimating towns and villages in its watery path.
Born in England and raised in Australia, the blond beauty is known for tackling roles that demand a lot of physical as well as emotional stamina, including “Mulholland Drive,” “The Ring” and perhaps most notably “King Kong.” She also is unafraid to portray real people. Among them, exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame in “Fair Game”, J. Edgar Hoover’s loyal secretary Helen Gandy in “J. Edgar” and the doomed People’s Princess in “Diana,” due out next year.
The Oscar nominated actress says she was eager to get under the skin of Maria Belon, who went on holiday to Thailand with her husband and three young children in 2004, and nearly lost her life and family. Watts, a mother herself with two young sons, spent some time with Belon prior to production in Thailand and came away from their meeting thoroughly impressed and determined to tell the woman’s remarkable story. (The family’s ethnicity in the movie has been changed from Spanish to British though the filmmakers behind the production are Spanish. The director is Juan Antonio Bayona, who previously helmed the acclaimed horror movie “The Orphanage.”)
The 44-year-old (who shares a home and family with American actor Liev Schreiber) braved weeks in a water tank filled with floating debris to portray the doctor-turned-stay-at-home mom, who finds the wherewithal not only to survive the horrific disaster but also to show compassion for other victims of the destructive tsunami.
Watts co-stars with Ewan McGregor, who plays her husband, but they spend little screen time together as the disaster separates them for most of the movie. Instead, she spends most of her screen time with up-and-coming actor Tom Holland, who was playing the title role in the London stage production of “Billy Elliot” before landing the part of playing Watts’ oldest son in “The Impossible.”
Q: How did you prepare to be soaked and pummeled for weeks on end?
Watts: I did train a bit in the lead up to production because I wanted to be fit. It requires stamina and cardio fitness to be in that situation. It was easy for Tom, because he is a trained athlete, and a proper acrobat. He did that “Billy Elliot” for two years every night. And he also was only 14. (She chuckles.) I remember after I finished “King Kong,” I made a promise to myself never to do an action movie of any kind again. Famous last words! It’s like childbirth, isn’t it? You forget and there you are again going through the same experience.
Q: Why did you want to make this movie?
Watts: I got pulled in emotionally. When I first heard the idea of making a movie about the tsunami, it didn’t sound right. How do you do that without it becoming spectacular and that just would be so wrong. So many lives were lost and everything, but then I heard it was Juan Antonio directing it, and I thought, well, this is a proper filmmaker. I saw (his earlier film) “The Orphanage” and so I read the script (for “The Impossible”). The minute I read it, it just felt rooted in truth. It just felt necessary in a way because it was like an intimate piece of storytelling about this family as well as addressing this tsunami.
Q: Do you remember hearing about the disaster when it happened?
Watts: I followed it in the news at the time but I don’t think I really understood it until I made this film.
Q: Was it difficult to put yourself in this situation?
Watts: That’s the thing about these stories is you wonder how you would deal with it if it was you. Actors will try anything just to get themselves to the right pitch that the scene requires. I have ideas about how things are going to work before, and then things happen on the day (of shooting) that make it hard to reach and so you have to recreate it and think about it in a different way. There’s no question that my reality becomes mixed in.
Q: You spent a great deal of time with woman who actually went through this. Can you talk about your time with her and how that helped you?
Watts: It helps a great deal. I’ve done a few movies now where I’ve played real life characters, and it’s different every time. In this case, I didn’t have to worry about the walk and talk and the look of Maria because nobody knows her so I really got to invent that part. But the power of what she went through, it was so big, and her piece of the story is just a tiny piece of this massive epic story. So it had a pressure of its own kind, which was to tell it with as much truth as possible, and there’s a responsibility there for the people that suffered and lost lives. But I was very involved with her. We spoke a lot. We had one meeting at the beginning, and I wanted to ask her all kinds of questions. I just thought how do I begin? I’m just an actor. She lived through this.
Q: Did you struggle a bit with that?
Watts: I did. It felt wrong and perverse in a way. But that was just all my stuff and I think there was just such willingness on her part, because although she had reservations about telling her story for a movie, she also felt that it was right because it wasn’t just her story. It was a story of so many, and people needed to understand it.
Q: How did she strike you as an individual?
Watts: She’s an impressive woman. If I’d met her without knowing she’d gone through this tsunami, like at a dinner party or something, I would probably find her intimidating because of the way she speaks about life and her view on life. She also has a sense of positivity and fearlessness, which is not something I relate to. I’m full of cynicism. (She laughs.)
Q: Did you change your perspective about life after playing this part?
Watts: I don’t like to throw around that term too easily, but there’s no question that Maria has left a massive profound impact on my life and she’s inspired me.
Q: What did you learn?
Watts: She’s just full of courage and so centered and connected to earth. The one thing she kept speaking about was that she felt she was sure of every move and decision she made in the aftermath. I just don’t know how to do that. (She laughs again.)
Q: Do you feel closer to your family now that you shot this movie?
Watts: I’m always close to my family, but it does have that effect on you. When I watched the movie for the first time and even when I was making it, the ideas that ran through my head were overwhelming.
Q: Was there a day during the making of this film that you wouldn’t want to relive because it was just so much water?
Watts: Yeah. I was in the water tank for five or six weeks, and it was incredibly strenuous. I had a horrific cough that I couldn’t get rid of. If you’re in the water, you’re not going to get rid of a cough, and that went on and on and on. I was on all kinds of medications, so it was tough. There was one day that went particularly bad. It was a technical problem. I couldn’t get out of a chair (underwater), and I had already reached my limit holding my breath. It gives you a tiny glimpse of how panicked you can get.
Q: Was it more difficult doing the physical stuff or the emotional stuff?
Watts: I would say the physical stuff is harder. I find the emotional stuff quite fun. I’m crazy. (She laughs.)
Q: You filmed this on location in Thailand. What was it like working there and have you gone back since?
Watts: I went to Thailand quite a few times before the tsunami and then we were there working for about five months. I haven’t been back since. I’d love to go back.
Q: What did you make of your teenage co-star Tom Holland, who plays your son?
Watts: He was someone who walked in with a discipline and a respect for the craft, so it was great. Ewan probably had it a lot harder because he had kids that had never acted before, and they’re very young, and when they’re that little, they’re fighting to focus and keep up their energy for hours on end. But Tom just soaked it up. He just loves it. He really loves what it is to be an actor, and he just blossomed. Each child actually in the movie had at least two siblings, and they were all there and their moms and dads and we had this little mini school and playground where we would just meet all the time and have dinners and lunches and times together, or surfing or whatever.
Q: Christmas is coming. How are you going to celebrate it?
Watts: I will be with my family. We’ll be in New York. My mum’s coming. We have a very traditional Christmas: a tree, lots of eating, games, a bit of arguing.
Q: You wrapped “Diana.” What was it like playing the princess?
Watts: It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I strived to get the essence of her.
Q: What is your next project?
Watts: I don’t know. I don’t have one set up. I’ve got a couple (films) coming out but I don’t have any work coming up. My next project is to stay at home.