Film: High Wattage

Naomi Watts discusses The Painted Veil and the perils of working with apes

Jan 17, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts is one of the best actresses alive. From her breakthrough performance in David Lynch's 2001 mindbender Mulholland Dr. to the behemoth that was King Kong, Watts is a consistently compelling screen presence who isn't afraid to tackle difficult and/or demanding material.

The 38-year-old England native moved to Australia at age 14 and began studying acting. It was a good choice: Watts brings a rare emotional immediacy to nearly everything she touches. Even genre fare like The Ring films — which made her a bankable star — feel close to vital when she's onscreen. Watts is an intriguing meld of old-school starlet and new-school grittiness, an actress who never rests on her good looks and who's always up for down characters.

She also has great taste. Watts is currently working on pair of projects with two of cinema's best directors: Michael Haneke's Funny Games and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, both of which will be released later this year.

Her latest, John Curran's The Painted Veil, is a lush period drama set in 1920s China. Watts plays Kitty, a spoiled English socialite who marries a stiff doctor, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), in order to satisfy her family's rapidly encroaching expectations.

The couple soon moves the exotic city of Shanghai, China, where they share an awkward sex life and little else. Bored with her mismatched husband, it's not long before Kitty begins a torrid affair with an English political consul, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber).

Alarmed by Kitty's infidelity, Walter punishes her (and himself) by moving the couple to a remote Chinese village ravaged by cholera. It's there that Walter and Kitty begin to find their way back to each other.

CityBeat recently spoke to Watts, whose hushed speaking voice belies a fierce passion for her profession of choice.

CB: This film has been in the works as far back as 1999. How did you become involved?

Naomi Watts: Well, the first thing that drew me to the project was Edward Norton. I got a call saying he wanted me to read the script. And, of course, I read it right away because I've of been such a fan of Edward's. It was toward the end of filming of The Ring, the first one, so it must have been about four years ago.

CB: Why were you interested in playing Kitty?

NW: Kitty just kind of leapt off the page. She's fun, full of sass. She's a little bit full of herself and living a fairly frivolous life, but having fun doing it and not apologizing for it. I loved that about her. It felt like she was ahead of her time, at least that's what she felt like to me. She wasn't conforming to convention, so in that regard I think she was right. She couldn't care less whether she had a husband or not — until her sister usurps her. That's when she starts thinking, 'Oh, crikey, this is a little bit embarrassing here.' Her family is just breathing down her neck constantly. So when she's offered that marriage proposal, it's a form of escape and, again, Kitty's sense of adventure coming through.

And then once the husband finds out about the affair, that's when Kitty's transformation ensues. That's really why I loved the character so much: She traveled so far in her emotional journey. Who she starts out as and who she becomes are so different.

CB: Did you find it difficult imagining what her life must have been like given the social makeup of the time period? Did you identify with her in any way?

NW: I loved, again, her sass and this feeling of confidence that she had that she could walk into a party and command the room. I certainly don't walk into a room like that (laughs). So I'm not sure that I could identify; I could imagine. I find myself hiding in those situations. I'm not the belle of the ball ever. I'm much more shy. I loved her confidence and her daring side.

CB: How was it to work with John (Curran, the director) and Edward (Norton)?

NW: It was just he perfect team, the three of us. John and I had worked together before. We also have been friends for many, many years, so we have a great shorthand in our dialogue about a scene. We don't worry about being polite: We just say, 'Oh, no, that's not working.' We don't have to sugarcoat anything.

And Edward is really great, too, because he tapped right into that. You've got three people who have pretty strong ideas and yet we managed to honor everyone even if there was conflict. We would sort of battle it out and fight for our points and then be really inspired by the other person's idea, even if you were so attached to your own. This was the greatest collaborative experience I've had.

CB: Kitty It must have been a tough balance in that she does some pretty terrible things to her husband yet we as an audience still have to have sympathy for her.

NW: That was always a concern. But then, you know, she makes a good point in their argument. He's not so innocent himself. We both married for the wrong reasons. He thought that he knew her but he really didn't. He saw her as this beautiful, entertaining, exciting woman, and that's kind of what he got. But then she's also something other than that.

That is the danger in taking on a character like her, but that's also the excitement and the payoff, which is that there is that journey to travel. She's irritating beyond belief, but it's fun to hold your nose in the air for so long and trust that the audience will stay with you. If you start diluting because you think, 'Oh, no, she's not going to be likable,' then we're really not depicting honest human characters, are we?

CB: How did working in China affect the film?

NW: Oh, it was every bit as beautiful as it is up there on the screen. When I read the script I knew it would be a nice adventure and not just another film set. We really were discovering the place just as the characters were.

CB: It must have been an interesting juxtaposition to go from the crazy logistics of King Kong to the much more intimate world of The Painted Veil.

NW: It was absolutely one of the strangest juxtapositions you can image: The scope of King Kong versus the intimacy of The Painted Veil. A lot of The Painted Veil is conversations in a room. Actually we wanted to move away from that. But, yes, reams of dialogue versus King Kong, which would go 15 or 20 minutes without any dialogue with the exception of screams or 'help' or 'no.' It's such a physical movie. The condition I left that movie and arrived for The Painted Veil was not so good. King Kong was 12 to 14 hours a day of physical labor: pushing, pulling, jumping, all that stuff.

CB: I read that Edward thought your exhaustion from the King Kong experience worked well for you character in The Painted Veil? Do you agree?

NW: I think they felt that would be a bonus because ... well, first of all I was really irritated that had to work at all. I did want to do this movie for four years. On many occasions it was almost a go and then it fell apart. But I never lost any passion for this project. It's just that after doing seven months on King Kong I didn't want to work. So I arrived in that mood of, 'Oh, I don't want to be here.' (laughs) A little spoiled like Kitty.

CB: Do you use what's going on in your personal life to inform whatever character you might be playing at the time?

NW: I think I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that personal meaning informs every one of your choices and that there has to be something that you're going to work out from your own personal life. Sometimes that's not always clear right away.

CB: You've worked with some talented directors in the past five years. Is that the most important ingredient when deciding whether or not to do a film?

NW: Film is a director's medium. The director's vision is paramount, and no matter how passionate you are about how you see it, ultimately it's the director's film. You have to give yourself over a little bit. I enjoy that and that's why I choose my directors very carefully."

CB: I'd say so: Your next two films are with Michael Haneke and David Cronenberg.

NW: They're both very short shoots. That's what I love about King Kong — after that everything feels short. Haneke I think is one of our great directors. There's still not a huge amount of awareness about him. All the directors that I know and work with and respect worship him. It's a pretty disturbing film. And Cronenberg is also a brilliant director.

CB: Do you intend to keep up the robust working pace of the last few years? I imagine it's pretty hard to say no to people like Haneke and Cronenberg?

NW: Yeah, it its. I spent so many years struggling and the excitement of actually being able to work hasn't quite worn off yet, particular when you're getting offers from some of the greats. It's hard to say no. But I am slowing down a bit. I hope to do no more than two movies a year.