Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Naomi Watts

Blonde Amibition and 'Drive'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

September 25, 2001—If there were any justice, Naomi Watts would receive an Oscar nomination -- and win -- for her performance in David Lynch's new masterpiece Mulholland Drive. It's at least as good as the other performances Lynch guided to Oscar nods: John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story, and (very nearly) Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

(Hopper was nominated that year for the lesser Hoosiers and not for Blue Velvet. My theory is that the Academy wanted to honor Hopper but couldn't find a clip from Blue Velvet to play on TV.)

But Watts probably won't be nominated at all despite her two-fold outstanding acting, playing one character and shifting to an entirely different one halfway through the film. She's blonde, pretty and thin, and she's an unknown. If she were 80 years old or had made some sort of "comeback," she'd be a shoo-in. But her most famous role to date besides the new film is in Tank Girl (1995).

I watched Tank Girl, which I happen to enjoy, again before meeting with Ms. Watts at her San Francisco hotel. In Tank Girl, she plays the meek Jet Girl in glasses and dark hair. If I hadn't specifically been looking for her, I wouldn't have realized that it was the same actress. "I take that as a compliment," Watts tells me with a gorgeous smile. "That's the whole point of being an actor."

Watts, 33, sports a light Australian accent that comes as a result of moving to Australia from England at age 14, then to the United States six years ago. She's happy to be associated with all three cultures, and she credits all three of them with shaping who she is today.

She was exposed to show biz at an early age. Her father, Peter Watts, was the sound engineer for legendary rock band Pink Floyd. She jokes about toddling around her living room as Roger Waters, David Gilmour and company jammed. She insists, though, that this phenomenon has nothing to do with her career as an actress.

"I was four!" she laughs. "My dad and my mom divorced when I was four, and I was about 8 or 9 when he died and there really wasn't much time spent with him. But I know and am still in contact with some of the Pink Floyd people. And I'm still friends with some of the daughters and the kids."

Watts also tried her hand at modeling. "I'm five-foot-four and a half. I could never be a model," she says as a point of fact. "I had friends who were models who were trying to get me into it and it just wasn't going to work. But I did commercials. I sold Tampax and washing detergent. I did go to Japan on a modeling contract, which is the first time I really tried modeling for print. I was told that they really liked blonde little things, and I was offered a lot of money. So I went. But I didn't enjoy it at all."

She gushes that she landed her Mulholland Drive role through a rather unconventional process. Writer and director David Lynch began looking for faces rather than resumes, and so Watts' lack of high-profile Hollywood experience didn't matter.

Working with Lynch was the experience of a lifetime, Watts says. She appreciated that the director was always re-inventing things on the set. Indeed, quite a bit of re-invention became necessary when Mullholland Drive was rejected as a television pilot and re-made into a feature film. Watts diplomatically fields any questions about the original TV series. "David doesn't want to get into the specifics of what was TV and what was film. He doesn't want to spoil the mystery."

Reading her introduction into the film, which has nave, wide-eyed Betty Elms climbing off a plane in Los Angeles, and breathlessly saying "Oh... I can't believe it!" Watts was not at all sure she wanted the part.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm psychotic.' How can she be grown up and not be psychotic? It's too one-dimensional. She's too happy and perky and peppy. Where's the juice? She doesn't belong in a movie. She belongs on a cereal box, selling cereal in 1952!"

Lynch apparently made things worse during the shoot, shouting "Pump it up it's like the best moment you've experienced in your whole life!" But by now Watts has seen the film three times, and is convinced that the maverick director was right.

"I am never able to say this but I'm proud of the film and my work. The first time [I saw it] I was awestruck, the second time I got everything and then I started seeing some of my acting and going, 'oh I missed that moment and I could have done that.' I cringe at times but pretty much I'm proud."

Watts admits to being a David Lynch fan -- she remembers being disturbed by The Elephant Man at a young age -- but she does not consider herself a "die hard." "I met some of those last night," she says warily.

Partial Naomi Watts Filmography:
Flirting (1991)
Matinee (1993)
Wide Sargasso Sea (1993)
Tank Girl (1995)
Children of the Corn: The Gathering (1996)
Dangerous Beauty (1998)
Down (2001)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
The Ring (2002)
Le divorce (2003)
21 Grams (2003)
Ned Kelly (2003)
We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Ellie Parker (2005)
The Ring Two (2005)
Stay (2005)
King Kong (2005)
The Painted Veil (2006)
Eastern Promises (2007)
Funny Games (2008)
The International (2009)
Mother and Child (2009)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Fair Game (2010)
Dream House (2011)
J. Edgar (2011)
The Impossible (2012)
Movie 43 (2013)

Movies Unlimtied