Naomi Watts: Driven To Tears

Submitted by Paul Fischer on Tue, 10/16/2001 - 21:58
Naomi Watts plays a small-town girl who discovers the corrupting power of Hollywood

Naomi Watts describes how, while filming Mulholland Drive, director David Lynch left her "weeping and falling to pieces".

Naomi Watts was born in Shoreham, England in 1968. Her father, Peter Watts, was in showbiz - as a sound engineer and tour manager for Pink Floyd until 1974. Although relatively unknown, Watts has appeared in over 20 films shot in England, Hollywood and Australia, including the diverse likes of Flirting, Tank Girl, Gross Misconduct [opposite Jimmy Smits], Under the Lighthouse Dancing and Strange Planet, but it was idiosyncratic filmmaker David Lynch that took Naomi to places she had never been before. 

Meeting David Lynch

Before meeting him, the actress "thought he would be inaccessible; a really dark, intense, brooding kind of guy." She could not have been more wrong.

"He's just an incredibly charming, highly spirited human being who is great to be around, and everybody shared that opinion. He's got one of the funniest senses of humour I've ever experienced in a man. A real dry wit, but incredibly mischievous at the same time. We teased each other the whole time," she recalls laughingly. 

The role

Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's most complex films, but also his most intoxicating. With various plot lines born out of an initial television series, Watts portrays a wholesome young starlet eager to fulfil her Hollywood dreams.Watts plays Betty Elms, fresh off the plane from Canada, who finds herself temporarily diverted from her earnest, sparkling hopes for movie stardom by the unexpected appearance of Rita (Laura Elena Harring), the amnesia-stricken survivor of a traumatic car accident. 

Out of the goodness of her heart, the naive Betty guides Rita on her quest for self-discovery. This path gradually leads to dark revelations that shake the foundations of their unexpectedly fragile reality. And of course, nothing in Lynch's surreal cinematic world is what it seems.

Lynch defies expectations

Blonde on blonde: Naomi Watts as Betty with Laura Harring as Rita
Blonde on blonde: Naomi Watts as Betty with Laura Harring as Rita

"As actors, for the most part we're trained to know where we've come from, where we're going, what the truth and meaning is behind every scene, but he basically asks us to undo all that. He's saying that all those questions don't matter, that you simply treat each scene with the right mood and ideas that it needs. David guides you along, but he doesn't tell you exactly what it is or what it means, so it's up to you to make [those things] up."

In the film, Watts goes through an extraordinary metamorphosis, from pure naivety into the darker recesses of her psyche and sexuality. 

In trying to reconcile the different facets of her character, Watts had a lot of questions to ask of herself, given Lynch's unwillingness to reveal much to his actors. 

"I had to therefore come up with my own decisions about what this meant and what this character was going through, what was dream and what was reality. My interpretation could end up being completely different, from both David and the audience. But I DID have to reconcile all of that, and people seem to think it works."

Strange facts

In her other new film, Down (2001), Naomi Watts plays a hard-nosed journalist chasing a story about killer elevators and terrorist threats in a New York highrise.

The actress found it difficult to identify with the wide-eyed innocent Hollywood hopeful of the start of the film "because she was so pure, good and perfect, with stars in her eyes and dimples in her cheeks, that it was too much like a cardboard cut-out of the cereal box." 

However, as Naomi points out, "if you look really closely at that, there's something quite psychotic about that, and you know there's another dimension, so that any time, it's going to unveil itself. Betty has this thrill-seeking sense about her." 

Raw sex

Part of what redefines her as the film ensues, is Betty's sexuality. Watts has some graphic scenes in the film, notably with co-star Laura Elena Harring, one [a ferocious masturbation scene] more confronting and disturbing than the other. 

It's a side of Watts we have rarely seen through the years, and the actress admits that shooting these more intimate nude scenes was tough, "especially the second one".

"At least when I was with Laura, we were together and we could feel safe with our own bodies, and there was a degree of trust that we'd developed over time. The masturbation scene was incredibly difficult, and was absolutely mortifying and humiliating; it's just a very difficult thing to do." 

To do the scene, Watts describes her character at this point as "being full of self-loathing when she couldn't get out of a horrible, deep, dark psychosis. David wanted quite a specific thing in that masturbation scene, even though I kept on weeping and falling to pieces, because I just felt so embarrassed and humiliated. He didn't want me to emote too much, but he wanted me to be reaching for her, reaching in a desperate way to get back to a place where we were at before." 

Watts adds that "it was hard not to cry in a situation like that" because she felt so vulnerable. As tough as it was to shoot those scenes, Watts feels enriched by the experience, admitting to having learned a lot in the process, "and hopefully those experiences will translate to another experience with another director." 

Most importantly, that has to do with trust. "I trusted him 100% and it worked. I was putty in his hands and there was NOTHING I wouldn't do for him and I say that with total conviction. Unfortunately you can't do that all the time."

Mulholland Drive is showing at the London Film Festival 2001 on Sun 18 Nov 20.30 - (Odeon West End 2) and Tue 20 Nov 15.00 (Odeon West End 2). In her other new film, Down (2001), Naomi Watts plays a hard-nosed journalist chasing a story about killer elevators and terrorist threats in a New York highrise.