There is a special difficulty for actors in taking on the role of a real person. Even more so when that person is still living, incredibly private, and was romantically linked to the late Princess of Wales. Such is the case with the intrigue and interest surrounding Naveen Andrews and Naomi Watts' performances in the new biographical drama "Diana."
The film is directed by Oscar nominee Oliver Hirschbiegel and based on Kate Snell's 2001 book "Diana: Her Last Love." It revolves around the last two years of Diana's life during which she reportedly had a love affair with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Yahoo Movies recently caught up with the British-born Andrews, best known as Sayid on TV's "Lost," to discuss his portrayal of Khan, the differences in how the movie has been received in different countries and what he learned — and hopes audiences will also learn — about the People's Princess.
What has been the most entertaining/interesting aspect of promoting the film and speaking to journalists? Is there a great difference between how members of the media want to talk about it?
Naveen Andrews: [Laughs] Absolutely. I think there's such a sharp divide, if you like. I think that adequately describes it between the British and the Americans. The Hollywood Foreign Press seem to be thrilled with it and had a very very positive reaction and the interviews I've done today have been very positive, and then in Britain it was almost like we reopened some wound in the national psyche in the sense that we were expecting a level of vitriol.
We were aware, and I'm more than aware now, of the sense of ownership the British still feel over Diana. They did when she was alive and they do now and it's a testament to her power, it's very interesting in that way. They felt like they owned her then and they feel like they own her now [laughs].
What was your first reaction to seeing Ms. Naomi Watts as Diana for the first time?
NA: Well, number one, I was really pleased that they cast her because to me her great gift has always been her vulnerability. I remember seeing that in "Mulholland Drive" and I thought with "Diana" the thing I remember most growing up in Britain and after [watching] the royal wedding what I was aware of in the years leading up to [her death in] 1997 was this kind of aching vulnerability that you felt coming off this person. The fact that they cast Naomi was I think perfect because she has that herself.
In terms of what you're talking about, technically, I couldn't really have that in my head because of who I was playing, that this was the Princess of Wales, because the basis of their relationship was that he didn't really treat her that way. Of all people, he saw her as a human being and a woman first and foremost. That was also, ironically enough, what allowed me to appreciate her as a person. I still have and had no interest in the royal family whatsoever, the modern royal family from when I was growing up until now, I can relate much more to the Plantagenets in the 14th century. I know more about the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston than anything that's happened over the last ten years so I can only relate to the royal family as an abstract entity in terms of their history.
What were the most interesting aspects of playing Hasnat Khan for you as an actor?
NA: First and foremost, the idea you're playing someone who is still alive and who is real and the fact that he is a human being. When we were shooting the film just outside of London, along with Naomi, I think you feel a weight of responsibility when you're playing somebody real. It brings an extra edge to preparing for a role but once you're doing it, it's like either you make the movie or you don't and then you don't really think about it again until afterwards.
What we were doing was a love story, which to me when I read the script it reminded me of the film "Brief Encounter" — David Lean's film from 1945 — it had that same similar purity and simplicity, this connection between two people that is so powerful and sustains them during their time together. You feel both parties are aware that somehow it's just not going to work out. They're not going to be able to realize what they want and that gives it a tragic dimension.
And also the nature of love itself. The fact that Hasmat felt for whatever reason — he was extraordinarily self-contained almost to a fault — but he felt that his ability to practice medicine would have been compromised by as he saw it marrying into a circus. You want him to rise above it when you watch the film and we all feel that we would have liked to have done that but again in David Lean's film both those characters married and they're not going to be able to break out of it, try as they might. It's like, "What are you prepared to do for love? What is the nature of love?" All these questions came up [about] unconditional love. Unconditional love is something I've only felt personally as a human being with my children.
We haven't seen you in a role like this before. What did you enjoy most about Hasnat?
NA: Physically he was so different, he was a much heavier person. I had to put on 20 pounds. I was 160 in the film and I'm basically 140-141. The fact that he seemed to be unencumbered by 20th century neuroses as a man. He was very much a man's man in the old fashioned sense that you'd see on the screen in the 1950s, a Robert Mitchum type; he smoked, drank and enjoyed life. There was nothing neurotic about him at all, there was something reassuringly old fashioned about him which I responded to and again you don't really see that in the cinema that often.
Was there any enjoyment in putting on the extra weight in eating whatever you want or was it more of a calculated, planned meal sort of thing?
NA: It was calculated, it had to be for someone like me because I'm small — I'm 5'8" ½ — so I had to really concentrate on eating three meals a day, and in England you're able to do that with those huge breakfasts and massive dessert [laughs] and then smoke a lot.
Now that people have started to see the movie, is there a common theme or talking point they bring up or want to discuss with you?
NA: I think they're enjoying the love story because it was something that they were unaware of. Like me, I had no idea about this relationship. It came as a pleasant surprise that she would be interested in someone like Hasnat. She's uncanny in that way and in her work to make a difference on this planet and her work with the landmines, things that I was again ignorant about. There's something quite cool about her.
You definitely see that she was a human being, as well as a few of her normal person-type of qualities.
NA: Yes and that she was vital and alive and certainly not a victim. I suppose what I would like people to take away from the film is the fact that she was loved, despite the very tragic way she passed, she was loved.
Were you already living in America on the day she passed away or were you still in the UK?
NA: I was actually filming in Toronto on the day it happened, I had just come in from work and it was all up on the TV screens. At that point it was a terrible accident, and it was only later on that it was reported she had passed, but I do remember the shock and a kind of blank sort of feeling because again, this person was an icon as well as being the human being I was able to appreciate in the movie.
"Diana" opens in select theaters on Nov. 1