I moderated the Palm Springs International Film Festival's special tribute to Naomi Watts on Jan. 5, just hours before the fest presented her with its Desert Palm Achievement Actress Award for her performance in The Impossible, for which she since has received her second career best actress Oscar nomination. Her previous nomination, for 21 Grams, came nine years ago, shortly after she received another honor from the Palm Springs fest. She is the only person in the event's history to be honored twice.
Over the course of about 35 minutes, I asked Watts about her life and career, and, as you can see in the video at the top of this post (provided by the fest), she couldn't have been more lovely or candid.
The 44-year-old England-born Australian actress -- wife of Liev Schreiber, with whom she has two children -- says she first became interested in acting after seeing her mother perform in an amateur theatrical production. Years after catching the acting bug, and after establishing herself as a working actress in Australia, she decided to move to Hollywood to pursue a career there. At the time, only a few Aussies had made the transition successfully -- and most of them had come over after being "launched" by a hit in Australia.
For her first 10 years or so in America, Watts struggled mightily. She says that she "basically had to start over again here," experienced considerable rejection and "took it very personally," to the extent that she almost quit the business. Then, when she was already 33, David Lynch cast her to play two different characters in Mulholland Dr. (2001), which was originally intended to be an ABC TV series before that fell apart and it was revived as a film. The neo-noir picture premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received a lengthy standing ovation and rave reviews -- and, Watts recalls, "everything changed from there." After that, she says, "The phone was ringing and I couldn't resist," emphasizing, "I love to work."
She has been working pretty much nonstop ever since, going back and forth between art house and big studio films and being part of at least one noteworthy movie every year except for 2008, when she had one baby and became pregnant with another. Her filmography includes Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams (2003), David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees (2004), Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), John Curran's The Painted Veil (2006), David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child (2009), Doug Liman's Fair Game (2010), Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (2011) and now Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible (2012).
"I think film is a director's medium," Watts submits, which is why she always jumps at the opportunity to work with great directors. As the record shows, she has worked with more than a few -- including, interestingly, three Latino directors who have brought out some of her best work: Gonzalez Inarritu, Garcia and, most recently, Bayona.
Watts initially heard about The Impossible when her agent recommended the script to her. She was excited about the prospect of working with Bayona, whose only previous feature was the well-reviewed horror flick The Orphanage (2007), and reuniting with Ewan McGregor, her friend and Stay (2005) co-star, who was set to play her husband. But she did not sign on until she confident that the film would not trivialize the 2004 tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand by turning it into a disaster film, as opposed to a story about a real family and their will to survive and be reunited.
Watts could have been deterred by having to spend so much time in the water (she has had a fear of drowning since a childhood mishap in the ocean, and virtually no CGI was to be used in the film) and with child actors (she was to spend most of her scenes opposite Tom Holland, who was 14 at the time and never had acted in a film), but she embraced the challenge and rose to the occasion. Watts says that what got her through the more trying moments of the shoot -- which ended up going for seven months, far longer than expected due to record-breaking rainfall that prevented filming -- was the frequent presence on the set of Maria Alvarez, the woman she was portraying.
The film ended up premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it was one of only a few films this year to receive a standing ovation), earning strong reviews (it has an 80 percent favorability rating on RottenTomatoes.com), and making big waves at the box office (it had the biggest opening of all time in Bayona's native Spain). And, for her work, Watts has garnered Critics' Choice, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Oscar noms -- in other words, every major award for which she was eligible.
Regardless of what happens at the 85th Oscars on Feb. 24, it seems almost certain that Watts, as a result of her immense talent and popularity, will be back as a nominee for future Oscars -- perhaps as early as next year, when she will play none other than Princess Diana in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Diana.