Playing a mother who nearly loses her family — and her life — in the 2004 tsunami forced Naomi Watts to confront some of her deepest phobias.
“I have a fear of water, having gone through a near-drowning experience,” says Watts, recounting an incident that occurred when she was 14 and her family was moving from England to Australia.
“We stopped in Bali, and I didn’t know about riptides. I got caught in one and did the opposite of what you’re supposed to — I swam against it.”
Just when she had given up hope of surviving, “My mother miraculously found sand beneath her feet and was able to pull me in,” Watts recalls. “We found out later that there were many fatalities at that exact same beach.”
Still, this trauma didn’t stop her from spending six weeks in a giant water tank in Spain to shoot “The Impossible,” opening Friday.
The tank re-creating the deadly waves that separated Maria Belon — the real-life inspiration for Watts’ character — and one of her sons from her husband and two other children.
Delgado Carlos/for New York Daily News
Says Watts of her film roles: ‘I just find it more fun to crack open the dark stuff.’
“It was very demanding physically,” says “Impossible” director J.A. Bayona. “From the first day, Naomi had bronchitis and stomach problems because she was swallowing a lot of water. But no matter how exhausted or emotionally drained she was, I could always ask for another take — and she loved that.”
All that hard work proved therapeutic.
“This is what happens in the work we do,” says Watts. “We don’t always know it consciously, but we get hooked in for reasons beyond our control, and it ends up being something we were always meant to do.”
Her real-life role as mom of two boys with actor Liev Schreiber feels similarly predestined. The two have been together since 2005 and live in New York.
“I’m a changed woman since I became a mother, and it comes through in my work,” says Watts, who establishes a powerful on-screen bond with actor Tom Holland, who plays her eldest boy in the film. “Having children increases the intensity of how I approach everything.”
Watts and Liev Schreiber have two children together. ‘I’m a changed woman since I became a mother,’ she says.
Watts also connected deeply with Ewan McGregor as her husband, even though they’re physically separated for much of the film.
“Had we just met each other, it wouldn’t have been so easy to create that sort of trust and chemistry,” says Watts, who co-starred with the Scottish actor in 2005’s indie thriller, “Stay.” “But we got straight into it.”
Such solid support helped Watts deliver one of the strongest performances of her career in “The Impossible.” She’s just been nominated for Best Actress by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards and is considered a good bet for an Oscar nod, which would be her second, after getting a Best Actress nomination for 2003’s “21 Grams.”
The 44-year-old star discovered acting shortly after her family immigrated Down Under.
“I was upset about leaving my friends behind, and I talked my mom into signing me up for drama classes,’ she remembers. “I progressively got more serious.”
Watts spent a decade toiling in forgettable films like “Tank Girl” and “Children of the Corn: The Gathering,” breaking out as a struggling actress, aptly enough, in David Lynch’s critically acclaimed 2001 mind-bender “Mulholland Drive.”
“‘Mullholland’ was a major, instant turnaround,” she says. “It went from not being able to get eye contact in an audition room to suddenly getting calls from directors of the best kind.”
She’s since worked with such heavyweight filmmakers as Peter Jackson (“King Kong”), Woody Allen (“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) and Clint Eastwood (“J. Edgar”).
“When I heard Naomi was going to do my film, I was so honored because she has such good taste in projects and directors,” says Bayona, a relative newcomer. “She will not do a movie just for the money — she needs the excitement.”
She’s also drawn to harrowing material, like “21 Grams,” along with David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” and the 2010 docudrama about former CIA agent Valerie Plame, “Fair Game.”
“I just find it more fun to crack open the dark stuff,” Watts says.
When it comes to playing against her luminous good looks, she has no fear. “If vanity had come anywhere close to my thinking, my performances would be destroyed,” says Watts.
But Watts will need to muster all her glamour for her upcoming role as the doomed Princess of Wales in the big-screen biopic “Diana,” due in theaters next year.
She’s more than aware of the role’s potential pitfalls.
“It’s probably the highest risk of anything I’ve done,” she says. “But I think the high-risk ones have a better chance of succeeding.”
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