Naomi Watts: If at first you don't succeed...

Naomi Watts was a wannabe actress for years. Now she's an Oscar nominee. What went right? She talks to Fiona Morrow
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The Independent Culture

Two years ago, Naomi Watts was just another wannabe: a C-list actress running from audition to audition, dreaming of making it big in Hollywood. Now, with a Best Actress Oscar nomination to her name, Watts is proof that, at least for some, dreams do still come true.

Born in Shoreham in Kent, Watts moved to Australia when she was 14. Her mother was an actress, and seeing her onstage prompted Watts to follow the same path. "I was in awe, seeing this whole fantasy world before my eyes," Watts explains. "I felt that if I could also be in that world, we'd be closer somehow. When she gave me that little wave [from the stage], that was a key moment in my life."

Moving around a lot in her childhood, Watts believes, prepared her for the life of an actor: "I'm very used to packing up and moving on. It left me with a chameleonic quality: I was always conscious of having to blend in and assume a different persona."

She made her acting debut alongside Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman, in John Duigan's Flirting (1991). Kidman and Watts became best friends, going up for modelling jobs together. Then, Kidman was given a part in the hit thriller Dead Calm, and Watts a role as a paraplegic in the TV soap Home and Away. Though their friendship never wavered (Watts was one of the friends on Kidman's arm at the premiere of The Others, following her split with Tom Cruise), for over a decade their careers remained a million miles apart.

Kidman did try to help, persuading Watts to leave Australia to try her luck in LA. "At first, everything was fantastic and doors were opened to me," Watts recalls. "But some people that I met through Nicole, who had been all over me, had difficulty remembering my name when we next met. There were a lot of promises, but nothing actually came off." The work she found was minor stuff: a shopping-cart starlet in Joe Dante's Matinee; an unspecified voice in Babe: Pig in the City. But on a trip back to Britain for her brother's wedding, she did land a part in the TV drama The Wyvern Mystery (2000).

Back in LA, the endless rounds of auditions began to take their toll. One meeting with a major Hollywood director said it all: "I looked up," she remembers, "and he was slumped on the sofa, fast asleep." It got to the point where she was trying out for three TV pilots a day: "It's just crushing," she says with a shudder. "You get this terrible feedback: 'She's too intense and stressed out'; 'We're concerned she's a little old'. All this horrible personal stuff.

"I auditioned and waited for things I had no belief in," she admits. "But I needed the work and had to accept horrendous pieces of shit."

It may have been hell, but it was the perfect preparation for a scene in Watts's breakthrough movie, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. In it, Watts plays Betty, an aspiring actress, made to jump through humiliating hoops in an audition. Running lines with an old, but powerful, lech of an actor, Betty turns on the charm. The effect is amazing: Watts transforms Betty from a nervous little thing, into a full-on vamp at the flick of a switch. There was egg on the faces of more than one Hollywood casting agent.

But Mulholland Drive very nearly came too late for Watts. "Originally, it was a TV series, but it never came out," she explains. "So David Lynch shot some more scenes and released it as a feature film. But I hadn't worked since the reshoots, and the film was still waiting to come out. I couldn't keep up my health insurance; I was three months behind on my rent and facing eviction. That's how bad things got."

Nevertheless, she's not sure whether she would ever have really jacked it in: "If I'd known that it would take so long, I wouldn't have gone to Hollywood," she admits. "But I love acting. It's my form of expression," she frowns, adding quickly, "without wanting to sound pretentious. So I never saw myself quitting completely."

Watts has no such worries these days: in fact, since Mulholland Drive, she has barely had time to pause for breath. She starred in the US version of The Ring, played opposite Kate Hudson in Merchant Ivory's Le Divorce, and stood out in a small, thankless role in Ned Kelly (with on-again, off-again squeeze Heath Ledger, who stars in the film).

Coming up, there's The Ring 2, The Assassination of Richard Nixon (from the writer of Tadpole, Niels Mueller), David (Three Kings) O Russell's I Love Huckabee's, and Marc Foster's Stay, in which she plays opposite Ewan McGregor. The Oscar nomination, however, is for 21 Grams, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow-up to the cult smash Amores perros, in which Watts stars with two heavyweights, Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn, and more than holds her own.

She plays Cristina, a former junkie who pulled her life together, got married and had two kids. Then, in an instant, she's back at rock bottom, her husband and kids dead. Watts's character takes things a little further than most people who suffer a loss, turning to vengeance for relief. "I don't judge anyone's grief," Watts comments. "I think she's very angry. She had been to hell through drugs, and was told that if you play by the rules, things will get back on track, so that's what she did. And when life goes wrong and she falls apart, she's very angry and self-destructive, but it's the only way she knows how to exist."

But then she goes for revenge. "Hmm," smiles Watts. "I'd like to think that I would never make those decisions myself, but she's overpowered by her pain and her huge feeling of aloneness."

Watts admits that playing Cristina was tough at times. "It was very draining and very difficult," she proffers. "But I knew that from the start, and I had psychologically prepared myself for it. I was purging emotions every single day, but that was freeing and liberating, and it energised me as well."

There are only a couple of comedies on Watts's filmography - she seems drawn to heavier material. "I do gravitate towards dark art forms - in the novels and poetry I read and the paintings I like to look at. It's all coming from some source of pain." She pauses before adding, somewhat incongruously, "I enjoy it".

Perhaps that's what makes her performance in 21 Grams so impressive, so unflinching in its raw emotional honesty. But it comes with a price: at the movie's premiere at last year's Venice Film Festival, I saw Watts straight after the screening. She was sobbing, face pressed into the shirt of a friend gently steering her out of the glare of the press. I ask her about that night. She kicks off her shoes and hugs her legs to her chest; she may be 35 years old, but right now she looks like a vulnerable 10-year-old. "It was an emotional moment, and an enormous sense of relief," she acknowledges. "I was always proud of the film, but I think when you see it in a packed cinema, it's almost as though you're seeing it for the first time. You're able to lose yourself and be an audience member - there's something about the energy of an audience that makes it different.

"And," she adds quietly, "my mum was there and I knew she would be affected by the film."

And how did she react? "She was very silent for a good 40 minutes, and I respected that," Watts recalls. "She gave me a hug and everything, but I could tell that there was a lot going on."

The film had some painful resonances for both mother and daughter: Watts's father, a sound engineer with Pink Floyd, left her mother when Naomi was only four. He died three years later.

"When we got back to the hotel, mum hugged me again," says Watts. "She said, 'I always thought you were so resilient, I had no idea that you were holding so much pain. And I'm so proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way."

"So," Watts sighs, "it was a big thing. It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears."

Was she aware that she was reaching into her own experience while she was making the film? "Everything I do is affected by the things that have happened to me in my life, so yes," she concedes. "I hope that I created a character with her own voice, but there's no way of stopping traces of yourself coming through."

Incredibly, Watts had no idea that she'd be visiting such difficult territory when she accepted the part. "Amores Perros just blew me away," she explains, "so I didn't really care what sort of film this was going to be - I just knew Alejandro was a genius, and the scriptwriter [Amores's Guillermo Arriaga] was also a genius, so I agreed sight unseen." She gives a shrug and laughs: "I thought there was no risk involved."

Once she'd read the script, Watts set to work: "I spent a lot of time researching, seeking out group-therapy grief support groups, just to get closer to the journey and the order of it."

"Because I lost my father when I was so young, I didn't really know what you're supposed to go through when you grieve. I didn't read books or talk to other children who were going through that. I thought I was OK. But when I started reading about other people's similar experiences, I realised that what had happened to me was still in me, and there was still some work to do.

"Just because you don't cry about it every day, or you haven't cried about it in four years, it doesn't mean that it isn't shaping who you are as a person or the decisions that you make."

She doesn't remember her father very well. "He's kind of blurry," she says. His crazed laugh, though, features on the beginning of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon album.

"It's haunting, isn't it?" Watts asks quietly. "I love listening to it." She pauses to reflect. "I think that doing this film was very cathartic."