Ben Watts/ Corbis Outline
THE IMPOSSIBLE directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, written by Sergio G. Sánchez from a story by Maria Belon, with Naomi Watts, Tom Holland and Ewan McGregor. An eOne release. 114 minutes. Opens Friday (December 21). For venues and times, see listing. Read the review.
Two days before I talk to Naomi Watts about her new film, The Impossible, I was in New York City with Peter Jackson, who directed her in his remake of King Kong. This led me to go back and watch Jackson's Kong again, and I was stunned at how great Watts is in that film. She's an ingenue, a romantic lead, an action hero - sometimes all at once.
"You've seen me in every state," Watts laughs over the phone from The Impossible's Los Angeles press junket, speaking in that distinctive accent, a mixture of her English childhood and teen years in Australia, where she appeared in movies like Flirting and Tank Girl before David Lynch cast her as the heroine of the TV pilot that became Mulholland Drive.
"I loved working on Kong," Watts says. "It was incredibly physical. I had men dressed in blue unitards beating me with sticks, poking me and pulling at me. I remember thinking after finishing that film, ‘I will never do something of that size and that physically demanding again. It's just more than I can handle.'
"And back then I was obviously a lot younger," she laughs. "But it's like childbirth - you forget. And even though you make that promise to yourself never to put yourself through that pain, you just go right back into it."
"It" in this case refers to The Impossible, a docudrama about the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that focuses on a family caught up in the disaster. Watts plays Maria, a doctor who sees her entire world reduced to water, debris and her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), after the wave hits. (Ewan McGregor, with whom Watts co-starred in the forgettable gimmick drama Stay, plays her character's husband.)
And it required a hell of a commitment, because director Juan Antonio Bayona wanted to recreate the disaster on location rather than digitally.
"I'm so glad it was shot the way it was and that we weren't flailing around on green backdrops," says Watts. "It would have been a whole different kind of performance. We were in the water tank, Tom and I - really gasping for air and feeling as if we were in a threatening, dangerous situation. I mean, obviously nothing like what [our characters] went through, but it really did give us a glimpse into how scary it is when you're forced underwater. We were anchored in, and we could let ourselves out if we were dragged under or something, but it was still scary - we were being pushed by a powerful current one way, and then [by] the current coming toward us, and every time I opened my mouth I'd swallow water. That was a good five weeks of filming, and then the underwater stuff was even scarier."
The first hour of The Impossible plays out with minimal dialogue and maximum intensity, as Maria and Lucas struggle to survive the tsunami and its aftermath. Watts plays Maria as a ragged mixture of panic, grief and determination, and it's the sort of ferocious performance that's been garnering awards buzz since the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival early this fall. (Indeed, she was nominated for a Golden Globe last week.) But it's also the kind of role that could quickly deteriorate into screaming and panic if an actor's not careful.
"I did worry about that," she admits. "I thought, ‘Oh, is this gonna be a really large chunk of the film where she's [just] hitting the same beats?' But the thing about Maria is that she's full of fight, and full of morality; she wanted to make sure that if it was the last thing she did, her son would learn something great out of the experience. That became her focus; it drove her."
Watts knows this very well, because she worked closely with Maria Belon, the woman who inspired her character.
"It was so incredibly helpful," she says. "I mean, she helped me understand it. We saw this event play out on the news and the internet, and I remember being struck with horror and shock. But talking to Maria really helped me understand it; it wasn't just about the actual wave, but what it was doing to her psyche. I found it incredibly useful to hear her speak, and to this day she's someone who blows my mind. She's full of so much wisdom, having gone through this."
There's one key difference, though: the Belon family is Spanish, and the central characters of The Impossible are British. (Director Juan Antonio Bayona, screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez and most of the film's crew are Spanish, and some studio work was done in Barcelona.)
Watts acknowledges that the ethnic shift isn't ideal, but it was a decision made well before she came aboard.
"They needed a certain amount of money," she explains, "and in order to get it they would have to appeal to a bigger market."
Watts doesn't feel there's any question of exploitation in The Impossible, even with its disaster-movie pitch - though she admits to having some initial reservations.
"My agent rang me up and said, ‘There's this movie they're making about the tsunami,'" she recalls, "and right away I was fairly certain that didn't sound like a good idea. It's something that was so big and so awful, that affected the lives of so many, took the lives of so many. How do you make a film about that without its becoming spectacular? It doesn't seem right - in fact, it sort of feels wrong if it's just gonna be a disaster movie.
"But I found out that the director attached was Juan Antonio," she continues, "and I knew his film [The Orphanage] and thought, ‘He's a proper filmmaker. Clearly, if he's invested, it must be something great.' And from the very first four or five pages [of the script] I knew I was gonna do it. It felt rooted in truth, and of course it was, because it came very much from Maria's and her family's experience."
As the parent of two boys (with her partner, actor Liev Schreiber), Watts found an immediate line into Maria's state of mind.
"I played mothers before I was a parent, and hopefully the imagination helps you get to the place you're supposed to go," she says. "But there's no question that being a parent increases the intensity. My boys' safety is huge to me, and I'm constantly fearing the worst. And every day we went to the set, we heard stories from people who were there [during the tsunami], a crew member or an extra. We were shooting in the place where it happened. There were so many stories, including ones that didn't end as well as Maria's."
Watts's next project is also based on real events, though in this case her character is better known: Diana, Princess of Wales.
"It's concentrating on the last couple years of her life," she says. "It centres around the love story between her and a Pakistani heart surgeon [Hasnat Khan, played by Lost star Naveen Andrews], which I didn't know much about - in fact, nothing about. She's a fascinating character."
Her Diana director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, is another in a long line of major art house talents with whom Watts has chosen to work. Her collaborators reads like a film festival's ideal guest list: Lynch, Jackson, the late James Ivory (Le Divorce), David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises), Michael Haneke (Funny Games U.S.), Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar), Woody Allen (You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger).
"I've been so lucky that I've worked with good directors," she says. "Film is a director's medium - and a good director can elevate a mediocre script, but a mediocre director can destroy a great script."
Of course, she wouldn't be in a position to choose her directors if they didn't desperately want to work with her - which has been the case ever since she broke out with Mulholland Drive. But she's still not ready to take all the credit for that.
"I mean, I got to work with David Lynch," she says, laughing. "Every filmmaker sees his films, so good directors called. I think that's definitely helped."