According to Forbes magazine, Naomi Watts is the most bankable actress in Hollywood. She earns a bigger return on her salary than any other female star. That is partly because she has chosen to act in some huge blockbusters, such as Peter Jackson's King Kong, but also because Watts does projects only when she is in love with the script and is willing, in many cases, to sacrifice the bigger payday for the right part.
Mother and Child, which plays at the Dubai International Film Festival tonight, was directed by Rodrigo García, son of the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez. It is a perfect example of Watts acting in a film on the strength of a script. She says: "Alejandro González Iñárritu brought the script to my attention. We've remained friends since I was in 21 Grams. When I first read the script, I wanted to play Karen." That part would go to Annette Bening as the director asked Watts to act against type and play the film's most manipulative character, Elizabeth.
Watts is an entertaining interviewee. It seems that ever since she became a mother, she cares less about her public image. The 41-year-old has two young sons with the actor Liev Schreiber, whom she met on the set of John Curran's 2006 costume drama The Painted Veil. However, she also talks with depth about her career and the choices she has made, saying: "Actually I don't always play sweet. Definitely this was a character on the harsher side of things. It was important that Elizabeth is not your classic villain, however she also definitely needed to be someone who would go extremely far to cause pain. I definitely don't think she is an evil person, just working through her pain."
The pain she feels is as a result of failing to come to terms with the fact that she was adopted as a child. The three stories running through the film all revolve around adoption, and interlock loosely in a style that has become associated with the work of the film's producer Iñárritu, who directed 21 Grams and Babel. The first story is about Karen (Bening) a stuck-up and difficult doctor who still struggles with the fact that she gave her child up for adoption when she was a high-school student. Later, the child, Elizabeth, is a lawyer starting a job at a new firm. Before she has even had time to get through the door, she is entangled with her married boss (Samuel L Jackson). The final story involves Kerry Washington, as a woman whose desire to have children causes trouble in her marriage. In fact, this is a film that revolves around complicated women.
On the adoption theme, Watts says: "I have friends who have adopted children and I went to school with kids who were adopted. I do believe they grow up feeling different in the world. There are going to be issues that come up. Certainly, in Elizabeth's case it's very clear that what she wants most of all she is trying hard not to have. She has never gotten over that abandonment and therefore does not want anyone to come near her. It's very complicated and I think it makes for interesting drama."
Watts explains how this character fits into her oeuvre, saying: "I think a lot of the work that I choose involves characters taking on and trying to connect with others. I think that is what we are all doing in life. We want to identify with one another and feel less alone in the world." Elizabeth is absorbed by her work - a trait that the actress can understand. Watts struggled for years in Australia to get a big break, watching her friend Nicole Kidman's career go into the stratosphere as she was left behind to make small independent films. When Watts first moved to Hollywood she worked as a nanny for Kidman and her then husband Tom Cruise. Then came her big break in Mulholland Drive, and since then she hasn't stopped. Mother and Child was made only 10 weeks after the birth of her second child and one scene was even filmed while she was pregnant. No wonder she says of her character's work ethic: "I can relate to that."
She continues: "I think that there have been times - not lately as I've slowed down a lot - but certainly at the beginning when things were taking off for me in America, that I was on that treadmill. I didn't want to have a relationship particularly and I wanted to travel a lot. I come from a background that was not such a troubled childhood or anything, but there has been some sadness that perhaps I didn't want to face, so work seems like a good option. But I think that, now, I've changed a lot. I slowed down and have a family. Basically, when I met Liev that changed what my life is."
Watts was born in Shoreham, Kent, in England. Her father, Pete, a sound engineer for rock band Pink Floyd, died when she was seven. After his death her mother moved to Australia and it was there that Watts caught the acting bug. While she did meet Kidman on the set of a film called Flirting, her early career was far from glamorous. To get a true idea of the struggles she faced as a jobbing actress, it is well worth searching out a small semi-autobiographical independent picture called Ellie Parker that Watts starred in, all about the daily grind of auditions and knockbacks that goes with the search for acting work.
Yet she adds that success in America hasn't necessarily made it easier to find good roles, especially as a woman. "Rodrigo isn't somebody that is fascinated by women in the way that a lot of men are. He seems to understand them and get a story out of them. His women are complicated and interesting. The fact that three brilliant characters are all in one film is so rare. From the first reading I felt that this really meant something. I wish that there were more directors like him."
The trouble, she believes, is that men usually write pictures for men, adding that before having children she used to be more assertive in looking at newspapers and trying to find female characters that would be good to bring to the screen. "So often we get called to be the secondary part in films where the female role is only there to facilitate the male role," she says. Inevitably, having made a picture called Mother and Child, the conversation turns to her sons and how becoming a mother has changed her attitude to life and work. "It's affected me in every area of my life," she says. "I feel like, not a completely different person, but I feel that there is a new side of me that has opened up and that I care about simpler things much more. I have less time to myself and, often, that is not such a bad thing."
This also brings about questions of being a role model. She says: "It's not like now that I'm a mother I must change my taste and do nothing apart from kids' films. But there are films that I have done in the past- would I do these films again now that I'm a parent? I would hope that we raise our kids in a way that they come to understand whatever it is that I have chosen was for a reason." One can't help but think that she is talking about the 2007 remake of Funny Games, a film in which two psychotic young men take a family hostage in their cabin. Over the years, the actress has earned the nickname "Queen of the Remakes". In addition to Funny Games, she has starred in Ring and King Kong. It's a tag that she doesn't mind. In fact, she says that it is more a reflection of the lack of female roles than her personal taste. She also adds that she is in talks to do more still.
When Watts does appear in a remake, she makes sure to watch the original. "I think with each remake that I have been in, I saw the original. I saw King Kong when I was a kid. You want to make the part your own, particularly with something like King Kong which was a classic, iconic movie. I had to reinvent it." Since Mother and Child, Watts has made two more films. The first is a London-set drama for Woody Allen and the second is based on the book Fair Game, about Valerie Plame, the CIA agent whose identity was revealed by the Bush administration after her husband wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times claiming that evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was being manipulated. Clearly, her idea of slowing down is not the same as many other people's.