The 48-year-old actor has spent a lot of this year and last portraying a therapist for the 10-hour TV serial Gypsy, and did a good deal of sitting in armchairs for that.
Naomi Watts: ‘My soul was being destroyed’
At 32, she was unhireable. At 48, she is unmissable. The Gypsy star talks lucky breaks, bad reviews and being in therapy
by Tom Lamont
Saturday 15 July 2017 09.00 BST
“Armchair or sofa?” Naomi Watts wonders aloud, trying to decide where to put us both in her London hotel room. The 48-year-old actor has spent a lot of this year and last portraying a therapist for the 10-hour TV serial Gypsy, and did a good deal of sitting in armchairs for that. She takes the sofa. “This works.”
The day Watts was born, her mother once recalled, the midwife took one look and declared the baby would grow up to be famous. “How many newborns did she say that about?” Watts smiles. In her case, it took a while – the actor did not get her break until she was 32 – but the maternity-ward prediction came to pass and Watts has been established as a Hollywood reliable for years now. Long enough to have gone around twice on productions with leading directors such as David Lynch and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Long enough to have seen the skinny boy who played her kid in The Impossible grow up to become this summer’s muscle-ripped Spider-Man.
Sitting in front of Watts today, it’s hard to believe she isn’t still 32. Her cheeks are youthfully pink-touched, her blond hair inventively pinned. She wears an ankle-length cream skirt that takes a bit of marshalling on the sofa. Otherwise, she’s dressed with minimalist chic: bare arms, stitched black top, heels.
We talk about her new Netflix show, which is, perhaps surprisingly, her first substantial work for TV. In Gypsy she plays Jean Holloway, a New York therapist who practises cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and starts to feel so suffocated by her life that she fakes new identities in order to insert herself into strangers’ lives. “Gypsy’s all about wanting the things you don’t have,” says Watts, who was directed in the first two episodes by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Gearing up to play the therapist, Watts drew as far as she could on her own experiences of treatment: “I’ve definitely done periods of time in a therapist’s office. Got some proper help at points of crisis.” To drill deeper into the cognitive behaviour aspect, she shelled out specially for sessions with a CBT therapist.
“Four hundred dollars an hour,” she says.
Did she expense that to Netflix?
Watts laughs quietly. “I should have, right? But then, what they say is, you don’t get anything out of it for yourself if you’re not the one paying.”
She explains that there are lots of considerations that tend to lead to her accepting a job, but key among them is a basic, selfish question. What will it help me to understand about myself? “There has to be a point of doing it.”
Looking back, I know why people weren’t hiring me. I went into auditions thinking, ‘What version of me do they want?
What was she better hoping to understand about herself with this one?
Watts raises an eyebrow. Her expression reads: you sure want to go there? “Well, OK,” she says. And perhaps it’s something about the clinic-configuration of the furniture, her on the sofa and me in the chair, but Watts wastes no more time before plunging headlong back into her childhood. “I moved around a lot when I was a kid. I mean, I went to nine different schools in England. Started off in Kent. Moved to Cambridge for a little while. We lived in Norfolk, we lived in Suffolk, in Wales – that was where my grandparents were. So, a lot of moving, a lot of new schools, a lot of reinventing myself. ‘How do I get into that group? How do I get accepted? Who should I be? Who do you want me to be?’ That’s part of where the Gypsy world taps into my life, that constant reinvention.”
Her mum and dad, Myfanwy Roberts and Peter Watts, or “Miv” and “Puddy”, were young when they became parents. Very cool. Miv modelled and Puddy was the sound engineer for Pink Floyd. (He narrowly missed his daughter’s birth in 1968 because the band were touring Scotland in a Ford Transit.) Among the few surviving photographs Watts has of this era, there’s one in which she and her parents are on a beach in St Tropez with Pink Floyd, all wild hair and skimpy swimmies. She recalls being a kid who craved the opposite. “I’d had enough of cool. I didn’t want cool. I wanted my parents to wear three-piece suits and tweed, not leather pants and four-inch platform boots.”
Her parents divorced in 1972, when Watts was four. “And then my dad died,” she says. “Super-young.” He was 31. Miv Roberts has said that the cause of his death was a heroin overdose. Watts doesn’t go into details, but talks instead about how the members of Pink Floyd responded to the tragedy. “When he died, my dad hadn’t saved money, and I guess my mum didn’t have any. So they, the band, very kindly… ‘Trust fund’ doesn’t sound right at all. I think they gave my mum a few thousand dollars to help get things under way. A lump sum, to help. It was kind that they did that.”
The moving-around started in earnest for Watts and her family after that. “Mum really had to find her feet, try to find a career.” Every time Watts was tipped into a new playground, she says, she’d stand on the fringes and try to work out what role – what accent – would get her admitted to the group. All adequate training for the future, but probably difficult to appreciate that way at the time. “I just remember always wanting to be something else. Quite sad, isn’t it?”
When Watts was 14, a couple of years into school in Suffolk and beginning to “find her groove”, it was decided the family would emigrate to Australia. “I was gutted.” Her mum sweetened the pill by promising to pay for acting lessons once they got there, and that was enough to get Watts on the plane. She found their new home in the North Shore area of Sydney “a culture shock. I remember driving past my school, the first week we were there, and seeing how high the hems were. The kids had drawn on their uniforms and they had weird haircuts. I’d come from a school where it was socks to the knees. Bottle-green checked knickers. This was a whole new world.”
Naomi Watts with Nicole Kidman
With longtime friend Nicole Kidman earlier this year – the pair met as young actors in Sydney. Photograph: Katie Jones/WWD/Rex/Shutterstock
But she settled, made friends, and met a teenage Nicole Kidman, who was part of a wider gang that used to go out drinking in Sydney pubs. The two aspiring actors became closer friends, later, when they were cast together in the Australian comedy Flirting (1991). Watts remembers them gossiping for hours on overturned milk crates, waiting on scene changes. She had done some modelling by then, and filmed a few episodes of daytime soap Home & Away, but in the mid-1990s Watts was cast in the mid-budget Hollywood movie Tank Girl and relocated to the US.
It wasn’t quite the new beginning she’d hoped for. “Unhireable,” is how she characterises herself in those days. Hollywood casting directors would telephone and, with sing-song good cheer, tell her she’d fluffed an audition because she wasn’t sexy enough, funny enough, something enough. In 1998 – a nadir – Watts provided an “additional voice” for the children’s movie Babe: Pig In The City. In 2000, she flew on her own money from New York to LA to audition for a director who seemed strangely subdued during her reading. When Watts checked, she saw that he had his eyes shut.
“Looking back, I know why people weren’t hiring me. I went into auditions thinking, ‘What version of me do they want? How should I shape myself in order to win them over?’” Watts was in the playground, again, only this time the chameleon act wasn’t working.
Not long after the audition for the sleepy director, she was in New York, about to go the theatre with her visiting mother, when she got a call. David Lynch was casting a new thriller, set in Los Angeles, and he wanted to meet Watts for the lead. Her immediate response to this apparently heaven-sent phone call was: nah. “The last time I’d flown to LA for an audition, the guy had his eyes closed. I’d decided I was never going to do it again, never rearrange my plans or spend a single dime.” The casting director then explained that Lynch had picked out Watts’ headshot from a huge pile, and that there weren’t many others in contention. “My odds were better than usual.”
Lynch cast Watts as his main character in Mulholland Drive, a young actor called Betty Elms who is sent out to negotiate a creepy, Lynchian version of Hollywood. When the film played at Cannes in spring 2001, it was slavered over by critics; on release that autumn, it hit big. Watts ran away with most of the praise, in particular for a central scene that had Betty audition, appropriately enough, for a group of slimy casting directors.
Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive
In Mulholland Drive, the 2001 film that made Watts’ name. Photograph: Allstar/Universal
“Things came to me very quickly from that point,” she recalls. Iñárritu put her in his shattering film 21 Grams (2003) and Peter Jackson, just free of Middle Earth, cast her opposite the CGI monkey in King Kong (2005). Her calling card as an actor became a subtle, under-surface force, as evident in Iñárritu’s realist drama as in Jackson’s chaotic blockbuster. “I turned down giant pay cheques, giant opportunities – my agents were flummoxed. But I knew what I liked by then. I had a strong understanding of my taste.”
Watts asked Lynch, later, when they became friends, ‘Why did you pick me? Why my headshot?’
Watts has tried to stick as close as possible to this acid-test approach towards offers ever since. “I don’t think I’m any good if I don’t feel an honest connection with the material.”
So when she has taken a pay cheque job, it plays out on screen?
“Yeah. And I’m not going to call those films out. But, yes, I definitely can. I haven’t done it that much. But there’s definitely a… disconnect.”
She recently worked with David Lynch again, guest-starring in the reprise of his TV drama Twin Peaks. She praises Lynch almost limitlessly, especially for the initial mining of her talent. “I wasn’t getting parts. I was giving myself away. My soul was being destroyed. I was never able to walk in a room and own it by being me. David changed that. It was having someone actually make eye contact, ask questions he was truly interested in, take the time to unveil some layers.”
He was a therapist of sorts.?
The headshot, taken by Watts’ brother, that launched her career. Photograph: @wattsupphoto/@naomiwatts/instagram
Watts asked Lynch, later, when they became friends, “Why did you pick me? Why my headshot?” She got a kick out of the director’s answer, and she straightens on the sofa to give a full-bodied impression of what Lynch told her. She squints as if through cigarette smoke, and yaps: “I don’t know, Naomi! It was just the look in yer eye!”
Using my phone, we take a closer look at Watts’ headshot from that period, to try to work out what caught Lynch’s attention. She shows me something that she says not even the director was aware of. She zooms in on her eye. “Can you see? My brother took the photo – and you can see him reflected. There’s a real person there. Looking at another real person.”
In these years of television’s golden age, when so many major actors helm a multi-episode enterprise, you wonder why Watts has waited so long to take on her own show. You wonder whether she’s waited too long. By general agreement, there has been some slippage in the quality of quality TV. When Gypsy premiered last month, it was attacked by some critics as an example of “Netflix bloat”: an indulgence that has crept in across the industry, a sense of loosening standards.
Quality telly still gets made, of course. Nicole Kidman recently produced and starred in the brilliant, knotty HBO drama Big Little Lies. “We talked about doing that together,” Watts says. “I might have been in it.” As it was, Kidman’s drama went ahead without her – Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley played the other leads – and Watts ate up Big Little Lies from her sofa like the rest of us. “So good.”
Watts’ partner until recently, the actor and writer Liev Schreiber, has also enjoyed success in a rich TV drama, the Emmy-nominated Ray Donovan. When Gypsy was first offered to Watts, about a year ago, she decided to go for it, in part because “I’d seen up close Liev doing Ray Donovan. I thought it made a lot of sense. Lots to do with the logistics.” Gypsy was shot in New York, Watts explains, where she lived with Schreiber and their two boys, nine-year-old Sasha and eight-year-old Kai. Taking on Gypsy would allow everyone to stay in “one place”.
Naomi Watts in Gypsy with Billy Crudup.
In Gypsy, with Billy Crudup. Photograph: Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix
Given Watts’ upbringing, it doesn’t take much to figure out why staying in one place might appeal. “I have kids in school. I can’t go on the road at the drop of a hat now. Some actors do homeschool their kids, but it was important to Liev and I for them to have regular relationships with friends.” Last September, Watts and Schreiber announced their separation after 11 years. She has since said the pair remain on good terms and are co-parenting well. Judged solely by Watts’ likable Instagram account, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’d ever split: birthday wishes are exchanged, Father’s Day is celebrated; Watts recently posted a shot of a day out ice-skating with Schreiber and the boys.
Has she tried to be a more conventional parent than her own were?
“Of course. Definitely. Routine is a big part of it. I’m very big on routine. Obviously, Liev and I are actors – there is some moving around – but we’ve really tried to keep the boys in the same school. Give them structure. Boundaries.” She can guess at the psychology underlying this. “Everything’s a reaction.”
And yet, I say, she’s chosen a career in entertainment. A job that’s essentially itinerant.
It’s the first time Watts’ colour rises a touch. The pink gets a little pinker. “Well, I am still me. I can’t totally reinvent myself. That’s how I grew up. I’m drawn to it. I’m intrigued by it. I’m not repulsed by it. But, y’know, I want to find my own version of it.”
Her Instagram account is one of the small ways she has tried to find such a version. “People are going to try and interpret stories of mine in their own way, whenever they want to. Through the work I do, through what they read, through this story, through how I’ve represented myself in some speech I haven’t done a great job of, or through a paparazzo I’ve lost my temper with and given the finger to. There’s constant scrutiny and judgment. And [the Instagram account] is a little way of doing it in safety, in my own time, in my own controlled way.”
Naomi Watts with ex-partner Liev Schreiber and their sons
With ex-partner Liev Schreiber and their sons in 2015. Photograph: Amanda Edwards/WireImage
A proper product of Britain and Australia (whose nationals tend to be desperately uneasy about sincerity), Watts cannot maintain this earnest speech for long without undercutting it. She tilts her head and adds: “Though I do wish I was funnier on Instagram. And every time I post something, I have a mini panic attack.” It’s the same whenever a new film goes out into the world, she says. “You put your blood, sweat and tears into something, and when it doesn’t have the resonance or the reception that you hoped for…”
In recent years, Watts has experienced the best, and then the worst, and then the best of reactions. The Impossible, a 2012 blockbuster about the Indian Ocean tsunami, earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Diana, a 2013 biopic about the late Princess of Wales, was agreed to be one of the worst films of that year. (The wig-and-costume panto aspect of Diana, the daytime-drama vibe, was too much even for Watts to overcome.) Then she was in the film of 2014, Iñárritu’s brilliant comedy Birdman, playing a theatre actress opposite Edward Norton. Can she ever predict what’s coming?
“You know when it’s going to be bad. For sure. Usually I can tell pretty quickly if it’s going to be bad.”
“Just… I feel it. I feel it in my gut. And I feel, like… Y’know, often the director… If they’re not living up to the great spiel that they gave you in the beginning. And if they’re not listening…”
You might know a film’s going to bomb as early as the shoot?
A week ago, a fan gave her a photo. At the age of 48, it was the first time Watts had seen her dad smile
“Might do. Then there are other times when you’re certain that a film’s got all the elements. And that film can actually be really good. But it can be about audiences not being open to receive an idea at that point in time.”
She thinks this was the situation with her last film, The Book Of Henry, an unusual drama about a dying boy and his mother’s involvement in a complicated murder plot. It was another one that the critics rather energetically crushed. Watts says that, after successful test screenings, its hostile reception on release in June was “kind of a shock. I don’t read reviews, but I heard about them. And it’s painful. It’s painful.”
She laughs gruffly and says, “So I’ve had a couple of bad runs lately! The Book Of Henry. And there’s been some critical attacks on this.” She is referring to Gypsy, which in the days before our meeting has been dealt some damning reviews. Critics seem to agree that Watts herself makes for a magnetic central presence, but the plotting and pacing around her is too ponderous, too lax. “It definitely depletes you,” Watts says. “Makes you feel, ‘What’s wrong? Is my picker off? Is it me? Am I doing too many things?’ You have all that. Self-doubt comes in. But I have a split personality on this, because although I sometimes feel defeated and want to crawl in a hole, there are times when I think, ‘No. You know what? Let’s stick together, push on, and address the fact that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Let’s make this better. Let’s make it work.’”
In industry terms, I’d call it gutsy (not to mention rare) for an actor to address without prompting the bad reviews of a project they’re meant to be promoting. Coolly accountable, too, given that she is one of Gypsy’s executive producers, for Watts to interpret those critical attacks not as dismissible snark, but as signs of a real problem in need of attention. Not everyone wants to take on criticism of a work they’ve been deeply bound up in. “Well, that’s not me,” she says.
Naomi Watts and David Lynch
In 2001 with David Lynch, who cast her in Mulholland Drive. Photograph: J Vespa/WireImage
David Lynch once put Watts’ bracing, no-bullshit manner down to her years of “beating the bushes” for work. Fame came late, after her character and her sensibility had taken shape. “A star,” Lynch said, “but she doesn’t get that ego-trip thing.” I wonder if it isn’t something to do with Watts’ unusual background as well. The early bereavement, those nine different schools, the continents swapped out underneath her.
I start to say something to this effect, but Watts interrupts. A disordered, random life? She gives a you-don’t-know-the-half-of-it chuckle and takes out her phone.
She thumbs through her photos, to show me a black-and-white picture of a handsome young man, long-haired and shirtless, sitting with friends. Some of those around him are just about recognisable as members of Pink Floyd, but only the young man in middle can see they’re being photographed and he grins at the camera. “I just stumbled on this,” Watts says.
A Pink Floyd fan approached her a week or so ago, she says, carrying the picture in an envelope. “You’ve got to understand, I’ve got maybe three photos of my dad, and maybe two memories. And all of the photos of him are either out of focus or he’s a tiny speck in the background.” When she opened the envelope and saw Peter Watts beaming, she burst into tears. At the age of 48, it was the first time Watts had seen, with such clarity, her dad smile.
We squint at the image for a good while, pinch-zooming, admiring her dad’s good looks, his incredible hair, that wicked glee on his face. It makes a strange end to a journalistic encounter, and when Watts stands up, she gathers me in a clumsy hug. “God,” she says, “I feel like I’ve had therapy.” The actor must be thinking of those $400-a-hour sessions she paid for as part of her research, because she adds, “And for free! Um, I guess I’ll owe you?”
• Gypsy is available on Netflix.