Naomi Watts had an epiphany years ago on a mountain in Vermont while skiing with her adored big brother. When photographer Ben Watts, who’s 20 months older, began whooshing down a treacherous, double-black-diamond ski trail dotted with moguls, the actress attempted to follow him. Big mistake. “I’m not an advanced skier,” explains Watts. She stopped in a panic midway down, much to the annoyance of a skier behind her. “This woman was like [Watts adopts a sneering tone], ‘What are you doing on this side of the mountain!’ And I’m like [she switches to a tearful voice], ‘I followed my brother!’ This is the story of my life: trying to keep up with him.” (She eventually made it down by gingerly sidestepping the whole way while yelling at Ben.)
The lesson learned? “That I’m not going to do that anymore,” says Watts with a laugh. It is emphatically not a lesson she has applied to her professional life. When it comes to work, Watts consistently challenges herself by taking big risks. She has earned her considerable reputation—and two Oscar nominations—playing characters who suffer through immense emotional and sometimes physical extremes in films such as 21 Grams, King Kong, The Impossible and Diana, last year’s biopic about the doomed British princess.
Now Watts, 46, is pulling a changeup with a rare foray into comedy. She plays it for laughs in her two new movies, St. Vincent and Birdman, both opening in October.
“People think of me as this risk taker, but I don’t always feel like a person who’s full of courage,” says Watts, over coffee near her beach home in Amagansett, New York. (She also lives in Manhattan and Los Angeles with her partner of nine years, actor Liev Schreiber, and their towheaded sons, Sasha, seven, and Kai, five.) “Maybe in the workplace I have more courage than in other areas of my life.”
Based on her two new films, that could be an understatement. In St. Vincent, Watts pushes the comic boundaries, playing a pregnant Russian stripper and sometime prostitute. In her very first scene, we see her sitting astride Bill Murray on a bed, ordering him to “giddyup, cowboy.” “I remember telling Liev about [the role], and he was like, ‘Wow, that’s definitely not something you’ve done before.’ So, yeah, I was terrified.” Even more intimidating for Watts was working alongside Murray and Melissa McCarthy, whom she calls “comic geniuses.” To cope, she stayed in character at all times, even between takes. “I’d bust into Bill’s trailer and say [she adopts a thick Russian accent], ‘I need a drink! Gif me a drink!’ I had to stick with that character because otherwise my fear of being not worthy would take over.”
Director Theodore Melfi, who says producer Harvey Weinstein suggested Watts for the part, was bowled over by the extensive research Watts did to nail her character. For months she obsessively watched videos on websites that featured Russian mail order brides, perfecting her accent. She even learned how to curse in Russian. “She digs in more than anyone I’ve met,” Melfi says. “I’m a workaholic, and she makes me feel like I’m always on vacation.”