At first Naomi Watts balks when asked if she has a bawdy sense of humor, though bawdy is the exact word that three friends—actresses Nicole Kidman and Rebecca Rigg and writer-director Rodrigo García—each use when describing her ability to keep them in stitches.
“She’s bawdy as hell,” says Rigg, who shared a Bondi Beach apartment with Watts in Sydney, Australia, two decades ago. “She’s unshockable, and she’s shocking, especially to people who don’t know her.”
Watts, who stars in Dream House, opening September 30, and J. Edgar, due out November 9, still isn’t buying. “What exactly does bawdy mean?” she asks.
I punch up the definition on my laptop and read it to her: “dealing with sexual matters in a comical way; humorously indecent.”
She laughs. “That’s a bawdy sense of humor? I do, I do,” confesses Watts, 43. “And it’s definitely heightened when I’m in the company of Australian women and a drink.” Perhaps that accounts for the night, recalled by Rigg, when Watts, after hours at a friend’s restaurant, climbed atop a table and launched into a risqué dance routine right out of the ’80s pop-music show Solid Gold.
It’s a side of the English-born actress (she moved to Australia when she was 14) that Watts rarely displays professionally. Onscreen, she is the reigning queen of troubled, anguished or imperiled characters. Typical was her performance as a woman bereft at the loss of her husband and children in 21 Grams (2003), which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. Other high points in her film career include Mulholland Dr., The Ring, King Kong, Eastern Promises and Fair Game—all movies short on laughs.
“She’s willing to play radical characters, women who are broken, and to go wherever she has to go,” says director García, explaining why he sought out Watts to portray a woman haunted by having been given up for adoption in his 2009 film Mother and Child.
“I’d like to do something lighter,” Watts says. “It’s not that I have an aversion to comedy”—she elicited some chuckles in 2004’s I Heart Huckabees and 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, directed by Woody Allen—“but I don’t think I’m the first choice. I think people have seen me suffer too much onscreen.”
Watts is suffering in real life as well when we meet for breakfast at a downtown Manhattan café. She apologizes for arriving five minutes late, explaining that she has a cold, her children are sick, her allergies are acting up and she felt too crummy even to put on moisturizer. “So anyway,” she says, throwing her palms up as if in surrender, “that’s my mode for the day.”
The actress isn’t one to hold back. “There’s no guile with her,” says Rigg. During that morning’s interview, she begs off only when asked about the death of her father, Peter Watts, a sound engineer and road manager for the rock group Pink Floyd. (He died when she was seven, reportedly of a drug overdose.) “I don’t talk about him,” she says firmly. It’s the answer she always gives when journalists raise the topic. “It’s too personal,” she will e-mail when I try again. “Forgive me . . .”
On the morning of our meeting, Watts is dressed casually in pink jeans and a T-shirt, and her shoulder-length blonde hair is tucked behind her ears. None of the half dozen patrons in the café look twice at the movie star in their midst. The waiter gives her a friendly nod, but that’s mostly because she’s a regular here. “This is our local place,” Watts says, ordering a skim cappuccino and stewed fruit with yogurt. “This is where we come for all of our meetings, for a quick getaway and with the kids.”