Watts's own childhood was far removed from the two-parent, stable household in which she is rearing her sons. She was born Naomi Ellen Watts near London in 1968. Her parents had married young, and her mother, Myfanwy Edwards, gave birth to Watts’s older brother, Ben, when she was only 19, and had Naomi less than two years later. Her father was often absent, off touring with Pink Floyd, and the couple divorced when Watts was four. Her mother began moving the three of them from town to town, at one point living with Watts’s maternal grandparents in Wales. “My mum was very, very young and a single mom,” says Watts. “She probably moved from place to place thinking this would help bring more money in or to be near friends.”
It’s only since having children herself that she has come to fully appreciate the challenges faced by her mother, who worked as a window dresser and set decorator and is currently an interior designer. “I’m blown away by what she achieved,” says Watts. “I feel a lot of compassion for her now. I’m in the fortunate situation where I’m making money, have a lot of downtime and a nanny, but I don’t have my family around, and that’s hard at times. She was able to go on a job and feel comfortable leaving us with the grandparents.”
Watts’s nomadic childhood, however, left its mark. She was constantly forced to make new friends, fit in at new schools and even, she says, adopt a new accent, depending on where in England they were living. “I am someone who’s very wrapped up in pleasing people, and I think that came from being a kid who moved around a lot and was trying to fit in. I can still get talked into things, but much less than before.”
One of the people who could talk her into anything was Ben, now a successful photographer in New York. Ben says their unsettled childhood helped to shape them: “When you get older, you realize that you’ve developed these social skills; you’re able to transcend any situation.”
The family, including her mother’s second husband (from whom she is now divorced), moved again when Watts was 14, this time to Australia. “It was culture shock,” says Watts, who went from attending an English school with a conservative dress code to one in Sydney where her classmates rocked outré hairstyles and itsy-bitsy skirts. “But in retrospect it was the best thing Mum ever did. I loved it.” (Watts becomes flustered when asked if she considers herself Australian or British. “Honestly, I feel equal parts,” she says.)
She signed up for acting classes—she moved Down Under with the promise that she could take lessons there—and soon was landing roles in commercials, among them one for Tampax. (“It really is the no-hassles tampon,” gushes a teenage Watts.) Eager to get on with her career, she quit high school at 17. “I told my mum, ‘I’m done with my education,’ ” says Watts, who now wishes her mother had put up more of a fight. “I’d never let my children do that!”
A year later, she went to Tokyo to try modeling but, lonely and miserable, ended up packing on the pounds. Returning home, she put both modeling and acting behind her and landed a job arranging fashion shoots for a Sydney department store. Then, at 20, Watts became an assistant fashion editor at Follow Me, a now-defunct Australian women’s magazine. (Of her own fashion sense, Watts says, “It’s mood based. Sometimes I feel like being safe, and other times like being more outrageous.”) She enjoyed the magazine job—her duties included dashing off articles on topics such as why the white shirt is a wardrobe essential—and was headed up the ladder professionally.
Watts’s future as the next Anna Wintour came to a halt when, as a favor to a friend, she helped out at an acting workshop over a weekend. Once there, she says, “I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do and who I really was.” On Monday she quit her magazine job. Within two weeks, she had won a part in the 1991 Australian movie Flirting, which costarred Kidman. It’s the only time they have appeared onscreen together, though “it feels like we’ve done more,” says Kidman.