Mega Watts

She seduced King Kong onscreen and Liev Schreiber in real life, but winning over Hollywood was harder. Now Naomi Watts, star of 'Dream House' and 'J. Edgar,' is focusing on her two young sons—and making “movies that I’d WANT to see”

By Leah Rozen
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Photograph: Peggy Sirota

After that re-entry into acting—which included an ad in which Watts played a gal who passed up a possible date with Tom Cruise in favor of a scrumptious lamb-roast dinner—she decided to give Hollywood a go. While fellow Ozzies like Kidman and Mel Gibson found quick success, Watts struggled for nearly a decade, getting minor parts but never the breakthrough role. It was an often demeaning existence, with days spent driving all over L.A. to pick up scripts and audition. (She revisited these early humiliations in 2005’s Ellie Parker, a semiautobiographical comedy about an aspiring actress, which she starred in and coproduced.)

Watts at times considered just heading home to Sydney. “It was a downward spiral of self-doubt. You get so much rejection that you can’t find your way out,” she says. Her childhood, however, had taught her to ride through the bumps, and she also received encouragement from friends. “I remember her being frustrated, and I’d just say, ‘I so believe it’ll break for you,’ ” says Kidman. “Naomi’s so tenacious. She never gives up.”

“We’ve seen each other go through a lot, and we’ve both consistently been there for each other,” says Watts of her bond with Kidman. “She’s been a great friend and inspiration.”

Kidman’s assurance to her, that just one part could change a career, proved true. In Watts’s case, it took two parts (though both in the same movie). Her moment came when she was 31 and director David Lynch, after seeing her head shot (photographed by Ben), picked her to play a dual role in 2001’s Mulholland Dr. Critics took notice—“Naomi Watts is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times—and Watts was on her way. (At Mulholland’s Cannes premiere, a nervous Watts took comfort when a song she associated with her father, Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken,” was playing as she stepped onto the red carpet.)

Looking back, the actress says it’s a blessing she didn’t find fame earlier. “I didn’t know who I was back then. I think I would have been led in the wrong directions,” she says. “It would have been all too seductive.”

Director García says Watts is more grounded than many actresses who achieve success in their MTV years. “She’s had a great career for the last 10 years, has never done trash and has managed to have two babies along the way. That’s something,” he says. “Plus, she’s still hot.”

These days Watts has her pick of roles and says she chooses “to be in movies that I’d want to see.” The new Dream House is a character-driven thriller costarring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz (it was shot during the heated romance that led to their June wedding) and is directed by Jim Sheridan (In America). After that she stars in the Clint Eastwood–directed drama J. Edgar. Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI, and Watts is his loyal secretary.

“I’m all about the older guys,” Watts says, referring to Sheridan, 62, and Eastwood, 81. “They know what they’re doing, what they want, and they’ve got a life to live.” She marvels that Eastwood, no matter how complicated his shots, never went over a 12-hour day. “The first day, I went on the set and he said, ‘Let’s give it a go,’ and I thought he meant rehearsing,” she says. Only later did Watts discover the camera had been rolling. “I didn’t even have a chance to be nervous,” she says.

A few days after our breakfast, Watts calls to answer some additional questions. Asked what more she wants in life, she pronounces herself content. “I have everything I need. I just want to keep healthy and happy”—she pauses and, laughing, adds, “and world peace.”

First Published September 14, 2011

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