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.”
By “we,” Watts means actor Liev Schreiber, her romantic partner since 2005, and their two sons, Alexander Peter (known as Sasha), four, and Samuel Kai, two. “Have you seen her children? They’re so blonde, so beautiful,” Kidman says. “I keep saying to them, ‘Make more.’ ” (She adds, only half-jokingly, that she looks forward to the day when she and Watts are grandmothers.)
Friends had long viewed Watts and Schreiber as a good match and tried to set them up, but both had been seeing other people. Watts’s beaus included decade-younger Heath Ledger, her costar in 2003’s Ned Kelly. When asked what comes to mind when she remembers Ledger, who died of a prescription-drug overdose in 2008, she responds frankly and fondly: “Good times. We had a beautiful relationship, only a couple of years, but he was a man who was completely full of joy, and there was a lot of laughing and affection. He was really a very special soul and made a great impact on my life. And a great actor, but I know there was so much more to come. And it’s such a tragedy for his little daughter.”
The right time and the right place for the actress and Schreiber came in New York in 2005, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume ball. “I was wearing Calvin Klein, a very flirty, feminine dress,” she says. Sparks flew and, free from earlier entanglements, the two exchanged numbers before she went back to Los Angeles. “We spoke on the phone for several weeks and e-mailed,” says Watts, “and then I made up some excuse to come to New York, and the rest is history.”
Her friends were thrilled at the pairing. “He is also driven in his work and a genuine student of life. I just wish he wasn’t so attached to New York City,” says Rigg, who is married to The Mentalist’s Simon Baker and lives in L.A. Kidman, who was in New York at the time of the courtship, says with a knowing laugh, “I totally remember. It was incredibly passionate.”
Once the couple set up housekeeping—they’ve never wed, and she says a ring worn on her left hand is “just a ring”—offspring soon followed. “I always wanted children,” she says. “I thought that I would have them young, like my mother. I never thought I would have them as late as I did.” Watts’s first son was born in 2007, when she was 38, and her second just 17 months later. She breast-fed both boys and joked to David Letterman that she was suffering from a “lactose lobotomy.”
In hindsight, Watts is glad she waited on motherhood. “You grow up and hopefully become more self-aware,” she says. “I think I’m a better parent. I had a lot I wanted to do when I was younger, and perhaps I wouldn’t have been as focused; I got a lot out of the way in terms of my own dreams.”
In the Watts-Schreiber household, Mummy (the Anglo-Aussie maternal appellation favored by her children) and Dad are both hands-on parents, something her own father never had a chance to be. Schreiber often can be spotted tooling around downtown New York on his bicycle with a son in tow. “I’ve always said that men are great in the moment but not good in the planning, like is there milk in the fridge, and do we have diapers?” says Watts. “Liev’s ‘moments’ with the children are amazing. The games just go on and on.”
She, too, makes sure she has her moments with her boys; Watts postpones until the next morning a scheduled 9 PM phone call, explaining that after being at an all-day photo shoot, “I just got home and am lying down with my son as he falls off to sleep.” Rigg, having watched Watts roll on the floor with her kids climbing over her, says, “She’s so in love with those boys, I think it breaks her heart when she’s traveling and has to be away from them.”
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.
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.”
The question about what she wants keeps nagging at her, though. Two weeks later, she raises it again during a phone conversation and then follows up minutes later with an e-mail, in which she finally and poignantly talks about how she was affected by her father’s death. “Not knowing my father always made me feel like a piece of myself was missing or unknown,” she writes. “Not reachable. And growing up, there was this wondering what he would think of me or what I would think of him.”
She says she was troubled by questions: What would they have done together? Would he have been proud of her? It’s important to her that her own children never come up empty when asking the same. “I want them to feel connected to me and me to them. Always,” she writes. “I want them, above all, to feel sure of who they are. That they are safe in the world. And confident and happy people. And of course, connected. To their parents, their friends, their family, the world and themselves. This is the most important goal/dream in my life. Everything else is gravy.”
Leah Rozen profiled Lisa Kudrow for the July/August issue of More.
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