Naomi Watts on the Hamptons, Hollywood, and Playing Princess Diana
Actress Naomi Watts has never shied away from challenging roles, including the character in David Lynch’s twisted noir film, Mulholland Drive, which made her a household name. An Oscar nomination for her performance in 21 Grams followed soon after. (A second came last year for The Impossible, costarring Ewan McGregor). Come September, Watts is tackling what very well may be her most discussed, if not controversial, role to date—that of the late Princess Diana in the biopic Diana.
“So many people are going to pounce on me for not looking enough like her, not being tall enough, not being properly British—and I am actually properly British; I’m also Australian—but all of those negative comments were sort of floating around in the back of my head and really stifling me about whether or not I should do this,” says Watts of the film that is already generating Oscar buzz. “And obviously the sensitivity of it, is it the right thing to do, how would the boys [Princes William and Harry] feel about it. But they’re not boys; they’re men. They are aware that stories will be told about history and them included. Maybe it was a little bit earlier than people expected, but at some point the story had to be told. And I just loved the challenge of it.”
In person, Watts is quite opposite from the weighty roles that have earned her much acclaim—she’s funny and light, particularly when chatting with her longtime friend and We Don’t Live Here Anymore costar, Laura Dern. Currently in New York filming the comedy St. Vincent opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy, Watts shares with Dern what drew her to the role of Diana, the little thing she does that drives her husband, actor Liev Schreiber, “mad,” and the very un-Hollywood way the family unwinds in the Hamptons.
LAURA DERN: Our generation was so interested in Princess Diana. In a way, nothing scared her, yet she was put into terrifying circumstances—both by her choices and by the challenge of being a part of the royal family. It broke my heart but also terrified me to consider what she walked through.
NAOMI WATTS: I can’t really think of many people who can survive that level of fame. It’s horrible to imagine that life. But she kept trying to get better—that’s why I fell in love with her. She was doing so much work to survive that, and fighting to be happy. Already she was going to have a tough time because of being separated from her mother for such a long time, then getting thrust into the royal lifestyle at 19, and being pushed out of it with the breakdown of her marriage. I think she felt very lonely and isolated, but she was working with healers. Some people are cynical about that, but I just love that she was trying to get better and she was trying to move beyond those difficult times.
LD: In photographs we’ve seen of royalty, there’s a distancing between the mother and the child. And when you see photographs of her looking at her children, you see this devotion and love.
NW: There’s so much contradictory information, but when you see those moments captured on film, you just believe that she was a grooming mother. Allegedly, from the research I did, Prince Charles was never touched as a child—that’s the Victorian way. She changed things for them and definitely for us. She made the royal family more accessible; she made us believe they were actually real human beings.
LD: To present to the world that a life of service and a life of empathy is one of strength was such a new concept. It feels like she was really the first iconic female to show us that to care deeply, to give back, and to try to nurture on a global scale, is the highest grace.
NW: People—particularly some British people—felt that that [aspect] shouldn’t be talked about. Even when she did the [Martin] Bashir interview for [BBC One’s] Panorama, people were 50-50 about it. You can’t air your dirty laundry if you’re a member of the royal family. She was backed into a corner, and she wanted to start her life in a new direction because she was not considered a member of the royal family anymore. It took a great deal of courage, and I don’t know if I would have had the guts to do it.
LD: Do you yourself also do charitable work with several organizations?
NW: I’ve been working at the UNAIDS for many years [a joint organization focused on achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care]. It’s been incredible. I wish I had more time to do more work on the ground, particularly in developing countries. It’s really a privilege to get involved but heartbreaking what you learn. However, things have changed over the years, even in those developing countries. It’s just moving in the right direction. There’s a lot to be done, but a lot has been achieved just in the few years that I’ve been working with them.
LD: How did you first get involved with UNAIDS?
NW: I had done some other volunteer work with children with AIDS in Australia. A friend of mine lost his wife and child, so we organized a benefit for him. UNAIDS wrote to me and asked me to get involved. I said yes right away. But ever since I’ve had kids myself, it’s been a lot more difficult. And then I’ve done other things—like I’ve been on the board of the New York Academy of Art—for a few years as well.
LD: One of the things I love about you is that you not only bring out the best in people, but also the truth in people. You have this gift to become a therapist for all your friends. It is also one of the qualities that makes you such an incredible actor. Is that something you’ve always had?
NW: It’s so nice to hear you to say that. I feel like I’m always the one reaching out to my friends and making them into the therapist. But there’s a balance. I’ve grown up with a very strong matriarch in my life, who knows what she wants. She does have a vulnerable side, but she’s just a strong woman and very honest. She’s not a fake, my mom, in any way. I’ve seen everything, and I’m not afraid of big, strong scary people—I’m actually drawn to them—and I’m never judgmental of chaos or people’s weaknesses and flaws. I had the most interesting and probably adventurous childhood one can imagine: some sadness and ups and downs definitely, with the loss of my father, but I feel like I can get through it. Maybe that’s why people feel they can trust me, because I’m not freaked out by anything.
LD: I am ecstatic that you are doing comedies now [with the upcoming release of St. Vincent] because you are one of the funniest people I know. I am thrilled to know that you are going to have a good time on a movie instead of being devastated, sobbing, natural disasters, horrible sacrifice, heartbreak....
NW: I know, I need that.
LD: And now that I know what St. Vincent is about, it’s funny also because of your pain....
NW: That’s the only kind of comedy I can really invest in. It has to be based in some kind of truth, and usually there’s pain involved in truth. It’s nice to go to work and not bring all that angst with you. I’m working with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy on this film, and the first days with both those actors I was literally hysterical, going, What am I going to do? What if I’m not funny? It was nerve-wracking, but both were great.
LD: You’re working in New York and visiting the Hamptons with your family?
NW: Yes, it worked out perfectly. Working on this movie, I have four days on, seven days off, and then work for two days, so it’s just been trekking back and forth. I feel like I’ve had a holiday, plus doing the work as well.
LD: What I do love and kind of worship—not to use the word lightly, because I mean it so truly—about you and your life and your family, is something you said to me that I’ve never heard anyone who lives in the Hamptons say. I’ve heard people say, “Oh so-and-so is coming out;” or, “There’s a big cocktail party.” But when I asked you what you do out here, you said, “We fish all the time.”
NW: I’ve gone fishing before, but I don’t remember having any real joy with it; now with the kids, it’s so much fun. Believe me, the first time I went, it was a disaster. I took them by myself because Liev needed some time to catch up on work. I went to the fishing tackle shop because our rods were all tangled, and it was closed. Of course, we didn’t have any bait, so I thought, Okay, now what do I use? So I started digging up worms—anything to avoid the meltdown of saying, “Fishing is not gonna happen, guys.”
LD: That is so fantastically brave—and gross. You are a wonderful mom. But it is true. It’s also the act of self-preservation because the meltdown is something to avoid.
NW: We had another incident when we took a French bulldog that eats everything; and it ate the squid off the hook and swallowed the entire hook. We’ve since gotten a little smoother. It’s always nice when you can find an old man who is there at 6 p.m. and basically hijack his fishing trip. But in general, I try to avoid the “scene” at all costs. Of course, we go to places here and there, but it’s not what [the Hamptons is] about for us.
LD: I was recently terrified that I didn’t have hobbies. I find for me, with young children, it’s kids and acting, and that’s my life, really. Do you have things you like to do?
NW: I take up things, and then I move away from them if they take up too much of my time and I’m not brilliant at them. I’m bad like that. Those would be things like tennis. And I did Italian classes through both of my pregnancies, and I loved that, but then I just found that I wasn’t moving to the next level. I love going on bike rides by myself or with the family. I love cooking—though I’m not a brilliant cook; I’m an okay cook. I’m terrible at baking. I love the garden, but that’s such an unsexy thing to say. When I’m out in the Hamptons, it’s the first thing I do—I go and check out the nurseries and see what’s on sale to reinvent my garden. They say, do not take up gardening—that means you’re moving way too deep into the second half of life.
LD: But that’s what I crave. I was raised by two actors, so it sounds like sanity to me.
NW: Another thing—I know it sounds crazy and slightly unhinged—I like to move furniture around when Liev is gone for a few days. I never do it when he’s here; I would feel mad as well as look mad. But he’ll come back and ask, “What did you do?” And I say, “It’s better; it’s better.”
LD: I feel like there is influence from each film, whether it’s the character or the cinematographer that you work with. I know when I’m done with a movie all of a sudden I look around my own home [after being so accustomed to a set design], and I say, “Why is there no bright color in this house?” I go get blankets and flowers to decorate because I get so influenced by the film I’ve done. Then I’m totally over it.
NW: We just wrapped it up with our admissions… and we thought we were going to keep it very simple.
photography by brian bowen smith; styling by jeanann williams at the wall group; hair by giannandrea at the wall group; makeup by georgie eisdell for laura mercier at the wall group; shot on location at east hampton modern home listed exclusively by brown harris stevens