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Force of Nature

Five fascinating films within a year turn star Naomi Watts into a supernova.  

She’s one of Hollywood’s most prolific actresses, commanding $5 million per film, so it’s no wonder Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts is one confident British-born, Aussie-bred actress. But it’s her time in New York and her experience of becoming a mother while in her 40s that have made her so down-to-earth.

When we sat down at a Chelsea studio for her cover shoot just days after Hurricane Sandy slashed through New York, leaving lower Manhattan powerless, Watts waxed poetic on the candlelit “lovely moments sitting around at home” in the apartment she shares with Tony-winning thespian Liev Schreiber and their two sons, Alexander (Sasha) and Samuel (Kai), playing iPad Scrabble. Once the reality had set in that power was not going to be restored anytime soon, the family made their way to the Upper East Side’s luxurious Mark Hotel, where their “life is short” lifestyle continued in the form of ice skating and hand-stitching Halloween costumes. The close-knit couple isn’t married—“Marriage?” Watts jokes. “It feels like, ‘Why fix it if it ain’t broke?’”

The 5-foot-5 blond beauty with long, luscious locks (the length is a condition of her contract as the “face” of Pantene) gushes over her iPhone photos of Schreiber and their boys skating in Rockefeller Center. But as she sat getting her perfect-featured face painted, wearing a Helmut Lang gray ribbed sheer shirt, J.Crew MacAlister wedge shoe-boots, black jeans with leather piping and carrying a black Chanel bag—all of which Schreiber had picked out as he packed for the family’s move to the Mark—Watts didn’t complain that she wasn’t with the family. After all, she didn’t get to be one of the most sought-after screen sirens without knowing about hard work.

It seems the best is yet to come for her. Within a year, Watts has five fascinating—and we mean fascinating—films slated for release: The Impossible, Sunlight Jr., Two Mothers, Movie 43 and Diana. Last month, The Impossible, a true-life tsunami survival saga co-starring Ewan McGregor, became the top-grossing Spanish film of all time. In 2013’s Sunlight Jr., we’ll see Watts playing the pregnant blue-collar girlfriend of paraplegic Matt Dillon. In Two Mothers, with Robin Wright, two friends fall for each other’s sons. In Diana, Watts plays Princess Di in the years just before her death. And in Movie 43, with an ensemble cast that includes Emma Stone and Gerard Butler, Watts rekindles her love of twisted comedy (à la I Heart Huckabees)—“my favorite kind of role,” she says.

What’s the secret to her successful juggling act? Shooting films in a very short amount of time. Sunlight Jr. was filmed in a month. Movie 43? Two days. Two Mothers brought her home to Australia with the whole family, and Diana has her going back to London for a few weeks here and there with Sasha, who’s only just starting kindergarten. “It’s very rare that I miss a bedtime,” Watts says. It also helps to have a devoted dad as a partner. For screen sensation turned dutiful dad Schreiber, taking on Wolverine (as Victor Creed in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine) was nothing compared to taking care of the kids while Mom’s away. When I talked to him during Watts’ last trip for Diana, he said, “It ain’t easy, but I’m holding down the fort.”

Watts’ 2013 films fall out of the thriller genre she’s famous for—films like The Ring, Eastern Promises, King Kong, Fair Game, Dream House and J. Edgar, to mention just a few. “I pick whatever speaks to me,” she says. “There’s never any planning involved. And, obviously, the filmmaker has so much to do with it.”

Watts is drawn to playing gutsy women (like her character in 21 Grams, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination in 2004) because she says they teach her something. “I certainly don’t consider myself courageous,” she explains, yet the women she chooses to play often are—such as Valerie Plame in Fair Game(opposite Sean Penn) and Helen Gandy in J. Edgar (opposite Leonardo DiCaprio). Even in the female drama Two Mothers, Watts’ decision to take on such a perverse character (and one for whom she actually manages to elicit sympathy) was brave. “I read the script and thought, this is really twisted,” she says. “I love the shift of feeling—one minute you’re judging these women, the next you’re forgiving them.”

Playing Princess Diana, among the most visible of women in modern history, required perhaps the greatest amount of courage. “It was the hardest thing I’ve done,” Watts says, “because of the pressure of everyone’s beliefs about who she was, and the fact that it was just really hard to claim her as my own, since everybody else feels they know her.” But Watts maintained an interpretive posture: “I don’t want to get caught up in mimicry and have a mannered performance—that’s the worst thing. I want to try to embody her and get the essence of her. Those things are really important to me. The film concentrates on a story that people don’t know much about—her love affair with a Pakistani heart surgeon, which I didn’t even know about. That love story ended sadly. Everyone remembers the Dodi story, of course.”

Besides the A-list of leading men she’s collaborated with, Watts can boast about having worked with some of the best directors, like Woody Allen (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar), Jim Sheridan (Dream House), Doug Liman (Fair Game), David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.). Without any hesitation, when I ask her who she’d still like to work with, she replies, “Alexander Payne [The Descendants, Sideways] as a director, and Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor. One day…”

Here in New York, Watts and Schreiber have struck the balance of the best the area has to offer, splitting their time between their 4,000-square-foot, $4 million Tribeca loft and their Amagansett home. “I love going to parks, scootering, bike rides… Liev bought this crazy bike that can fit three people. When we do the school run, often he’ll take both kids and I’ll ride my bike.”

For the holidays, says Watts, “I love the cold, and going to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree and skating, and then fires and cooking at the beach in Amagansett.” There, she entertains friends (like Nicole Kidman, who brought her a toaster as a housewarming gift once), and family (photographer brother Ben lives in neighboring Montauk). “One thing this hurricane brought on for us—an insatiable appetite!” she says. “Is it human instinct to suddenly want to hoard food in the event of a crisis? It’s like animal instinct to crave things you wouldn’t normally touch—like fried foods!”

Watts’ passion for New York isn’t hindered by a force of nature—it’s New York’s frantic pace that challenges her. “I love it, but the energy can drive me mad as well. I have a love-hate relationship with it.” High up on her wish list for 2013? Some quiet time. “This year’s been crazy. Too much travel. I grew up traveling, but it’s tiring.”

 

Too much travel, maybe, but you can never have too much success.