As soon as Naomi Watts comes through the door, something is wrong. It’s a sweltering Friday at lunchtime. She hasn’t slept much. Her hair is mussy, in a sexy bedhead way. She’s sporting a strapless grey jumpsuit and cheap flip-flops, and is shielding her eyes behind a pair of oversized Stella McCartney shades. “I’m waiting for the doctor to call,” she says, positioning her BlackBerry on our back table in a Manhattan café. She peels off her sunglasses to reveal a pair of deeply vulnerable blue eyes.
It’s easy to forget, when first meeting Watts, that you are in the presence of a world-class actress and celebrated beauty. Yet she has the ability to walk into a room and with the simple tug of her shades light the place up—or at least light up your corner of it. This fall, moviegoers will be reminded of her high-wattage talents in two new movies. Watts goes from comedy in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (due out this month) to suspense, playing the role of former CIA agent Valerie Plame in the much-anticipated Fair Game. In that film, she offers an affecting portrait of a conflicted wife, mother and covert spy whose career and marriage are sent into a tailspin. But right now, Watts has domestic problems of her own.
In this lunch spot near her Nolita loft, she begins to reel out her tale. Around 11pm the previous evening, her Yorkshire terrier, Bob (who seems to make the tabloids as much as Watts), needed to take care of his business before bed. Watts took him—as any New Yorker would at that hour—up to her raised rooftop deck. “On the way back, he squirmed and fell right between the steps,” she says, horrified. Her fiancé, the actor Liev Schreiber, was on a press junket in D.C. So Watts left their two boys, Sasha, 3, and Kai, 18 months, with a sitter, grabbed a cab and rushed poor Bob to the vet. “They think he’ll be OK, but he has internal injuries,” she says, her diminutive five-foot-five-inch frame sinking back into her chair. “I’m so sorry if I seem out of it at all. It’s been a difficult night and morning.”
Even out of it, Naomi Watts radiates the same charisma that launched her star a decade ago when she played a perky actress who turns homicidal in David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Drive. Two years later, she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in 21 Grams as a coked-up, grieving mom bent on revenge. By 2005, she was the glammed-up heroine in the blockbuster remake of King Kong. Now, at 41, her star continues to rise: She’ll next inhabit the role of bombshell Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional memoir. “It’s scary,” she says, “playing someone so iconic, whom everyone feels they know.”
It’s no wonder she was cast as the doomed starlet: Watts is often described as vulnerable onscreen—and those eyes do vulnerable in the most soul-wrenching of ways—but really, that’s missing the point entirely. “She’s got this thing about her,” says her Tall Dark Stranger co-star Josh Brolin. “It’s deep. She’s a raw nerve. It’s not fragile. I want to stay away from fragile. She’s one of these girls you just can’t walk away from.”
One reason you can’t tear yourself away is this: Watts is so brazenly open. She’ll tell you almost anything. She’ll talk about her unconventional relationship with Schreiber. (“We’re engaged but not planning on marriage. We have the semblance of a marriage.”) She’ll talk about losing her father, the sound engineer for Pink Floyd, when she was seven. (“That’s him laughing on Dark Side of the Moon; it’s a haunting laugh.”) She’ll tell you about her sad little dog, her sleepless night, and you just can’t walk away.
Her emotional availability makes her a surprisingly nuanced spy on the big screen. As Plame in Fair Game, she exudes so much humanity while keeping up a wall of secrets—even lying to her husband—that you fall in love with her despite her potentially off-putting duplicity.
“Valerie is not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. You don’t get her all at once,” Watts says of the agent whose cover was infamously blown after her husband’s public criticism of the Bush administration’s rationale for the Iraq war. (Sean Penn plays Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson.) “What she nearly lost, what she did lose, how she managed to prevail, is amazing. Most people would have come apart.” The actress has become friends with Plame and the two exchange emails, often discussing family and raising kids. In fact, Watts started filming the movie just a few months after giving birth to her second child. “I was still in my squishy maternal state,” she says as she scoops into a bowl of gazpacho.
“When we started shooting she just felt a little bit soft… clearly because she just had a baby and was nursing,” says director Doug Liman. “We shipped her off to this top secret CIA program somewhere in Virginia and when she came back—it was like a light switch.” For her paramilitary training, Watts rammed cars without a helmet or seatbelt (“Those are for wimps,” she says), lit explosives and experienced a maternal first: “I had a gun strapped to me at all times so I was breast-feeding with a fully loaded weapon.”
But Watts has always been an actor’s actor, jumping into the complexities of character on a moment’s notice. For her first day on Allen’s Tall Dark Stranger, she had to film page after page of wrenching dialogue with her character’s mother—an actress she’d never spoken to before. “She joined the picture in mid-shoot,” says Allen, “and without saying a word to me, proceeded with her most difficult, emotional, out-of-sequence scene and did it superbly… It’s illogical that someone could just walk in that coldly, turn it on like a switch and be wonderful.”
So how did Naomi Watts get to be this kind of wonderful, as Allen puts it? A few well-known biographical bullet points might decode this question. Watts was born in Shoreham, Kent, in England, the second of two children to Peter, a road manager and sound engineer, and Myfanwy, a costume and set designer. Her parents split when she was four, and three years later, her father died. Her mother moved the family constantly as she sought work or followed boyfriends. By the time Watts was 14, she had lived in about 10 different towns all over England. “It would take me six months. I would hang out with the not-so-cool people and then find my way in,” she says, with a little laugh. “It was like learning a new language every time I moved, the different people, cultures, dialects. I guess it helped.”
But her itinerant childhood also had side effects. “I don’t think I ever had a strong sense of my own identity,” she says. “I was always trying to please and fit in and think, ‘Oh, who’s that person? Maybe they want to see this version of myself. Maybe that will make me more popular.’ That sort of works for the acting thing.” Actually, it backfired when she arrived in Hollywood, but more on that later.
Watts moved to Australia at 14, where she met pal Nicole Kidman on a casting call. By 18, Watts was in TV commercials (there’s an ’80s Tampax spot on YouTube, with her high-piled hair and thick shoulder pads, that she shudders to remember) and briefly moved to Japan to model, but was deemed too short for runway jobs. “It’s doing 10 castings a day and it’s just weird and I did not like it one bit,” she says.
When she arrived in L.A. in the mid-’90s, she already had an Australian soap and small film roles under her belt, but after a few years she felt like giving up completely. “You’re sort of fighting for things that you don’t even think are that brilliant. So it ends up being a stab in the heart. You ever been in a relationship where you say, ‘Oh this one’s just for fun,’ and then suddenly they dump you? And you’re like, ‘Wait a second! That wasn’t part of this.’ It becomes very personal and hard to hear all the feedback, and your agents are trying to be constructive and pass on the truth in the most gentle way.”
Her old habits were also tripping her up. “It came to a point where my personality was so diluted because I’m trying to please, desperately trying to win a gig,” she says, “and in the process doing too much pleasing and losing myself. It’s no wonder people weren’t hiring me.” That changed when David Lynch pulled her photo from a pile, interviewed her for three hours, gave her a hug at the end and decided he had peered (as David Lynch does) into her soul. “It took a master like him to be able to see beyond it all,” she says, “to be intuitive and draw me out.”
The day after Mulholland Drive screened at Cannes, Watts’ phone “started ringing like crazy.” Which is why her next move seemed an odd choice, starring in the The Ring and The Ring 2. “It’s not like I check the papers looking for the next horror film,” she says. “It just sort of happened.” Playing a young reporter investigating her niece’s death, Watts manages to save her own role in the screamfest, thanks largely to her energy and her onscreen vitality.
“She is very emotional in all her characters,” says her Mother and Child co-star Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a quiet and thoughtful boss whom Watts’ character seduces. “Usually, in sex scenes, I have to ask, ‘Where can I touch you; where can I not touch you?’ All that awkward stuff… She bounced right into it in our first scene. She has this braveness and boldness that lets her step into places comfortably and just as easily step out and joke afterward.”
It’s a quality that seems to carry into her personal life. For all her star-power, she is a remarkably lo-fi presence in New York even though she is constantly out in public, taking her kids to Tompkins Square Park and doing her own grocery shopping. Even here at lunch, she is completely ignored by her fellow diners.
“I know it sounds crazy,” she says, her Aussie accent emitting a sense of genuine surprise, “but I don’t have strong features, I’m small, and I just blend in with the rest of the world.” Maybe. But one suspects she tries to blend in. “I think it’s because she earned her fame at an older age,” Valerie Plame says, adding that Watts is one of the “more grounded people I’ve met.”
It’s only when Watts ventures out with Schreiber that the paparazzi move in. “Liev is big, he has a big head, and is very much himself,” she says. “There’s really no one that looks like him.” The gossip pages were certainly making a lot of a recent trip Schreiber took to Tahiti with pals, even speculating a breakup. When asked about this, and why she’s not wearing her engagement ring, Watts playfully snaps, “Oh you clocked that as soon as I walked in the door.” She adds, “I feel it’s this precious piece of jewelry. And look at me: I’m not this precious, dress-uppy kind of person. I take it off.”
Five years ago, Watts moved from L.A. to this cobblestone street in Nolita to live with NYC native Schreiber (who also appears in this year’s other spy movie, Salt, as Angelina Jolie’s CIA boss). The pair had met a couple of times before they connected romantically at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in 2005. The following year, they appeared together in The Painted Veil, Watts playing the unfaithful wife of a malaria doctor in China and Schreiber the dashing diplomat who woos her.
On this very hot Friday afternoon, Watts is returning to city life after a pleasant summer spent in upstate Rhinebeck and in the Hamptons, or “at the beach,” as she refers to it, with Schreiber and the kids. In a few days, she will head off to Spain where she begins shooting The Impossible, with Ewan McGregor, about the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. That means no more chance encounters with Hamptons regular Roger Waters—someone tied very much to her past.
Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, was close to Watts’ father, Peter. In fact, when Peter died, the band members set aside “a little money for us to keep on ice until we became of age.” She is friendly with Waters and the other bandmates—but she admits she’s never tried the old stoner tribute of listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz. She has, however, tried to learn to play “Wish You Were Here” on guitar, “but I was awful.”
“Roger is a great guy; he just cracks me up,” she says. “But I get a little emotional every time I see one of them, because it’s like, will there be another story? I don’t have that many memories of my father and I’m always sort of longing for a little anecdote relating to him. Maybe in the hope that it will tell me something about how he felt about me!” She offers a girlish laugh. “Or tell me something about who I was? Maybe that’s what everyone does in life: They’re piece-mealing their story together, trying to figure out who we are—and the work never ends.”