New York, New York.
In a city of more than eight million, it’s relatively easy for an Academy Award-nominated actor, even one as striking as Naomi Watts, to live and blend in.
The 42-year-old has worked continuously since her 2001 breakthrough performance in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., but she has found new balance in her life. When she's not filming or promoting her latest project — like Dream House, the Jim Sheridan-directed thriller that opens this month — she and her partner, fellow actor Liev Schreiber, often take a mostly anonymous bite out of The Big Apple.
"On an ordinary weekend, we'll pack a picnic, go to Central Park on great bikes that we take our two boys on. Stretch out a blanket and let them run free a little," she says. "They're just getting to the age where we can explore the city and do more adventurous things like checking out the Museum of Natural History. And I can still walk around a little unrecognized."
Sort of hiding in plain sight.
But her real-life family scenario is a complete antithesis to the situation in Dream House. Sheridan (My Left Foot) has called the film a "genre horror story" and "a psychological thriller," and it certainly has echoes of The Amityville Horror.
English actors Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz star as a couple who move into their fantasy abode only to discover three of the four previous residents, a woman and her two children, were murdered there. The father was the only survivor. Watts plays their neighbour who shares info about the grisly event.
"I'm interested in characters who may live fairly ordinary lives but then are put in challenging circumstances, like the characters in Dream House," says Watts. "After moving into a seemingly perfect new home, a family slowly finds out about a brutal crime that was committed against the former residents. I play one of their neighbours and we're trying to work out what's going wrong…there's something very mysterious going on that affects these characters."
The scariest part for Watts may have been trying to blend into a cast that includes new real-life couple Craig and Weisz, who married earlier this year. But it's often been about blending in for the much-travelled Watts. Born in Kent, England, to a Welsh mother, Myfanwy, and an English father, Peter, who worked with Pink Floyd, Watts was a tomboy who so wanted to fit in with her older brother Ben's group that she "climbed trees and played with toy soldiers." Naomi was just seven when her father passed away, and soon after Myfanwy moved her children to Anglesey, where the young Naomi had to quickly learn how to speak Welsh.
"My mum is still an adventurer, a gypsy, which definitely rubbed off on me," says Watts. "She likes inspirational things and travel.
But there are consequences to moving around — you fear maybe being abandoned. The pros, however, are that you can adapt to any situation and that you're open to new experiences and surroundings. From early on, I learned about fitting in, and would do everything I could to please someone. And that led me into this arena of acting. Learning to study others, study characters and understand them."
Watts and Daniel Craig in Dream House (Courtesy of eOne)
It was her mother's aforementioned wanderlust that inspired the Watts family to move to Australia in 1982, where Naomi began her acting career. That in turn led her to the U.S. and Hollywood in the mid-'90s. Now having lived in four countries, feeling at home in New York is a wonderful new thing for Watts. "I've been kind of nomadic all my life but I am really enjoying nesting with Liev and the boys, buying furniture and being settled," she says. In short, creating her own dream home.
With more than 40 movies to her credit, Watts has applied her chameleon-like talent to everything from blockbusters (King Kong), to comedies (Le Divorce) and dramas (21 Grams, for which she earned that Oscar nomination), and especially thrillers of all kinds, including: neo-noir (Mulholland Dr.), psychological (Funny Games), political espionage (Fair Game), and horror (The Ring).
So why her fascination with thrillers — many of which put her in harrowing circumstances?
"I like the fear of the unknown. Fear is a great emotion and a lot of scenarios come under its umbrella. As an actor, it allows you more to do. Thrillers are actually 'fun' to act in. As for the characters, I am fascinated by strong women. They're usually going through something where they're not always strong or the situation makes them vulnerable, there’s something they have to overcome that makes them become strong."
In conversation, Watts' accent easily shifts and she admits, "My accent goes all over the place and then people end up asking you if you're from South Africa." But she adds an astute observation: "Wherever we moved, I would quickly pick up the regional accent to fit in. It's been said that as an actor you don't want too strong an identity because you have to lose that in order to take on the identity of the character you're playing.'It's this act of immersing herself in a character's arc that so intrigues Watts.
"I like my job because we get to show all sides of a character. As humans, no one person is only one thing. A hero is not always a hero, he or she has their tragic flaws. The thing about taking on different characters, you get to explore their various facets, and they reflect some aspects of your experience, things you've thought about or seen in others. And you get to live in the shoes of those other people."
Watts, who would love to "do a movie that would impress" her kids, says being a mother now impacts her work: "You see things through the eyes of somebody else now as a parent, and maybe as an actor, that helps you get closer to a character. You're more attuned. But once the day is over, I'm happily racing back to my kids and not bringing my work home. I used to stay up in the wee hours, going over the script, thinking about the character, what I was going to do the next day on the set. Now, you're not just thinking of yourself anymore."
Ashley Jude Collie is a Canadian writer living in Los Angeles.