Naomi Watts is certainly no overnight sensation. The Australian actress has been in some 20 roles over the past 15 years in her long slow burn towards Hollywood stardom.
What changed everything for the 34-year-old was David Lynch casting her in his surreal psychodrama Mulholland Drive in 2001. With its depiction of psychological breakdown it made Hollywood sit up and take notice of this quietly-spoken luminous blond.
Now with her latest movie, the psychological horror The Ring, Watts has her first major studio calling card.
A remake of the Japanese hit ’Ringu’ Watts plays a reporter who is drawn to the story of four teenagers who die after allegedly watching a sinister videotape.
The problem is, she has to watch the tape as well. A few seconds later a mysterious voice on the phone tells her she’ll die in seven days.
“You evolve hopefully with each project you take on and I feel good that this has been my journey,” says Watts about her long apprenticeship to stardom.
But through all the years of journeyman roles in films and television, there were times when she doubted she would make it.
Her best friend Nicole Kidman was an inspiration when the struggle for success seemed hopeless, admits Watts.
The pair started out acting alongside each other in the little-known Australian comedy Flirting – and stayed close even when Kidman was rocketed to stardom and Watts seemed destined to be overlooked by Hollywood.
Watts says appreciatively: “She was always very encouraging. When the chips were down and I was thinking of throwing in the towel, Nicole would tell me to hang in there, that all it takes is one lucky break.”
Now she’s glad stardom didn’t come too quickly and she paid her dues: “I think if I’d had this success early on maybe I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Now I know what I want, not just in my business life but in my personal life.”
As far as her screen career is concerned, Watts is very much in demand. She’ll follow up The Ring with James Ivory’s adaptation of Le Divorce, will feature in the all-star Australian historical drama The Kelly Gang and loses her cool in 21 Grams by Alejandro Gonzalez (Amores Perros).
Watts admits she enjoys doing intense psychodramas. “I know I keep on doing these roles, but they just interest me.
“I love playing out the human struggle. I like playing someone questioning their situation and the surroundings they’re in. Fear is a really good emotion to play.”
In Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, her character’s interest in the strange video puts both her and her son’s life at risk.
“This isn’t just a genre film with a bunch of gory images. This gets into your imagination with intensely frightening possibilities. The plot allows for images and ideas to grow in your own mind.
“I like the fact that she has a journey to go on because of the circumstances,” says Watts. “I like that she starts out as a flawed person, not a great mother and a bit too driven.”
In between all these intense roles, Watts has also shot a quirky little Welsh comedy, Plots With A View, in which she relishes being “this kind of ditsy, trying-to-get-ahead floozy”.
The important thing now is to make good role choices, she says. “I’m not resting on my laurels at all, I want to choose the right projects. I’ve been offered some incredibly tempting things that would change my life, but I just want to be careful.”
Born in Shoreham, England, Watts didn’t go to Australia with her sometime actress mother until she was 14. Her father was a rock music technician and her parents divorced when she was four.
At first she wasn’t happy being uprooted from Britain and moving to the other side of the world, she recalls.
“When you’re a teenager you’re just trying to find your feet and there was a lot of adjusting to do. In retrospect it was the best thing my mum could have done.”
Now she feels like a hybrid of both cultures. “England was my most formative years then I moves to Australia and it’s like a whole new part of you develops.
“I’ve got the beautiful English reserve combined with my Australian candour, they kind of compliment each other.”
Her Australian side won’t let her take the whole fame thing too seriously,” she says. “The whole Hollywood deal is kind of a joke to them and I think people find that refreshing.”
In Australia Watts has become well known for being romantically linked to 25-year-old Aussie star Heath Ledger. The couple met doing The Kelly Gang in which she plays the love interest.
All the attention to her private life comes with the territory, Watts admits. “I can’t go, ‘How dare they?’ because that would be silly. But your private life is something you want to protect as long as possible.
“All this interest in my personal life is new and quite odd, but I just never want to be one of those people who are too afraid to leave the house and miss out on experience.”