`Breakthrough' role pays off in a big way

Naomi Watts' career took all the right turns off `Mulholland Drive'

October 15, 2002|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Here's how Naomi Watts, whose new film The Ring opens Friday, sees herself in old age:

"I'll be in the home somewhere, looking at the sunset through the window, and some other geezer will roll his wheelchair up to mine and say, `Excuse me, but can you please explain to me what happens in the ending of Mulholland Drive?'"

"It's something that will haunt me until I die," says Watts of the 2001 David Lynch film that made her an overnight star after almost 15 years in the movie business. Watts played the impossibly innocent ingenue who goes to Hollywood to be in the movies, only to get involved in - well, there are a hundred interpretations of what she gets involved in and what she becomes, and a number of Internet chat rooms devoted to solving the mystery.

Watts, of course, says she knows exactly what happens to Betty Elms or Diane Selwyn or whoever she really was - "I don't think I could have played her unless I was certain who she was and where her journey finally took her" - but allows that her informed opinion might be different from director Lynch's, or yours.

"That's one of the things that makes Mulholland Drive Mulholland Drive," she says. "Your solution's as valid as mine. OK, maybe just a little less valid."

The attention the film brought Watts, she says, is well worth being mentally strip-searched for hidden clues. She won a string of film critics' association awards for her puzzling portrayal, as well as the first American Film Institute award for best female actor, while the National Board of Review honored her for the "Breakthrough" performance of 2001.

And her success in Mulholland Drive led to her current movie, The Ring. Having accomplished her breakthrough, Watts found herself, for the first time since moving from Australia to the United States in 1992, being in lots of meetings and looking at lots of scripts.

Though she was a star in Australia, in the popular TV series Home and Away and co-starring with Nicole Kidman in a hit movie called Flirting, she had failed to make much of an impression here in already-forgotten films like Matinee and Tank Girl. Watts had filled her time with TV movies until Mulholland Drive came along, and even that began its creepy life as a pilot for a TV series. So suddenly being offered leading roles was a great relief. Finding The Ring, she says, was a great gift.

A remake of a Japanese cult movie, The Ring has a premise that pretty much screams "teen movie": An urban legend going around high schools says there's a video with the power to kill; anyone who watches it dies exactly seven days after they see it.

Watts plays Rachel, an investigative reporter and self-absorbed single mother who becomes intrigued with the legend after the mysterious death of her niece, which her friends blame on the video.

"I just love the idea that this movie starts out like Scream and then turns into this entirely different thing," says Watts.

"There's none of the usual gore or gags and none of the usual cliches, just this overwhelming atmosphere of dread, and this mystery that my character is determined to solve.

"When I first talked to [director] Gore [Verbinski], he explained how he wanted to pull the audience into the film the way the victims are pulled into watching the video and then spend the first half-hour or so introducing the characters. So we're invested in what happens to them."

Verbinski, who directed Mouse Hunt and The Mexican, says, "I'm a big fan of horror films. But there are the ones that simply shock you and ones that operate more subversively. They have a particular psychological manipulation going on that the viewer is not completely aware of. When they work, they have a tremendous residual effect - those films stay with you longer, because they get under your skin."

"I saw Mulholland Drive and immediately responded to [Watts'] performance," says the director. "I think Rachel is a tough role, and Naomi is a gutsy actress."

Watts was forced to develop that gutsiness at an early age. When she was 10, her father, a sound engineer for Pink Floyd, died, and four years later she and her mother moved from her native England to Australia to start new lives.

Watts says she loved losing herself in stories and eventually gravitated to acting; in one of her first jobs, she played a girl who turns down a date with Tom Cruise in favor of an evening at home with her mum's pot roast.

"It was difficult when I first came here, because I had done well in Australia, and my opportunities in this bigger pond were fewer. But I didn't become discouraged. I just kept going, and I got some good roles, even if they were in television or films people didn't see, and I learned from all of them. I'm not sure what would have happened if I would have had success in my early 20s. Now that I'm older [she turned 34 last month], I think I'm better equipped to make good choices."

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