Published December 16, 2005
NEW YORK – One is a three-hour, $200 million-plus combination of digital effects, yearlong hype and the largest of monkeys. The other is a frantic $30,000 production depicting an actress desperate for cardboard-thin parts in the B-est of movies.
The films couldn't be more different — and neither could Naomi Watts' career from what it was five years ago.
Watts hit theaters worldwide this week with the famed ape in "King Kong." But her balance between blockbuster siren and indie shape-shifter is epitomized by the semi-autobiographical "Ellie Parker," released a month ago, featuring Watts in the Hollywood hell of a struggling actress.
She explains her contradictions simply: "That's me."
"I don't want to be boxed into any kind of confined space," Watts recently told The Associated Press.
Peter Jackson's remake of the original 1933 "King Kong" is ratcheting the 37-year-old actress to the top of fame's skyscraper. Since David Lynch famously picked her out of a pile of head shots for 2001's "Mulholland Dr.," Watts has filled her years with critically acclaimed performances, including "Le Divorce," "The Ring" movies and 2003's "21 Grams," for which she received an Oscar nomination.
"People keep thinking I'm this dark, serious person because the work I do is like that," she says. "Yes, the work I'm interested in does tend to be dark in nature, but it doesn't mean that that's who I am."
The blonde, blue-eyed Watts is a carefree force who, while frequently found in the pages of glamour magazines, appears more herself barefoot and a bit ruffled. Her 10 years of struggle remain more familiar than her current success, of which she says, "I'm still working it out."
She was born in England and moved to Australia at age 14. Watts and her mother (her parents separated when she was four and her father, a sound engineer for Pink Floyd, died three years later) moved around frequently, which meant having to repeatedly fit in. She would change her accent accordingly and says the transitions bred her acting ability.
If anything, her penchant for dramatic, emotional shifts in character has become her trademark. She plays essentially two roles in the dream/reality realms of "Mulholland Dr.," fluctuates from grieving widow to drugged-out avenger in "21 Grams," and literally changes persona while driving from one audition to another in "Ellie Parker."
"We do make such dramatic shifts — we're capable of anything," she says. "You can't just say this is who I am and I'd never do that. It's like, I could say I'm not a murderer, but if someone touched my (hypothetical) child, I could believe wanting to kill.
"I like that behavior can be so unpredictable."
Scott Coffey, who directed Watts in "Ellie Parker," has been friends with her for years, beginning when they both lived in what he calls "non-ending, perpetual L.A. purgatory."
"I think what people really respond to is there's a deep, deep pain to her work and she's really willing to examine that," Coffey says, adding that Watts openly explores herself in each character, "as opposed to hiding behind the facades of the roles."
Before shooting "King Kong" in New Zealand, Watts and Jackson traveled to New York to visit the original damsel in distress — Fay Wray. Wray, who died last year at age 96, was Ann Darrow in the first "King Kong."
Watts recounts: "At the end of the night, we dropped her off, and she said (whispering), `Ann Darrow is in good hands.'"
Of course, the good hands holding Ann Darrow belong, on screen, to Kong. The movie has always been essentially a love story, and making that connection with a computer-generated gorilla was Watts' greatest challenge.
She credits this part of her performance largely to Andy Serkis, who played the digitally created Gollum in "Lord of the Rings." He again used motion capture technology to parlay his physical performance into the gorilla's much larger computer generated image.
Serkis says that Watts "isn't someone who would want to generalize a few expressions to the camera."
"Considering that there were technical shenanigans all around us," he says, "it felt like a pretty normal on-screen relationship — two actors just acting opposite each other."
"I was able to go with this absurd fantasy," says Watts. "I was able to fall in love with this creature and believe he was a ferocious, savage beast as well."
Watts, who recently finished filming "The Painted Veil" with Edward Norton in China, isn't currently attached to an upcoming production for the first time in years. She'll now get a chance to actually live in the L.A. house she bought a year ago — that is, when she's not in New York visiting her boyfriend, Liev Schrieber (who co-stars in "The Painted Veil).
Older than the normal ascendant actress, she's already fielding the inevitable questions on the short life span of a leading lady. But she thinks those limitations are changing, and is looking forward to playing characters who have experienced more life: children, marriage, divorce.
One feels as though Watts is in the midst of a deep breath before her life takes some new, post-Kong direction.
"I'm off the map right now," she says of her career plans. "I need to get a different flight path, and that's all I'm thinking about."