Naomi Watts on romantic comedies, remakes and why she prefers to tackle her demons onscreen, in Michael Haneke’s own US version of his controversial shocker Funny Games. By Leigh Singer.
“Do you mind?” asks Naomi Watts sweetly, as she rises from a plush hotel sofa and slips into an upright single chair, folding her feet up beneath her. “That couch was swallowing me up!” The 39-year old actress looks distinctly bright-eyed and chipper, impressive given the recent arrival of her first child, Alexander (with American actor Liev Schreiber), and even more remarkable if you’ve just seen her used and abused onscreen in Michael Haneke’s own US remake of his harrowing polemic Funny Games.
Haneke’s hugely contentious 1997 Austrian original was a cold, clinical cat-and-mouse meta-thriller with its well-to-do, middle-class family protagonists - and audience - as the mice, both subjected to merciless, unmotivated psychological and physical torture at the hands of two young, exceptionally polite sociopaths.
What’s particularly fascinating about 2008’s version is that it’s a near shot-for-shot retread; and that Haneke himself insisted on Watts for the role of embattled housewife Anne.
“I hadn’t seen the original,” explains Watts, “but I was familiar with and admired Michael’s other work, Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu screened Code Unknown to us as a sort of inspiration on 21 Grams. Then I saw it at home with a girlfriend and was utterly shocked by it. I found myself having to talk a lot on the way through just because it was so damn creepy and difficult.”
Whereas for many actresses that would have been the point to bail out, Watts embraced Haneke’s project, co-starring with Tim Roth and American actors Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, even eventually becoming an executive producer.
“What makes it worthy to me is that you think about and talk about it for hours and days afterwards,” she argues. “He’s speaking to us as an audience, saying we have blood on our hands, we are culpable for this thing about violence in films. And he really messes with you.”
Both incarnations of Funny Games are utterly gruelling and Watts points out that her involvement wasn’t an instant decision. Nevertheless in retrospect it seems a natural fit with her taste. Firstly, after her blockbuster successes with horror hit The Ring and Peter Jackson’s ape of wrath King Kong, Funny Games is yet another remake, albeit one with a difference.
“I’ve done a few now,” she nods, “and you just see [the original] that once and then get rid of it as best you can but as an actor this was particularly hard because I knew his shots were the same. So for lack of a better term, I felt I was acting blindfolded and tied up. But it was just another challenge.” Demanding auteurs over easy paydays, today’s spartan seating over luxurious upholstery: Watts’ personal comfort is obviously not her primary concern.
More pertinently, taking on Funny Games gives Watts yet another bout of onscreen angst. Since her stunning breakthrough as a suicidal starlet in David Lynch’s Hollywood nightmare Mulholland Drive, through her Oscar-nominated turn as a bereaved mother in 21 Grams, Watts has become synonymous with movie misery. And her eye roll at the subject’s mention shows she’s all-too aware of it.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m really the go-to girl for that sort of cheery popcorn movie,” she concedes. “I’ve done that little bit of lightness in King Kong and I Heart Huckabees was definitely goofy but I just don’t connect that well to romantic comedies because they’re usually so formulaic and not really based in truth.” The struggle to name Hollywood’s last great rom-com defeats us both - a bad joke in itself.
“I’m not this dark twisted person,” she insists. “Yes. I have my demons and this is my way of exorcising them. It gets them out and better out than in. Actually,” she adds, eyes shining in mock-indignation, “I think that it’s the comedians who are the darkest people on the planet, because they think life’s just bloody hilarious!”
Born and raised in Britain until aged 14, in Australia thereafter and with an itinerant, often frustrating career, Watts always seemed at arm’s length from success – particularly compared to good friend Nicole Kidman – until her relatively late “arrival” in 2001 with Mulholland Drive. Perhaps it’s this steady path of exploration that makes her seem so secure about her work and herself.
“Often it’s not that calculated,” she shrugs. “And it’s often hard to articulate too, why you’re doing these things. I operate from an intuitive place most of the time.” Intuition appears to be drawing her towards another remake – Hitchcock’s The Birds – and surely more suffering. Didn’t she hear that Tippi Hedren nearly lost an eye making the original?
“Yeah, they threw birds at her across the lens, right?” Naomi Watts laughs. “Hopefully things will be a little more sophisticated today…” Well, if not for the onscreen games, most certainly for player.
copyright Sunday Herald 2008