Naomi Watts: “Why I had to play Diana”

By Michele Manelis, Photography by Arthur Elgort

Naomi Watts: “Why I had to play Diana”
Naomi Watts has put herself under intense scrutiny for her decision to take on the 
role of the late Princess of Wales. She explains to MiNDFOOD why she felt compelled to tackle what has been the 
most intimidating role of her career.

Getting the voice just right was the most difficult part,” says Naomi Watts, grimacing slightly, of the challenge she faced in portraying one of the world’s most iconic figures. Perhaps with the exception of Marilyn Monroe, no woman of the 20th century was more enigmatic, misperceived and mythologised than Princess Diana, as Elton John adroitly noted when he substituted Norma Jeane’s name for Diana’s during his performance of Candle In The Wind at the princess’s funeral.

“Without a doubt, it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Watts. Her words are carefully measured, her tone thoughtful and deliberate. Diana was known for many things. On a superficial level she brought glamour and style to the otherwise dowdy British royal family. On a more human one, she was hailed as “The People’s Princess” thanks to her tireless and compassionate work for Aids sufferers and campaign against the use of landmines.

Despite her phenomenal fame, she was a woman with whom the public felt it had a personal relationship. So with the inevitable onslaught of criticism that would surely follow a biopic of her life (and has), why would anyone subject themselves to such polarising scrutiny?

Watts smiles. “Well, it took me quite a while to say yes to the project. In fact, I said no a couple of times until finally I came to the decision to do it. I felt that all the reasons why I was afraid of doing it ended up being the reasons why I wanted to do it, because of the challenge,” she says.

Her physical likeness or dissimilarity to the Princess of Wales is naturally under much discussion. Arguably, Diana was the most photographed woman of her time, and the public is all too familiar with every detail of her face, her physique and

her mannerisms.

“Of course people will quickly jump to, ‘Oh she’s not tall enough, the nose isn’t right, she’s half-Australian, half-English,’” notes Watts with a sigh. Even her hairstyle, modelled after Diana’s, has been lambasted by some, while others have lavished praise on its of-its-time authenticity. “Putting on the wig was a big moment,” says Watts.

“The haircut was very important. I had a prosthetic nosepiece which we tried several of but you couldn’t make it exactly like hers. Once you block all that stuff out and focus on the material and her story, it’s fascinating and it’s intriguing.”

Despite Diana’s iconic status as a royal figure, she did not conform to British stiff-upper-lip stoicism. In fact, the floodgates of misery opened up during her famed 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir. In this one-hour conversation (described by some as a train wreck) she discussed the demise of her marriage to Prince Charles, his infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, and her own foibles.

“I watched the Bashir interview thousands of times,” says Watts. I watched it with volume, without volume; I watched it over and over again. I pretty much knew every word to it. Diana spoke about her own personal issues and that humanised her. That’s why we remember her so well.

“She was bold enough to say, ‘Yes, I was a princess but I had an eating disorder, I used to self-flagellate, and my parents divorced when I was a child and it was painful for me.’ She said that out loud despite her position. That’s what made it interesting to play her. She wasn’t just walking around in robes with a tiara.”

Love story 

As it turns out, Diana the film focuses less on Diana herself and more on her two-year relationship with Pakistani heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, played by Naveen Andrews (best known for the television series, Lost).

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film is based on Kate Snell’s book Diana: Her Last Love, and has moments redolent of a heart-fluttering Mills & Boon novel. It also insinuates that Diana’s relationship with Dodi Fayed was nothing more than an adolescent tactic to enrage Khan after he broke off the relationship.

Although Fayed and Diana seemed to be very much in love, Watts comments, “It’s very sad that it was an unrequited love and ended up in such tragedy. Their relationship, whatever it was, no one truly knew except for those two people.”

As with Monroe’s demise, Diana’s untimely death inspires constant conspiracy theories that arise with predictable regularity. As recently as August this year (just as the promotional trail was gearing up for the movie), reports emerged that the parents-in-law of a British Special Forces sniper alleged that the British military was behind the deaths of Diana and Fayed in the August 1997 car crash.

Unsurprisingly, the film has been panned by critics, particularly in the UK, though Watts is likely to walk away unscathed. Indeed, she must have considered that her status in Hollywood would see her through.

Blonde and petite, she’s wearing a fitted white Gucci dress and strappy heels this afternoon in Los Angeles. Her stature  and fine bone structure give the impression of fragility, yet her physical appearance belies the disposition of a woman made of much hardier stuff.

Watts was born in Kent, England, and raised by her mother, Myfanwy Edwards, a Welsh antiques dealer and costume and set designer. Her father, Peter Watts, was an English road manager who worked for Pink Floyd. The couple divorced when Naomi was four years old. She and her older brother Ben were raised by their mother for the next few years. In 1974 Myfanwy and Peter reconciled, but in 1976 Peter was found dead from an apparent heroin overdose. After spending another few years in Wales and England, Watts’ mother remarried. When Watts was 14, the new family unit moved to Sydney. She attended North Sydney Girls High School, deciding to become a model when she was 18.

Watts’ acting aspirations were ignited when she watched the 1980 hit film Fame. Her mother enrolled her in acting classes in Australia where she met Nicole Kidman. The two became fast friends and shared screen time in the 1991 indie film, Flirting.

Coincidentally, the two movie stars and confidants are both playing glamorous tiara-wearing women this year, with Kidman’s Grace of Monaco due to be released this December. Watts smiles when I mention the parallels.

“Of course, we had a laugh about it. I remember being on the phone with her saying, ‘What are the odds? How funny we are both doing these films in the same year.’”

Watts and Kidman share a long and interesting history, both on and off-screen. In an early 1990s national television commercial for lamb roast, a young Watts turned down a dinner date with Tom Cruise (who later married Kidman) to have a family dinner. No doubt that has caused them a few laughs – and possibly tears – during their longstanding friendship.

“Nicole and I have lots of juicy conversations,” laughs Watts, and glances away, signalling she will divulge nothing further.

Success story

Watts moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and for many years she struggled to make ends meet. Endless auditions ensued, to no avail. Attempting to make it in Hollywood is clearly not for the faint-hearted. Watts endured the usual criticisms, including, “You’re not sexy enough,” a harsh condemnation for any woman, though even Sharon Stone received the same comments early in her career.

But Watts kept at it, encouraged by supporters like Kidman, and eventually her tenacity paid off. In 2001 she gave a breakthrough performance in director David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and her life changed overnight.

Despite being largely ignored by the Hollywood community, suddenly she became the go-to actress the studios had been waiting for and was cast in everything going, from horror flick The Ring in 2002 to romantic comedy Le Divorce in 2003. 

She finally found her niche in grittier films such as 21 Grams (for which she received her first Oscar nomination), Eastern Promises, Fair Game and The International. Last year she nabbed her second Academy Award nomination for tsunami drama The Impossible, which earned her possibly the best reviews of her career.

Watts, 45, lives in New York with her partner of eight years, actor Liev Schreiber, 46, and their two sons Alexander “Sasha”, 6, and Samuel “Sammy”, 4. (Her former partners include director Stephen Hopkins and the late Heath Ledger). For all appearances, it would seem the Watts-Schreiber union is a solid pairing. “It takes work,” she says of their relationship.

“Every marriage, I would say, is no bed of roses. We work on it, but we’re honest with each other. Our family is the most important thing to us but we both love our work so it takes negotiating the practicals of how, when and where work can take place. But we adore our children and we want them to be the focus of our lives. Their happiness is incredibly important to us.”

Schreiber currently has a hit on his hands with his role in television series Ray Donovan, and Watts is clearly thrilled for him. “I’m a major fan,” she gushes. “I am so hooked. I knew it was going to be good from the moment I heard the pitch of the idea.”

For Watts, sharing the same profession as her partner has enormous advantages. “It’s good that you can discuss what’s going on creatively and ask him about his ideas and get the input you need from someone you respect.”

The household discussions regarding Watts’ next role must have been amusing: She plays a Russian stripper in the comedy St. Vincent de Van Nuys, opposite Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray.

From princess to pole dancer, Watts is known for her extensive research. So how on earth did she prepare for this role?

She laughs. “Well, I didn’t do quite as much research but I did go to this weird place and speak to a collective group of Russian girls. Obviously, the accent was a big thing and I worked extensively with a dialect coach.” She pauses. “And, you know, there’s a lot of video footage on YouTube of girls wanting to promote themselves in certain ways.

“I also took pole dancing lessons, and they were kind of … fun. It’s actually really hard and takes a great deal of strength. My neck hurts still because of that flipping of the head thing,” she laughs, rolling her neck.

“But it’s a totally invented character so it’s a lot more freedom and a lot of fun. This time I am not living up to anybody’s truth.”


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