Part English, part Australian, but 100% Hollywood movie star, Naomi Watts has established herself across multiple genres in both television and film. Gaining experience in Australian sit-coms and soaps, a role in the 1991 indie film Flirting alongside her friend Nicole Kidman, led to introductions in Los Angeles that would ultimately lead to a remarkable career.
Just when you think she’s pegged as an indie darling with parts in St Vincent and Birdman, she mixes it up with a leading role in the sci-fi action series Insurgent. She’s been the go-to girl for edgy directors David Lynch (Mulholland Drive), Tom Twyker (The International) and Alejandro Inarritu (21 Grams), but also gets the call from the likes of Peter Jackson (King Kong) and Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar), leading Gore Verbinski’s horror smash The Ring along the way.
When it comes to making movies, she says, the director is king, and she’d been itching to work with French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, best known in the US as the man behind Oscar-winning drama Dallas Buyers Club and the Reese Witherspoon-starring Wild. In Vallée’s latest, Demolition – an intense and often touchingly wry musing on grief, loss and life itself – she plays single-mother Karen Moreno, a customer service rep for a vending machine company who’s on the receiving end of a series of letters sent by grieving widower Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal).
“Karen is plodding along in her life, and quite disconnected at this point,” she says. “She’s depressed and probably not aware of a huge amount of unhappiness – she’s just kind of asleep, and walking through life in a day-to-day way.”
Davis’ letters are a comically absurd mix of complaints about the hospital vending machine’s failure to deliver his M&Ms and ruminations on the passing of his wife in a horrible car crash. Before long, she’s reaching out to connect to the man behind the letters, and an unconventional friendship blossoms.
“When she gets his letters, it sort of jolts her and makes her wonder a bit more than usual,” she says. “It starts beat by beat, escalating into something a little bit exciting, which she hasn’t experienced before, then suddenly she feels alive and awake again, and her curiosity gets the best of her. Before you know it, she’s able to face her truth, which is that this is not enough for her. She wants to be a better mom, she wants to be proud of her choices, and she wants to create a new chapter for herself.”
Demolition is in cinemas now.
When did you first hear about the project?
I’d briefly met Jean-Marc Vallée during all those awards functions, and I just loved his work and his previous films. When I heard about Demolition, I pursued it, basically – I told my agent that even though it was a supporting role, I really wanted to work with him. We got on the phone and had a great conversation and that was that.
What had you seen of his work, and what did you most like about it?
The Dallas Buyers Club, obviously, and C.R.A.Z.Y and Café De Fleur… I just felt like his films always had a great mixture of things – cinematically and visually and emotionally. They are very uplifting, but poetic and deep at the same time. There’s a wildness to his films, and I loved the experiences of watching them. Then, of course, working with him was a whole other experience. I’d heard rumors about it, that he doesn’t use lighting – which was a little scary for a middle-aged woman! Then, on top of that, he also doesn’t like make-up! I’d heard a lot about him through Reese (Witherspoon) from the movie they made together, Wild.
What did Reese have to tell you about working with him?
It was all great stuff – she said the experience was fantastic. Just the fact that there’s no lighting or make-up can be quite hard on certain people, but actually sort of freeing at the same time, mostly because then you just get into it. You’re putting vanity aside; there’s a place and time for vanity and this is not going to be it. So you just forget about it. When there’s lots of lighting and lots of make-up you almost become more aware of yourself, more self-conscious.
On top of that, the way he films creates such room for freedom in that the camera just goes wherever he feels it must go. He and his cinematographer, Yves Bélanger, work so well together; they’re so connected and the camera is twisting and turning and it’s completely unconventional. It’s not like, ‘Oh, now we’re shooting Jake’s close-up.’ The camera can be on Jake, and then suddenly he gets an idea and he flips around and it’s on me. It’s very unconventional, but it means you’re always engaged and the energy is much more alive and ideas can come to him or anybody and they’re always embraced.
Your character, Karen, is very much a catalyst for Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis to find himself. What do you think she sees in the letters he’s writing to her at the vending machine company that makes her feel connected to him?
It’s like he’s echoing what she is seeing in herself. It’s something different because she hasn’t had that self-awareness before, and it reflects her own life and needs and questions. They are both looking for the same thing. There’s this collision of two people who would never ordinarily come together, and they feed each other in the way they need to, and they have the same basic needs and desires. It’s almost like they give each other themselves; they’re instrumental to the awakening of themselves.
Why do you think Davis has to literally dismantle everything as part of his recovery?
He has that conversation with Chris Cooper, who plays his father-in-law, who tells him he has to take it all apart, but he takes it very literally. Sometimes there are ways to explore pain through delving into it internally, but this is a guy who dealt with his issues in a very physical, external way. It’s so dramatic and so bizarre, but it’s his desperate search and need to delve in, and he doesn’t know another way. In his life he’s become a Type A personality, and he doesn’t have another way to reach his goal – he has to physicalize it. It is a bizarre, shocking thing to watch what a human being has to do to get to that point. At the same time, though, it makes you think, ‘Wow, grief is never to be judged, and everyone’s got their own way of dealing with it.’
On the surface, this could be a depressing movie, but it’s actually very uplifting.
I think that’s Jean-Marc’s style. He’s got a great way of infusing what could otherwise be a depressing, downer movie with great music, and beautiful poetic shots, and this connection with people. Davis is going off the rails, but at the same time connecting with someone who is also coming alive, and they are growing up together and shaking off this other side of themselves that has been so stuck. There’s a rebirthing at the same time as the death that’s going on.
It’s very much a movie about people who need to feel something. Is this the modern condition – that despite everything we have, we’re losing the ability to feel?
Success can fill you with a false sense of happiness, and it does with a lot of people who are so Type A and driven and leading these privileged lives. That feeds someone with confidence, and they’re not forced to ask those questions of themselves. Karen is not Type A, and not so privileged, but she’s also not happy. It’s absolutely vital that we all feel, and that we are all engaged and connected with ourselves and other people – it’s a must. Hopefully it doesn’t take horrific tragedies like this one for people to get there.
Talking to Jake, he puts some of the blame for his character’s detached mental state on modern technology, the fact that we’re all buried in our phones. He also blames the expectation of immediacy, that it’s made us all very dissatisfied.
Yeah, I agree – you don’t need to think for yourself anymore. Remember when we used to take road trips and we’d get lost and frustrated and pull over and pull out the map and then it rips or the page you needed was missing? You’d have to find your way. It’s almost the perfect metaphor for the way we live; now it’s just turn it on, punch it in and don’t think. You almost have to do nothing for yourself any more, which has a great upside, but we are missing something in the process.
It’s interesting that you should use a metaphor about finding your way; this movie is rife with metaphor, but at the same time it’s very palatable. How do you think it manages to strike that balance?
I think because it could be anyone’s story. It’s the universal story; two people who are not doing anything extraordinary in their lives. He’s highly successful, but this accident takes place and creates this connection between the two of them. Plus I think as a society we are endlessly curious about death, and there’s a constant need to explore it – all the elements surrounding death, and what it brings up, all the fear and grief.
Davis doesn’t grieve in what is regarded as the ‘normal’ way. Do you think there is a correct way to grieve?
Absolutely not. I think it hits people in vastly different ways, and I would never want to say there’s a correct way of doing it. It’s never something you can judge. I have worked on quite a few films that confront death and grief, and I studied it having played a parent who’s lost a child. I sat in rooms with people who have lost children, and as a collective group they talk about the many ways to grieve. There can never be a right or wrong way.
Why do you think he responds the way he does to his loss?
Because it’s the only way he knows how. He’s not an emotional guy; he’s not internal in any way. It sounds bizarre, but I do this exercise class called The Class – a combination of yoga, breathing, body and mind. It’s actually an exercise that actors do when they’re training, in which you physicalise the pain, vocalise it. You do this class and you start shouting and it actually brings the emotions on. Davis does it in a more extreme way – by smashing things. But suddenly he’s there, where you’re left with nothing except to face that truth.
Obviously working with Jean-Marc played a big part in picking this role, but do you have general criteria for deciding which projects to do?
It’s never one thing. It’s not that calculated. There are obviously the elements that first get you to read the script, and usually that’s the filmmaker. I’ve always said that film is a director’s medium, but there are so many other things that factor in, too; obviously a great part, other great actors to work with, but also the logistics are very high on the list for me these days, being a mum with kids in school.
How did you enjoy working with Jake? We asked him about working with you, and he said, ‘Naomi was something I totally geeked out on – I will safely say that I got nervous being around her because I’ve always really loved her work and wanted to work with her.’
That’s so lovely of him! I had no idea. I came in when they’d been shooting for a couple of weeks, and a lot of the phone calls that take place between our characters I did from my house. We did these calls first and then we met, so by the time I got to set we’d already had a bit of a connection. We had met several times before, and I really had a great love for my character and I could tell he did, despite the struggle that Davis was going through. Jake is an extraordinary actor, full of truth, and he’s got a great rawness and honesty to his work. I loved it… I really felt free with him, like I was a little kid.
And talking of little kids, how did you enjoy playing a movie mum to Judah Lewis?
It’s always amazing when you work with these kids, how they find them. He was really connected and really into the work and he did an incredible job and we had a great time. He was very focused – you always expect kids to be there and wanting to play on their electronic devices between takes, but this was not the case. He was taking it seriously.
You had a scene with Chris Cooper too, who plays Davis’ father-in-law…
Oh, he’s fantastic. I love Chris. His work is extraordinary in the film, like everything he does. In the movie he represents how everyone is ‘supposed’ to respond to grief. Exactly right. He reacts in what is the ‘normal’ way, and Jake represents the extreme, self-destructive way – opposite ends of the spectrum.
Does a character like Karen end up staying with you?
Certainly it did because of her accent! I had to really work on that and then I had to work on getting rid of it. But I loved her… there was a little girl quality to her – she hadn’t fully grown, and there was a sweetness to her. They always stay a little bit, but I’m a mum – you have to get back into your life. It’s nice to let go of them, too.