"The first time it was just magical and beautiful," actress Naomi Watts recalls of her introduction to Mulholland Drive, that long, windy stretch that traverses the spine of Los Angeles. When she looked down from the hills to the city spread before her, she thought, "it looked all dreamy, like a vast unknown and therefore exciting, but kind of eerie at the same time."
Later the road would become all too familiar--as a means to get somewhere else or maybe to get lost in while suffering career disappointments. "I remember driving along the street many times sobbing my heart out in my car, going, 'What am I doing here?"'
About seven years ago, Watts arrived here armed with Australian optimism, creditable credits and a helpful contact in fellow countrywoman Nicole Kidman--they had worked together in the 1990 film "Flirting." For Watts, Kidman was a role model, the Aussie who conquered Hollywood, and in 1995 her own road to stardom seemed paved when she won a supporting role in "Tank Girl," based on a popular cult comic strip and fueled by a hefty budget. However, the film proved just too fringe and tanked at the box office.
Then in 1999, she won a starring role in "Mulholland Drive," a TV project created by David Lynch. They shot a two-hour pilot, which ABC recoiled at because it was deemed too dark and confusing. The project floated in the netherworld until Studio Canal and French producers Alain Sarde and Pierre Edelman decided to fund Lynch's transformation of the material into a feature film, which opens today.
Not that "Mulholland Dr.," the film, is a shoo-in for box-office blockbuster--like much of the director's work, it is colored by paranoiac fantasies and strewn with loose ends. It is also a compellingly dark fable about how the beautiful dreams that draw hopefuls to Hollywood can turn out to be blistering nightmares. Something Watts can understand.
In the film, Watts plays two roles, polar opposites, both of which reflect the L.A. experience. In part one, she is perky blond Betty who lands at LAX in wide-eyed wonder, a budding young actress ready to conquer Hollywood. At the apartment of her aunt, who is conveniently away, she finds Rita, a sultry brunet amnesiac (Laura Harring). While Betty makes the rounds of auditions--and demonstrates she has real talent--she also valiantly tries to help Rita unravel the mystery of who she is.
In part two, Watts has become Diane, an embittered also-ran in the Hollywood race, overlooked in more ways than one. She's a wretch of a human being, as mired in despair as Betty was flying on the wings of hope.
In Awe of Her Mother's 'Fantasy World' Onstage
There's something in the film that reflects Watts' own coming to terms with Los Angeles. "I think that's what David tries to capture about Mulholland Drive," she says. "It's a road that leads everywhere but nowhere at the same time, and it's twisting and turning in an unpredictable way. In some places, it's just pure beauty, then in other places, it's just barrenness."
There's an offhanded teenage casualness to Watts, who has shown up for lunch in a white T-shirt and baggy jeans with flat sandals. The 31-year-old actress is petite, almost frail and just a little nervous. After a while, her natural expressiveness bubbles up, and she begins to convey the determined clear-mindedness that's allowed her to survive in Tinseltown.
Born in England, Watts moved to Australia when she was 14. Her mother, an actress, was the inspiration for her own career. Once, when she was a young girl, Watts saw her mother onstage.
"I was in awe of seeing this whole fantasy world before my eyes," she says, a mild but distinct Aussie twang coloring her speech. "If I were to be able to be in that world, we'd be closer somehow. When she gave me that little wave, that was a key moment in my life."
Later, when Watts worked as assistant fashion editor at a fashion magazine in Sydney, she began taking acting lessons on the side. It gave her the buzz she'd been missing in her life, and the same time she was giving notice to her office, she auditioned successfully for a part in "Flirting."
After a handful of roles in television and film, she decided to check out Los Angeles. Why? "Because I was naive!" she says, laughing easily. After the disappointment of "Tank Girl," Watts kept going, picking up parts in film and television; last year she was the heroine in the BBC miniseries "The Wyvern Mystery," and she's been working with a friend to develop "Ellie Parker," a film about an actress trying to break into Hollywood, a short section of which screened this year at Sundance.
Watts loves the work of acting but hates the auditioning process. "You walk into these massive buildings with massive doors," she says. "You're looking at 12 heads which are looking at you, and they just expect you to talk, which is just not my forte at all, going into a room and saying, 'Hey look, I'm brilliant!' In Australia and England, you don't sell yourself, you actually undermine yourself because you mustn't be proud."
Meetings With Lynch Were Chatty, Relaxing
Auditioning for Lynch was a relief simply because he doesn't audition the usual way. First, he casts not from seeing prior work but from looking at head shots, and he had selected four actresses to interview for the role. Watts was in New York at a reunion with her mother and brother when she got the call, and, aware of Lynch's idiosyncratic methods, she immediately cut an interval to return to Los Angeles.
Getting off the plane in her jeans, she went to meet Lynch, in a room with just him, casting director Johanna Ray and Ray's dog. "We just talked," she recalls happily. "We talked about family, we talked about everything but work." At the end of the meeting, he hugged her.
She was asked to come back the next day "more glammed up," so she went to the hairdresser and put herself in a tight dress and heels. This time another relaxed conversation, but at his home. At the end of the meeting, he gave her the script. Two weeks later, she was offered the part.
Asked what he sensed about Watts that made him choose her, Lynch replies, "I saw someone that I felt had a tremendous talent, and I saw someone who had a beautiful soul, an intelligence--possibilities for a lot of different roles, so it was a beautiful full package."
Watts is grateful Lynch was able to see something in her during those preliminary talks--then managed to pull it out of her during filming, especially for some emotionally wrenching scenes. For her, the transformation of Betty was inevitable. "She was so good, so sweet--nobody's that one-dimensional, especially in the context of David Lynch," she observes.
The feature, she says, is very different from the TV pilot, with many additional scenes shot last year including two fairly explicit lesbian love scenes between Watts and Harring. The first one, as Betty, was not so difficult--Watts and Harring had become good friends by then and Lynch shot on a closed set. "In some ways, it was more comfortable than doing a love scene with a man, " Watts says.
But the second one, as a dangerously distraught Diane, was tough, Watts says. "Every actor has a different way of preparation, and I use a different method with each character and sometimes from scene to scene," she says. Just before that intense scene was shot, she put on headphones, "and I'm dancing to Fiona Apple, those lyrics filled with anger and pain and unrequited love."
She credits Lynch for helping her brave through all that. "David is a daredevil, he makes you feel like it's a game," she says.
"Mulholland Dr." premiered at Cannes in May and was recently featured at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Watts has already been cited for her tour de force performance, and previews of her work attracted a number of casting directors. She's already started rehearsals for a comedy being shot in Wales called "Plots With a View," co-starring Brenda Blethyn and Christopher Walken.
The turnaround in her career mirrors that of her feelings about Los Angeles.
"There was a time I was very much blaming the way I felt on L.A.," she admits. "That it was a vacuum of creativity, of humor or anything organic, and I was really angry at the place. But then today I feel completely different--I love L.A.!"