Free of 'nots' and 'toos'

Special to The Times

"Too intense." "Too desperate." "Not funny." "Not sexy." "Too old." "Too young."

For a decade Hollywood kept telling Naomi Watts that she didn't have the right stuff. And it hurt. "When you hear such comments made about yourself," she says today, "you start believing them. You start seeing them as the truth. You become so afraid of being any one of those things that you become nothing."

Except Watts became everything.

Now the British-born, Australian-bred actress who once told an interviewer that "not having to do an audition is the meaning of success for me" is working happily at the top of the business that shunned her and enjoying a newfound status as a character actress turned star. Big, bold new filmmakers such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David O. Russell and Marc Forster want to collaborate with her.

And while her face now may be on magazine covers and the red carpet unfurls at her feet, all that time she spent auditioning, failing and pulling herself back up again is inextricably contained within Watts' acting repertoire.

It was fateful, and fitting, that in David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," the film that awoke the world to her gifts, she played both sides of the eternal Hollywood archetype -- the aspiring actress. Her dual roles as Diane, a broken woman wilting at the periphery of the dream factory, and Betty, her high-spirited, hopeful alter ego, turned the 2001 movie into a critical and cult favorite.

The impossibly dreamy and elliptic nature of that film showcased Watts' chameleon skills, as does her most recent role in "21 Grams," the English-language debut of rising Mexican director Inarritu, which opened this month to mixed reviews (though raves for the performances of Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro).

The title comes from the amount of body weight supposedly lost at the time of death; the story traces how the fates of three families grow entwined in the aftermath of an accident involving the husband and young daughters of Watts' character. Even against the lyrical hyper-realism of the film, her performance as a grieving mother and wife rings ferociously true. And it spans a frenetic range: On Watts' pale complexion, the still mask of desperation melts naturally into a scowl of pain or a flare of vengeful rage, often within the same scene.

"She has these skills and this organic emotion that she manages like a theater actor," Inarritu says. "She's well-rounded, and not all film actors are like that. Some get used to a beat-by-beat kind of approach. She can do that, but she can also do one 10-minute scene with no cut, going from one place to another. With her, people get that full impact because it's real."

She is as much at home in the skin of an American poet jilted by her Parisian husband in last summer's "Le Divorce" as she is playing an inquisitive journalist in the 2002 horror film "The Ring." The box-office success of the latter must taste sweet after her previous turn in 1996's "Children of the Corn IV." "Listen, back in that day I didn't have much choice, but I was happy to work," she says now. "I always believed that work begets work. It wasn't an A-class picture, but it was a job."

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Confidence gained

During a recent interview on the verdant patio of a Sunset Strip hotel, it is abundantly clear that Watts' years of shuffling at the gates of Hollywood are behind her.

Having just turned 35, she is radiant, confident -- her own woman -- even though she giggles occasionally and she sometimes toys nervously with the fringes of her scarf. Her delicate features, corn-silk hair and sincere blue eyes invoke the charms of an English rose -- albeit a resilient one.

"She has worked a lot, went through many rough times," Inarritu notes. "She knows the source of pain."

With acting ambitions passed on from her amateur-thespian mother, Watts tried commercial acting and modeling and eventually found her way into the movies in her teens. Among the first entries on her resume is a sweet film called "Flirting." The 1991 coming-of-age tale set in a boarding school was a modest cult hit, which also launched the careers of Thandie Newton and fellow Aussie actress Nicole Kidman.

Afterward, success at home was swift. "I worked," Watts says in her faint Australian accent, "but there, you're lucky if you do it more than once a year, and you're lucky if you make $15,000."

So at 22 the actress came to test the waters of Hollywood, where her longtime friend Kidman was rapidly rising and Australian actors had begun to be seen as intriguing commodities. But the encouraging feedback Watts got upon arrival scattered away soon into empty promise. She pushed onward, and for four years she skipped back and forth between television and movie projects in the U.S. and Britain.

Sometimes she got sucked into unsalvageable disasters like "Tank Girl" (1995), but sometimes, as in "Dangerous Beauty" (1998), she had a good part in a bad movie. As her ingenue years dwindled, recognition -- the real, crackling kind that bestows the admiration of critics and peers and puts her at the top of casting lists -- continued to elude her.

"I was naive to believe it," she now says of the promise of easy success. "I think it's a very American thing to be enthusiastic, and I wasn't used to it. In Australia we talk things down."

It took only one movie to turn her ill fortunes around, and it arrived in the form of Lynch's brilliant noir fantasy "Mulholland Dr." "At the time I was pretty much broken," Watts remembers. "Dirt poor. I was being kicked out of my apartment. I had gone to New York to meet a fancy director for a great job, and the audition went terribly." The call that Lynch wanted to meet with her, having selected her photograph from a batch of head shots, filled the actress with hope and dread in equal measure.

"I had been rejected so many times, and my personality was such a diluted version of itself -- I was afraid of offending anyone; I had lost all my sense of humor. But there was something about David Lynch. The minute I walked into that room, he just unveiled all my masks. I would talk and talk, and then I would ask him a question. It felt like a normal exchange between two people. When I got up at the end of the meeting, he hugged me. "I thought, 'This is the most unusual audition I ever had!' "

Since "Mulholland," Watts can afford to be choosy. Her choices reflect a desire to work with the filmmakers and actors she most admires, such as the screenwriter-director team of Guillermo Arriaga and Inarritu.

"I had not only seen 'Amores Perros' but loved it," Watts says about the duo's electric first project. "It stuck with me for the longest time. I was just riveted and thought that these two men know how to deal with drama and suffering and emotion at the most heightened level."

For his part, Inarritu says that after seeing "Mulholland Dr.," he became so enthralled with Watts that he could no longer envision his next project without her. He approached the actress in her trailer on the set of "The Ring." He didn't have a finished story to show her, but instead he spoke passionately about the themes he wanted to explore in it -- love, revenge, grief, loss, hope.

That much was enough for Watts who, dripping wet from shooting a scene in the depths of a well, quickly said yes. Inarritu still marvels at her leap of faith. "She accepted without seeing the script" -- something, he notes, few Hollywood actors would dare do. "She just trusted me."

"I didn't care if it was a tiny little role or a really significant role," Watts corroborates. "I just wanted to be associated with them, and I kind of knew in my gut that this is a job that I wanted to be a part of."

Likewise she leaped instinctively at the opportunity to play Roxeanne, a depressed, suicidal and pregnant character in the Merchant Ivory production "Le Divorce."

"They told me later that some people turned down the role because they didn't want to be pregnant throughout the course of the movie," Watts says.

"I'm surprised by that. I don't think I ever turned down a role because I'm not gonna look good."

And while her "21 Grams" performance picked up an audience award at this year's Venice Film Festival, it also prompted some backhanded compliments from fellow actors. "Some told me, 'You're so brave to allow yourself to look like that!' What does that mean?" she asks with a hint of irritation.

"I'm playing a human being, and she's gone through a life-changing event." It's not that Watts doesn't like to preen occasionally -- "I get to be vain on the red carpet," she says. "There, I've got lots of makeup, lots of hair, beautiful dresses. It feels nice. It's a part of my life that I look forward to and get excited about, but it's not me. If I had to do that every day, I would be exhausted."

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Finding inspiration

Her prowess as an actor, Watts says, is part research (for "21 Grams" she observed grief-counseling sessions and studied journals passed on to her by some of the attendants), part cathartic drive (preparing for her role, Watts, whose own father died when she was quite young, says, "I discovered a lot about myself as a person who didn't grieve when I lost my father"), part unlikely inspiration (throughout the shoot, she listened to Icelandic pop artist Bjork).

The actress, who grew up in Britain until age 14 and subsequently moved to the suburbs of Sydney, says she feels like a perfect combination of both cultural environs: "The English are quite restrained and not very forthcoming with their emotions, whereas with the Australians, there is a lot of candor and willingness. So they kind of complement each other." She can't account for the current success of an Aussie acting pack that includes mates Russell Crowe, Kidman and Heath Ledger (her on-and-off boyfriend for the past few years).

But she does agree that there may be a bit of magic at play. "There's a real beautiful sense of self-deprecation in our country [Australia]. We always feel like we don't own anything. We don't have any superiority complex; we value whatever position we've been given -- or anything that we've been given, for that matter -- and we're OK about working hard. At the same time, we never take it too seriously."

As her profile keeps getting higher, Watts does not show any signs of slowing down. She just finished shooting a thriller with Ewan McGregor in Manhattan (where she's also been house-hunting), has signed on to do a sequel to "The Ring," and is waiting for her next project, "I Heart Huckabee's," to roll out. She calls the ensemble production directed by David O. Russell "a very black and weird comedy -- a mad, mad piece like nothing I've ever done before or ever seen before."

"Her kind of actors," director Inarritu says, "make the films that they really love." Before he approached her for "21 Grams," he says, "she was getting a lot of offers -- big ones--but she knew that she wanted to do [my film]." Inarritu maintains that Watts has always been an A-list caliber artist but offers that "sometimes people mistake expensive people, or celebrities, for good actors. I think she is an A-list-quality actor.

And obviously, she should be very expensive, but fortunately she wants to make the films that normally don't have [a big budget]." With auditions no longer necessary, Watts can finally ascribe a generous meaning to her path to success.

"Well," she concludes bittersweetly, "I paid my dues. I think everyone has to pay their dues at one point. It's better to pay 'em when you're young."

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The bright-burning career of Naomi Watts

Success did not come quickly for the actress, but she persevered, a struggle that has paid off handsomely.

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