Reporting from New York — To tell the big-screen tale of Valerie Plame, a real-life CIA spy whose covert identity was blown by the White House, director Doug Liman needed a special kind of actress: someone who could build an emotional wall around herself and still convey "a sense that there's a good person inside her."
He was convinced that that actress was Naomi Watts. But after a pre-shoot with Watts and costar Sean Penn last year, Liman called his producer in a panic. "We've got to toughen Naomi up, a.s.a.p.," he told Janet Zucker, "and we don't have much time."
He wasn't sure it was even possible. Plame had been a CIA operative who spent 17 years living a life of secrecy and deception. Watts was, by contrast, a movie star who walked red carpets, was trailed by an adoring entourage and, on top of it all, was breastfeeding a new baby. "She was a little soft," Liman said.
Two days later, the director drove his star to a paramilitary camp run by government contractors in Virginia. Minutes after he left Watts there, an instructor threw her to the ground, bruising her shin. When she cried out in pain, the instructor glared at her. "Don't say 'ow,'" he said slowly, "unless you need to go to the hospital."Over the next two days, Watts was "stripped of everything that cloaked her in specialness," Liman said. "It was kind of a Hail Mary, and nobody was more surprised than me that it actually worked."
The political thriller "Fair Game," opening Nov. 5, revisits one of the more murky episodes in the George W. Bush presidency — the 2003 outing of Valerie Plame Wilson by White House aides trying to discredit her husband Joe Wilson, a former ambassador and vocal administration critic played by Penn.
The blond, blue-eyed spy and her blond, blue-eyed doppelgänger were sitting on a sofa in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria recently, chatting like old friends. Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts first got to know each other in a series of telephone calls before shooting began.
"The roles of a covert CIA officer and a Hollywood actor don't collide frequently, and I was very nervous" about meeting her, Watts said. "It's not often that I get star-struck but, meeting Valerie, I was definitely very impressed."
For Plame, "I was getting this peek behind the Hollywood curtain and … there's a lot of…"
"Go ahead, say it," Watts interjected, laughing.
"… a lot of strange behavior," Plame said, smiling. "It's not my world of briefings and PowerPoints. But Naomi was so professional, and that just got my respect from the get-go. We just clicked."
After several telephone conversations, they met over a dinner at Il Buco in New York. ("The wine was helpful," Plame said.) Watts said she wanted to know "all the stories about the CIA and the secrets." But she learned that Plame, even four years after leaving the CIA, was still bound by the agency's secrecy rules, "so I thought, 'OK, that's not going to happen.'"
That led them into rich personal territory, where both felt more comfortable. "At the end of the day, we're both working mothers, and we really liked each other," Plame said.
A scandal revisited
"Fair Game" resurrects a question that will be debated for years: Were the warnings about Iraq's supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction an intelligence failure or a fraud perpetrated by the White House? But the film, based on Valerie and Joe Wilson's memoirs, is aimed at another question: What happens to a Washington couple with two small children when they become the center of a political firestorm?
Plame was one of the CIA's brightest agents, graduating at the top of her class at the Farm, the CIA's secret training facility. She worked as a covert agent in Athens and later went deeper undercover, as an operative with "non-official cover," meaning she had a fake, private-sector identity and no diplomatic protection if captured.
She eventually returned to CIA headquarters and, shortly after 9/11, became chief of operations for the Iraqi branch of the Counterproliferation Division, running agents collecting information on Iraq's WMD programs. When Vice President Dick Cheney's office asked the CIA to investigate British intelligence reports that Niger was selling uranium to Iraq, a CIA colleague suggested that Plame's husband, a retired diplomat who previously had postings in both Iraq and Niger, be dispatched to look into it.
Although Joe Wilson's report concluded there was no evidence of a uranium sale, Bush and other administration officials continued to publicly cite the sale as a fact. In July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times describing his findings, under the headline "What I Didn't Find in Africa."
White House officials tried to blunt the impact of the article by whispering to reporters that Wilson's mission was little more than a junket arranged by his wife, who they named and identified as a CIA operative. Conservative columnist Robert Novak, citing "two administration officials" as sources, named her in print, effectively blowing her cover (as well as that of other spies who had worked covertly for the same private company).
A criminal investigation into the leak led to the conviction of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's top aide ( David Andrews in the movie), on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. His 30-month prison sentence was commuted by Bush.
Sitting together for an interview, the former spy and the actress made an arresting power duo: Plame, stunning in black slacks and turtleneck, and Watts, a classic beauty, in a black skirt and blazer over a halter with a scooped, softly ruffled neckline. Nearly identical shades of thick, blond hair fell to their shoulders.
Plame, now 47, is the mother of 10-year-old twins, and lives with her husband in Santa Fe, N.M. She works part-time at the Santa Fe Institute and is writing a spy novel about, no surprise, a female CIA operations officer "who doesn't rely only on physicality and guns but uses her skills and smarts to mine intelligence."
Watts, 42, lives in New York with actor Liev Schreiber and their two children, ages 3 and 1. She was born in Britain (her father was Pink Floyd's sound engineer) and spent her teens in Australia. She relocated to America to jump-start her acting career, but struggled for more than a decade before landing the role of an aspiring actress in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." She earned an Oscar nomination in 2004 for lead actress in "21 Grams" and played the Fay Wray role in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of "King Kong."
Plame's background is all-American. The daughter of an Air Force officer and onetime National Security Council staffer, she went to Penn State and pledged the Pi Beta Phi sorority. She joined the CIA after graduation, though even her closest friends only knew her cover story, that she worked for the State Department and, later, as an energy analyst for a private company.
Watts was living in New York when the scandal broke. "We all knew the story," she said.
"Really? You were aware of it when it happened?" Plame asked.
"Oh, yeah," Watts said. "Valerie, you were a household name."
Although Watts holds a British passport and has an Australian accent, she wasn't hesitant to play Plame, and made her decision after reading the first few pages of the script. "The world is a small place now, and this didn't feel like a story that belonged only to America," Watts said.
Watts mastered Plame's accent by walking around with an iPod, listening to interviews she had done. "It's not the flat accent that is common with a lot of Americans," Watts said, "and I think that must come from the time she spent in Europe."
"Fair Game," which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, arrives in U.S. theaters at a politically charged moment. President Bush's memoirs are coming out next month and the midterm election campaign has seen the reemergence of two familiar faces in the film — Cheney and presidential advisor Karl Rove.
All coincidental, says Liman, the director of "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," who took a break from Hollywood in 2008 to make commercials for Barack Obama. "This is not a polemic," he said. "The core of this movie is about our right as American citizens to criticize our government without fearing reprisal. That's an issue that unites all of us."
Getting a green light to do a political film is rare in Hollywood, and this project began when Janet Zucker was introduced to Plame in Washington. They became friends but it took a year for her and her husband, Jerry Zucker, to persuade the Wilsons to help make the movie. Two British brothers, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, were brought in to write the screenplay.
The emotional heart of "Fair Game" is the couple caught in the middle of a fiery partisan fight, trying to survive amid death threats, with reporters camped on their lawn.
Plame's work as an operative was over and, though she remained at the CIA for two years, she was moved into administrative duties. Her husband's reputation as a veteran diplomat was under attack and his consulting business stalled. Their marriage began to unravel and they talked about separating, but, in the end, decided to stay together.
Watching a screening of the movie recently, Plame said, "I felt the pain all over again. You'd think I would get over it." The scenes where Watts and Penn are fighting, she said, were particularly painful. "It hurts. It really does."
"I hate to sound corny here," Watts added, "but it said a lot about their love for each other that they were able to hold it together."
"Fair Game" includes a few fictional characters and scenes, but it hews fairly closely to the facts. The Wilsons' books have reached a relatively small audience, so the film is likely to become the narrative that most viewers remember.
"The movie is condensed, but it is a very accurate depiction of events and I'm very proud of it," Plame said. "I think it allows viewers to draw their own conclusions."
"And if people think I look like Naomi," she added with a laugh, "I'm good."