Naomi Watts is no stranger to enduring arduous situations onscreen, but the ante is officially upped in the fact-based disaster drama The Impossible, where she plays Maria Belon, a tourist caught in the deadly Southeast Asia tsunami. Swept inland and critically injured, she must rely on her young son Lucas (Tom Holland) for help while separated from the rest of her family, including husband Ewan McGregor. It's a role that's perfectly suited for Watts, who has the ability to project both strength and intense vulnerability at the same time, and last week, she picked up both a SAG nod and a Golden Globe nomination for it. In November, she sat down with Vulture to discuss how she managed the difficult shoot, why she picks such draining projects, and the film she's surprised to find on her IMDb page.
This is an enormously visceral movie to watch as an audience member. What was it like for you to see it for the first time?
It was visceral for me, too, because there’s so much that takes place off the set, in the post-production sense, so seeing that wave coming through the bungalows off the beach, that was pretty major. Also, to follow the story of Ewan and the other two boys ... I knew the script, but I didn’t know how they filmed those scenes, I wasn’t there on the day. It was actually one of the first times I was able to watch a movie that I’m in and get swept up.
No pun intended.
Yeah, I was swept away, even! I saw it with just a few people the first time, and then I saw it with the audience at the Toronto Film Festival, which was just a whole other experience. It’s actually one of the first times I’ve ever cried at a movie I’m in.
I would imagine after shooting all those tsunami scenes in a giant, surging water tank, you have no desire to ever go to a water park ever again in your life.
Definitely not! It’s that famous adage that water is just not a good thing to work with, and it lived up to its reputation. It was very difficult, and we were in there for a month. Tom loved it, but he’s 14 and an acrobat. I’m neither of those things, not even close, so I found it a lot more difficult.
How do you prepare for a monthlong shoot where you're going to be tossed to and fro in a water tank?
Well, you don’t, other than I wanted to be physically fit and have the right amount of stamina. We actually had a lot more dialogue that we were supposed to say in those scenes, but we couldn’t! Every time you open your mouth in there, you swallow a gallon of water, so we were lucky if we could even get out “Lucas!” or “Mom!” I’ve had my own fearful moment in water once before — nothing to that degree, but I was swept out in a riptide and wasn't able to swim that well. That was before I moved to Australia, so I know that fear well.
Nearly all your scenes are with Tom Holland, who plays your son. He's a newcomer to acting, so did you give him any advice?
If anything, I learned from him! He was just fantastic and he had such a high-pitched emotional role. Every day, there was just something massive to attack with him, and he was just wonderful. It was easy to work with him and create that mother-son bond.
What do you learn from somebody who’s relatively new to acting?
There’s no tricks there. He’s definitely got no tricks. And you know, I kept saying, “Save yourself, don’t burn out,” but he didn’t need to worry about that.
Fourteen-year-olds don’t burn out.
Yeah, my God, exactly! Ugh, envious.
How do you address the criticism that the movie focuses only on white tourists, instead of the native citizens who were also affected by the tsunami?
Well, look. This was a big story, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, hundreds of thousands of others were affected. This is told from an intimate story point of view, which is [about] Maria Belon’s family, and if we told everyone’s story, it would be a mini-series or a documentary. It played out, in the script and on the screen, exactly as it played out for her, and it’s told from her narrative. In the title, it’s called The Impossible, not just because of what took place, but because there's the impossibility of leaving behind that place. She felt that she would always be connected to that land and those people and it was difficult for her to move away from that ... survivor’s guilt, if you will.
You're known for these very intense roles in harrowing films. Do they stick with you after filming, or are you able to move on?
I do, I move on. Especially since I’m a mom, there’s not enough time and space. It’s interesting, everyone says, "How do you make these choices, why do you choose such intense films?" I don’t know! They’re just themes that are just interesting to me. There’s no calculating: Either the material moves me or it doesn’t. Having said that, I would say that if there are any repetitive themes in my work, it's usually about facing things like life and death or fear, I suppose. And it’s interesting to have small kids, because these are themes that are interesting to them. I think that we are born with that fascination and that curiosity. Right now, they’re trying to work out the “when you die” thing and “how you got here,” all of that. They’re fascinated, and I think it begins there and it certainly doesn’t end there.
You've had an interesting experience shooting your next movie, where you play Princess Diana. There's been a level of paparazzi interest in the film that's almost comparable to the real thing.
We knew that there would be: I mean, Princess Diana is probably the most famous woman of our time. That level of interest started right from when we began shooting in Croatia, and at first we released a picture in order to see if that would keep the paparazzi at bay, but not so much! It’s a little bit scary.
Can I ask about a credit on your résumé that I've always been curious about? The IMDb claims that you provided "additional voices" for Babe: Pig in the City.
[Laughs] That really should not be on my résumé! I think that was early on in the day, when I was trying to beef up my résumé. I came in and did a couple days' work of voiceovers and we had to ... what do you call it, the stuff that you use to blow up balloons?
Yeah, we had to suck on that and then do a little mouse voice. But I was one in a hundred, so I’m sure you would never be able to identify my voice. I probably couldn’t either!