In the past three years, Naomi Watts has played such varied roles as Princess Diana (Diana), a mom injured and separated from her family by the 2004 tsunami (The Impossible), a neurotic actress making her Broadway debut (Birdman), and a pregnant Russian stripper-prostitute (St. Vincent). Her latest movie offers more proof of her seemingly unlimited range: In Noah Baumbach’s comedy While We’re Young, she co-stars with Ben Stiller as half of a 40-something married couple who befriend a pair of 20-something Bushwick hipsters (Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver). Watts moves fluidly between playing the straight woman to a manic Stiller and battling her own character’s midlife crisis. She and Baumbach explain what they were thinking during the making of her three most memorable scenes.
Cornelia (Watts) and Josh (Stiller) attend an ayahuasca ceremony, where they drink a hallucinogenic stew.
Watts: “It’s difficult to play high, and difficult to watch if it doesn’t ring true. I’d never even heard of ayahuasca before. But we spoke to people, and it seems to hit everyone in different ways. Josh has an epiphany, but Cornelia goes to a darker place. I can’t remember now if you actually see me vomit, but allegedly that’s what happens. God knows why anyone would want to do that.”
Baumbach: “Acting stoned is hard enough, but then she has to think she’s making out with her husband, and then realize she’s making out with [Driver], and then feel terrible but keep doing it. This scene was written as Ben’s experience. But Naomi was so funny with the faces and noises she was making that I reconceived the scene [in the editing room].”
Cornelia and Josh have an argument on the sidewalk.
Watts: “They made the choice [to hang out with the young couple], and they were at peace, and suddenly he starts wearing the fedora and saying, ‘Let’s have a kid.’ He’s changing too much, and it puts her entire relationship into question. We shot this scene on the Upper West Side, with lots of noise and traffic and — since Ben is one of the most famous people in the world — a crowd of people standing around like an audience.”
Baumbach: “Josh and Cornelia are expressing raw emotions, but there are also jokes along the way. I’ve worked with actors where it’s hard for them to get upset and still connect with the humor of a scene, but Naomi was able to do that wonderfully.”
Cornelia attends a hip-hop dance class, where she improvises her own moves while everyone else rehearses a choreographed routine.
Watts: “Cornelia just suddenly goes, ‘Oh my God, this is so awkward. I could either run out or join in.’ And she goes for it! Noah let me watch the other dancers practice, but [my dancing] was completely freestyle. I actually have a dancing background — I took lessons in acting school, but I always felt like I would never be a brilliant dancer, so I went more into drama.”
Baumbach: “Naomi is a good dancer, but she could also inhabit the clumsy version of this thing. Bad dancing is difficult to do in a movie. It takes real grace to make it look properly bad.”
*This article appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.