Director Doug Liman — who gave us thyroid-eyed action in The Bourne Identity and introduced us to the weirdness of Brangelina in Mr. & Mrs. Smith — is, as the ominous voice-over would say, back for more. Fair Game, about the life of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson (played by Naomi Watts) is a domestic spy thriller, as much about Plame’s secrets from her husband (Sean Penn) as it is about the covert ops she ran in Jordan. Liman learned a thing or two: Stay away from CIA-run hotels in the Middle East. Don’t ever scream “Call 911!” And if an actress has just had a baby, ship her off to boot camp.
What kind of things did you teach Naomi from your work on The Bourne Identity or Mr. & Mrs Smith spy movies?
Probably the biggest lesson I went back to, something I did with Damon on Bourne Identity, is something I learned from someone in the CIA. At a moment of crisis, like if your car gets into an accident, you don’t run around saying, “Someone call 911!” Because no one is going to do anything. You have to turn to one person and calmly say, “You. Call 911.” That simple centeredness associated with that kind of thinking is at the heart of how these people behave. I always return to that centeredness, like from my youth: those Ivory soap commercials. Make it spare and clean and simple.
Naomi Watts seems an odd choice for a spy.
The character of Valerie is so strong, and she has to keep up this stone veneer to keep all these lies straight. But we live in a culture where strong women in movies can be immediately dismissed as bitches. It’s sexist. Valerie never cracks, and normally you need to have a hero crack for audiences to find them sympathetic. So you need an actress who rings audiences to root for her. When I read the script, I had this epiphany. I didn’t have Plan B, I only had Naomi.
But Watts had just had a baby. How did you toughen her up?
She felt a little bit…soft. The Naomi Watts I had in my head wasn’t quite there on the set, clearly because she just had the baby and was nursing. I had these producers who had incredible access to the situation room in the White House. So I called up Janet and Jerry Zucker and said we need to do something right away. The next morning Naomi is involved in the CIA’s top secret training program in Virginia somewhere. They let me stay for the first hour, and then I had to go. When Naomi came back, it was like a light switch.
What about working with Valerie? She was on the set a lot.
Most of the time you get CIA advisors on a Hollywood movie, they are pretty full of shit, right? That’s because the people who really know it and really do it are just never gonna participate in a movie. If Valerie Plame had had her way, she’d be off in some foreign country and no one would ever know her name. When you have someone whose inclination would not be to talk to a filmmaker, you get a much more honest take on how ops go down. Because I grew up around Washington and my late father, who was chief counsel on the Iran-Contra hearings, I have a bullshit detector. What Valerie gave me, saying, this is how it would have happened as she was securing an asset, was the greatest gift — besides everything she did for her country.
So the operations you portray are real CIA ops?
Some are ops Valerie actually did and some that are similar things to what Valerie did. We had to condense the storytelling. In particular, Valerie did run ops out of Jordan, out of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. And in fact Valerie told us some pretty scary info about what goes on at that hotel and others, and it has forever changed my attitude about traveling.
Care to share?
I can’t. They’ll kill me.
It will be our secret.
As much as I like to think I know about the CIA, because of my father’s work on Iran-Contra, the real way spycraft works is so much more interesting than anything I’ve ever created with Jason Bourne or anything. What I realized I had left out from all my other spy projects is this: People who chose to become spies are leading a monastic life. We think of James Bond having sex right and left. These people are signing up to be monastics. They can never share anything. They may have stopped a terrorist cell from acquiring a nuclear weapon that day, and they can never take public credit. They have to be content with internal satisfaction, which is so much more interesting than anything I’ve ever done.
Kinda doesn’t work that way in Hollywood, huh?
One of my favorite moments in the move is when Sean Penn tells her he wants her to pose for Vanity Fair. Here’s this woman who for twenty years has had this undercover existence. And Naomi just turns and says, “You want me to pose for Vanity Fair? Is that the question?”