Naomi Watts has accidentally carved out a hyperspecific niche in her career: American remakes of acclaimed international horror movies. First came the 2002 megahit The Ring (based on Japan’s Ringu), followed by Michael Haneke’s nearly shot-for-shot Funny Games update in 2007. For her latest scare tactic, Watts plays the titular mommy in a reimagining of Goodnight Mommy, the chilling Austrian psychodrama that became a 2015 art-house breakout. She has always been effective at channeling the specific blend of fear and resilience a quality horror heroine needs, though Mommy (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) also required an undertone of wickedness. The fed-up frostiness Watts displays at the film’s start gives way to powerless desperation.
Watts’s character, credited simply as Mother, is a divorced actress who returns home with her face bandaged from cosmetic surgery. Not only does she look a little frightening, but her demeanor is off, too, as evidenced by the sudden hesitancy her twin boys (Big Little Lies’ Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) show in her presence. To them, she might as well be Frankenstein’s monster, grotesque and unpredictable. Where did their sweet mom go? Convinced she’s an imposter, they concoct a torturous way to find the answer. As in the original, which was more of a slow burn than the version director Matt Sobel (Brand New Cherry Flavor) has made, the family’s troubled layers are steadily unpeeled. Watts debated whether to add another of these Americanizations to her résumé, but she told Vulture during a recent Zoom conversation she’s glad she did.
You’ve returned to horror periodically throughout your career, most notably in this trio of American remakes: The Ring, Funny Games, and Goodnight Mommy. What keeps attracting you to the genre?
I wrestled with it, I have to say. I had heard of the movie, but I hadn’t seen it. While I end up in multiple horror films, I’m not an obsessive fan. I enjoy them if they’re done well, but it’s not like I’m scouring the internet like, Oh, when’s the next one coming out? I love to act in horror because fear interests me. We all experience fears, and how to play with fear, emotionally speaking, is incredibly satisfying as an actor. But the script is what drew me in. I then had a conversation with Matt, who I found wildly intelligent. I was like, Okay, I don’t really think I should do another remake because I don’t want to get that reputation, but let me hear your thoughts on it. He said I should go and watch the movie, so I watched the movie after that conversation. It was a very successful film, in my opinion — they handled it really well. Then I went back and spoke with him again and really understood the ways he wanted to reimagine it. Those ideas interested me: reducing the gore and escalating the emotional and psychological side of things. It turned into a multitude of conversations, and at that point I trusted him. I loved the idea of playing this very strange woman who’s going through a very difficult time in her life. She has to wear a mask around the house all the time.
An actor’s greatest visual effect, so to speak, is their face. What kind of challenge did it pose to you to be covered that way?
An extreme challenge. But with anything, when you know the rules — and they’re supertight — you learn ways to use what you do have. If you have to take away this or that, how do I use what I do have and make it its most powerful? Of course, the eyes become the most powerful tool. Particularly in a close-up, you have to be really still and know when to use the eyes. Also the voice, making it gentle. I didn’t want her to be a monstrous villain. I wanted us to understand where she was coming from. To have an emotional core driving a lot of her actions was very key. And then also the physicality in wider shots, which there were plenty of. I love how Matt trusted the wide shot. It was down to the fingertips, these things that would tell the story.
Did you have a specific approach to your fingertips?
Sometimes she was holding something in her pocket, and that was all I had in that scene. It’s something you’ll do, a little detail that will help us understand this woman.
Did horror-movie opportunities start coming your way as a result of the success of Mulholland Drive?
Yeah. It’s funny because I wouldn’t call that strictly a horror film. I would call it more psychological, but yes, there are some horrific moments. Everything came to me after Mulholland Drive. I basically was playing the nicest girl in the world as well as someone who was deeply troubled, so I got the opportunity to really showcase some versatility, I suppose, through David Lynch’s brilliant story and mind and direction. But The Ring secured it with it being a commercial success.
Michael Haneke said when he was doing Funny Games that he wanted you for the role specifically because of Mulholland Drive, and you said at the time that you really debated whether to take the role because it was so disturbing and dark. Was that unique to Funny Games, or did you feel that way with Goodnight Mommy as well?
No, I wrestled with both. We’ll start with Funny Games. Obviously I knew of his work, and I thought, Oh my God, I just want to be in the same room with him for six or eight weeks just to learn from him and pick his brain. It was deeply, deeply disturbing, and he wanted to make the same exact movie, literally, down to the shots, which was very constrictive. But I wanted to do it anyway to learn from him, and I did indeed learn a lot. Making remakes was one of the challenges I wrestled with, and with Matt, I felt safe because he was intelligent and had a new idea to put forward. So I got there in the end.
In both of those movies, you are bound and taunted and tortured to varying degrees. What is it like to shoot those scenes?
They can mess with you, especially when there’s children involved. I wasn’t a mother when I made Funny Games, and I am now. There is a difference because of my fears of my children getting hurt or battling dark thoughts. That’s something I worry about all the time, so playing a mother who’s inflicting those kinds of things on children was scary to me. There were all kinds of systems we had in place to make sure it was a safe place for the kids. They’re seasoned actors, which isn’t always the case when you work with children, so that comforted me. I also had great conversations with their mom and did whatever I could to short-circuit any possibility of the mind wandering into a dark place, whether it was playing a goofy game in between takes or just making silly jokes.
With Haneke, I just remember doing a shot that was somewhere between nine and 11 minutes long that just went on and on and on. There was a kid involved and lots of screaming. I felt powerless. It was definitely hard.
The boys in Goodnight Mommy played your good friend Nicole Kidman’s sons in Big Little Lies. Is that a phone call you make to Nicole to make sure they were going to be okay in these roles?
Yeah, definitely. I spoke to her as well as to Bruna Papandrea, who’s a really great friend of mine and a producer. I was assured these were great kids and high-level professionals.
The fact that the mother in this version of Goodnight Mommy is an actress adds an interesting layer. When the cops show up to bring her sons back home, it makes her introspection and her grief feel like something of a performance. As true as what she’s saying may be, she seems like she’s putting something on in that moment. How did her profession inform the character for you?
I think she’s definitely all about appearances, and how she comes across is very important to her, not just to the police, who are the only people in the film other than the kids. To her own children, there’s a performance. She’s definitely tortured at this point in her life. Not much is said about why the kids haven’t seen her and how much time has passed. That’s all stuff for the audience to figure out. I was asking all of these questions so that we could be on the same page at least, and for me, I felt like she’s a really bad mother: She’s probably a narcissist. Is she a sociopath? You have all of these questions, and they’re not all answered. But certainly I feel like, by virtue of the fact that she’s just had all this face work done and knowing that her kids are coming back, who is it that she wants to be in the world? Those are great questions for the audience to get caught up in.
One change this movie makes is that you did not have to have your lips superglued shut and then cut open with scissors, which happens in the original. Were you relieved to see that was not in the script?
Yes, I was. That was gruesome. We have a couple of really yucky, bone-chilling moments, but mercifully that’s not one of them.
In the late aughts, you were also attached to a remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which I’m sad we never got to see because you would be perfect for that role. The Tippi Hedren–to–Naomi Watts pipeline makes total sense. What happened there?
It’s such a shame because I really was excited about it. I loved the original. There were problems with the film, and I can’t remember what they were now. I remember studying it and thinking there were holes. I think they just couldn’t get the script right. That’s what it came down to in the end. Everybody wanted to do it, but the script didn’t quite get there.
Interestingly, the logline of The Watcher — couple is stalked via terrifying letters — sounds like it could be a Haneke movie. I know Ryan Murphy and his collaborators have very different sensibilities than Haneke, but is there a parallel there?
I can see how you would jump to that: We’re not safe in our own homes, white privilege, what kind of money you have. It’s definitely different, but it is a “What is going on?” thing. We’re all turning in on each other and suspecting each other. Funny Games was just the family involved, and everything was happening in real time. It was quite different.
It’s such a brutal watch, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in that.
It was intense. I remember particularly the end scene being pretty horrible to have to shoot.
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