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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Naomi Watts

Despite being celebrated as one of the finest contemporary actors, the career trajectory of Naomi Watts was by no means simple, having to battle personal tragedy and Hollywood hardship on her journey. Having since starred in the celebrated films of David Lynch, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Peter Jackson, Noah Baumbach and Michael Haneke, Watts has become an icon of the industry. 

Struggling through TV roles at the start of her career, Watts reported to the Sunday Times: “At first, everything was fantastic and doors were opened to me. But some people who I met through Nicole [Kidman], who had been all over me, had difficulty remembering my name when we next met. There were a lot of promises, but nothing actually came off. I ran out of money and became quite lonely, but Nic gave me company and encouragement to carry on”.

Picking up her first few cinematic roles, Watts quickly gained prominence, with directors quick to praise her contemporary professionalism, with This is the Night director James DeMonaco stating, “Naomi is one of my favourites, if not my favourite actress in the last 15 years, she could do anything…She’s a great lady, the greatest person I’ve ever worked with”. 

Known for her eclectic film roles, Naomi Watts is soon due to appear in the survival adventure Infinite Storm, followed by a remake of the 2014 Austrian horror film, Goodnight Mommy. To explore how she managed to reach industry prominence, let’s take a look back at her six most definitive films.

Naomi Watts’ six definitive films:

Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)

Following her film debut in 1986s For Love Alone as well as her supporting role in the critically acclaimed Flirting, directed by John Duigan, Naomi Watts left her residence in Sydney to pursue a career in Los Angeles. 

Her transition into the industry was marked with considerable difficulty, however, with the actress finding it harder to find work in America than she did back in Australia. As Watts revealed in an interview, “When I returned to Hollywood, all those people who’d been so encouraging before weren’t interested. You take all their flattery seriously when you don’t know any better. I basically had to start all over again”. 

Her first considerable role after many years of hardship was in Tank Girl, a bizarre sci-fi starring Ice-T and Malcolm McDowell that followed a girl fighting against a mega-corporation in a dystopian future world. Winning the supporting role of ‘Jet Girl’ after nine auditions, whilst the film may not represent the actor’s finest moment, Tank Girl has since found cult success and stands as a monument to Naomi Watts’ perseverance. 

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Fortunes changed overnight for Naomi Watts in 2001 when she was cast in David Lynch’s experimental classic Mulholland Drive, bookending the actresses seemingly never-ending trickle of sub-par supporting roles. 

“I saw someone that I felt had a tremendous talent, and I saw someone who had a beautiful soul, an intelligence—possibilities for a lot of different roles, so it was a beautiful full package,” David Lynch said of Naomi Watts. Starring as the mysterious Betty in Lynch’s film that followed a Hollywood-hopeful searching for clues to a mystery in the twisted dreamscape of LA, the plot of the film mirrors the life of the actor to an eerie level of accuracy. 

Enduring her own professional frustrations, auditioning in parts she did not particularly believe in and following those who often misused her trust, it is perfectly apt that Naomi Watts’ most significant film be Mulholland Drive.

21 Grams (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2003)

Taking her newfound Hollywood fame to all-new heights, Naomi Watts appeared in the remake of the classic Japanese horror, The Ring, in 2002, a film that took a stranglehold of the horror genre for some time, sparking an obsession with the J-horror sub-genre. 

Perhaps her most commercially popular film, The Ring would expose the actor to a wider audience, though commercial acclaim was never really the Watts’ prerogative, finding far more satisfaction from her appearance in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Receiving her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her brilliant performance as a grieving mother, Watts starred alongside Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Danny Huston and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

She was now firmly within the Hollywood elite. 

King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)

Whilst Watts may not have been instinctively drawn to Hollywood blockbusters, her name was growing to such prominence that often it was difficult to avoid their lure, starring in a sequel to The Ring in 2005 before taking on the lead role in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

The first choice for the role of Ann Darrow, with no other actors considered, King Kong proved to be the actor’s most commercially successful film to date, with King Kong also receiving generous critical acclaim, praising Watts for her exquisite lead performance. Leading to spin-off merchandise, video games and much more, if people didn’t know Naomi Watts’ face before, they certainly did now. 

As the actor stated at the time of the film’s release in an interview with Girl, “You’d better know why you’re here as an actor … I’m here to work out my shit, what my problems are and know who I am, so by cracking open these characters perhaps that shines a light on it a little bit better … I know myself. I mean, of course I know myself better but the journey and search continue because hopefully we’re evolving and growing all the time”.

The Impossible (J.A. Bayona, 2012)

A film as ginormous as King Kong himself led Naomi Watts to several exciting projects through the 21st century, including Lynch’s Inland Empire, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and the Funny Games remake from Michael Haneke. 

Though, for her second nomination for an Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards, it was her role in the tsunami drama The Impossible that would re-establish her position as an award-contender at the height of her game. Based on the true story of María Belón and her family’s experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts played the lead role, leading The Impossible with an excellent emotionally charged performance. 

Showered with nominations and awards for her role, The Impossible certainly proved to be one of the actors most decorated films. 

This is the Night (James DeMonaco, 2021)

Featuring as part of several critical darlings since her appearance in The Impossible, including in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman and While We’re Young by Noah Baumbach, Naomi Watts has enjoyed an illustrious career.

Her prominence and artistic control are by no means fading, however, proving to be the shining light in the new film from Purge director James DeMonaco, starring as the mother of a family shaken by a summer’s day in Staten Island. Leading the cast with her charming performance, her role in the film shows just how far Watts has come as an actor, changing from a struggling star to one that directors desperately seek to work with. 

As James DeMonaco told Far Out, “It was one of those things that I never thought would happen, I was like let’s give it a shot and send Naomi the script, and she just loved it. It was one of those things like, ‘let’s throw a crazy one and a million lottery chance’ and Naomi responded”.

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