From a struggling actress to Hollywood elite: The remarkable story of Naomi Watts
“We’re so afraid of death in our culture, but I think if we understand it better, then we’ll appreciate the life we have more.” – Naomi Watts
Oscar-nominated actress Naomi Watts has established herself as one of the biggest names in the film industry—but it wasn’t always like that. She was 35 when she landed her first Academy Award nomination for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, almost 15 years after she started her career as an actress. Watts wasn’t an overnight success but that makes her story all the more interesting.
Born in England, Watts was just nine years old when her father, Peter, a Pink Floyd tour manager who had divorced her mother in 1972, passed away. The actress recalled how the band members helped their family out during the crisis, “When he died, my dad hadn’t saved money, and I guess my mum didn’t have any. So they, the band, very kindly… ‘Trust fund’ doesn’t sound right at all. I think they gave my mum a few thousand dollars to help get things under way. A lump sum, to help. It was kind that they did that.” After his death, the family moved around a lot. The accents were always different wherever they went, forcing Watts to adapt. This helped her acting career later but, as a child, it was a difficult period. Watts remembered that she would stand on the fringes of new playgrounds, trying to figure out what role would help her get accepted: “I just remember always wanting to be something else. Quite sad, isn’t it?” she reflected.
When she was 14, her mother decided it was time to move to Australia. Watts was just beginning to fit into her school at Suffolk but she suddenly found herself in a new continent. Her mother had promised that she would pay for acting lessons if she complied. Speaking of Sydney, the actor said she found the experience to be “a culture shock…This was a whole new world.” However, Watts met one of her closest friends during her stay in Sydney, Nicole Kidman, and they even acted together in a 1991 Australian comedy called Flirting. Watts decided that she was going to be a model at the age of 18, after working as a papergirl, a negative cutter and managing a delicacies store. The modelling agency she signed for even sent her to Japan but, after several failed auditions, she returned to Sydney where she worked as an Assistant Fashion Editor for a magazine. It was only when she received an invitation to a drama workshop that she decided to double down on her dream of being an actress.
Although her film debut was the 1986 film For Love Alone, Watts wasn’t getting much attention for her roles. She decided to move to the US in order to get more opportunities where she was introduced to agents through Kidman but she never made any lasting impressions on them.
“When I came to America there was so much promise of good stuff and I thought, I’ve got it made here. I’m going to kick ass. Then I went back to Australia and did one or two more jobs. 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. I get offered some things without auditioning today, but back then they wouldn’t even fax me the pages of a script because it was too much of an inconvenience. I had to drive for hours into the Valley to pick up three bits of paper for some horrendous piece of shit, then go back the next day and line up for two hours to meet the casting director who would barely give me eye contact. It was humiliating.”
During that time, Watts featured as ‘Jet Girl’ in the 1995 sci-fi film Tank Girl but only after nine auditions. She also provided an “additional voice” for 1998 film Babe: Pig in the City. “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,” she once commented. “I came in and did a couple days’ work of voiceovers and we had to suck on [helium] and then do a little mouse voice,” Watts said of the role. Two years later, she used her own money to fly from New York to Los Angeles for an audition only to find that the director had his eyes closed during her performance. The actress said, “Looking back, I know why people weren’t hiring me. I went into auditions thinking, ‘What version of me do they want? How should I shape myself in order to win them over?’”
Things finally changed for Watts when she was cast in the leading role for David Lynch’s 1999 surreal masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Lynch interviewed Watts after looking at her headshot, without having seen any of her previous work. She won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress for her fantastic performance. “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,” the filmmaker said of Watts. From that moment on, the actor started to land more roles and later thanked Lynch for recognising her talent, “I wasn’t getting parts. I was giving myself away,” she said. “My soul was being destroyed. I was never able to walk in a room and own it by being me. David changed that. It was having someone actually make eye contact, ask questions he was truly interested in, take the time to unveil some layers.”
Mulholland Drive marked the beginning of a widespread acknowledgment of Watts’ talent. “Things came to me very quickly from that point,” she recalled. “I turned down giant pay cheques, giant opportunities – my agents were flummoxed. But I knew what I liked by then. I had a strong understanding of my taste.” She received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her brilliant performance as a grieving mother in Iñárritu’s 2003 drama 21 Grams . She also starred alongside the CGI King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. It proved to be her most commercially successful film yet. Apart from major studio productions, she was also working in independent films like John Curran’s 2004 drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore.
After taking a break from acting following the birth of her two children, Watts returned in 2009 with the moderately successful action-thriller The International. In recent years, critical consensus about her work has oscillated from one extreme to the other. She garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the 2012 filmabout the Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible. Watts went on to be nominated for the Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress. However, critics denounced her for her portrayal of Princess Diana in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2013 drama. The very next year, she would get glowing reviews for starring alongside Michael Keaton in Iñárritu’s 2014 Academy Award-winning film Birdman. Watts also received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for her performance.
Since then, Watts has acted in blockbusters like Insurgent as well as lesser-known works like Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees and Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations. Watts also appeared in the 2017 revival of Lynch’s acclaimed television series Twin Peaks. The actress was one of the executive producers and stars of the Netflix series Gypsy (2017) where she played the role of a therapist who begins to develop dangerous and intimate relationships with the people in her patients’ lives. “Gypsy’s all about wanting the things you don’t have,” Watts said. She took inspiration from her own experiences. “I’ve definitely done periods of time in a therapist’s office. Got some proper help at points of crisis.” Last year, she featured in the Golden Globe-nominated miniseries The Loudest Voice.
The trajectory of Naomi Watt’s career has certainly been an interesting one. It serves as an inspiration for artists who are struggling to be heard. Of course, the future holds many more possibilities for the accomplished actress who’s turning 52. Reflecting on her early struggles, Watt said: “I paid my dues. I think everyone has to pay their dues at one point. It’s better to pay ’em when you’re young.”