Naomi Watts is pretty famous for funny footwork. She received a Screen Actors Guild nomination this year as Bill Murray’s girlfriend, a pregnant Russian stripper, in “St. Vincent.” When she won in a different category as a cast member of “Birdman,” she tripped on the massive train of Emma Stone’s dress and nearly fell walking up to the microphone.
But she’s never hoofed it on film like her campy hip-hop bumbling in Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young.” Playing a forty-something New Yorker trying to copy her young friend Amanda Seyfried at dance class, Watts takes off like a washing machine rattling through a spin cycle during a 7.0 earthquake.
“Everyone’s fascinated with that,” she laughed in a phone interview. “It was beautifully written, as everything by Noah is,” but it was one of the few times that the typically controlling director, who forbids improv, “wanted to see how things play out.”
To stay fresh (and frankly clumsy) as a fish out of water, Watts took one dance rehearsal, while Seyfried thoroughly learned the routine.
“There’s no way I could have picked up any of this in one hour. At first I was like, ‘Oh, God, this is awkward and embarrassing.’ But I think that’s the theme of the movie, that we do need to reopen ourselves and feel foolish to be alive. We can’t live with such control and measure.”
Watts is the spirit of professionalism at work, though. In 2009 Forbes magazine named her Hollywood’s most valuable actress, consistently starring in films that far outearned the work of her higher-paid colleagues. Since her breakthrough in David Lynch’s fantasy thriller “Mulholland Dr.,” she has starred for a checklist of film greats, including Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Haneke, Woody Allen, David Cronenberg and Alejandro González Iñárritu (twice). She’s also at the top of the cast in the final three films of the “Divergent” young adult science fiction series.
With classic modesty, the British-born, Australia-raised Watts credits a lot to good fortune.
“I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about sending a lot of letters to directors to get on their radar, and that makes sense to do that,” she said. “I feel like I should do that or should have done that! But I’ve been lucky starting with David Lynch. He put me in a film where as an actor you could show two complete different sides. There was a duality there that’s hard to get in an entire career, let alone one film. It was kind of an acting showcase and all great filmmakers, especially American filmmakers, are going to be influenced by David Lynch at one point or another. That was the launching pad for me.”
Some of the work “was nerve-racking,” she said. Haneke cast her in the American remake of his sadistic German thriller “Funny Games,” “making the same film that he’d already made. He was so fixed on how he wanted things to play out you felt like you were a prisoner.” The film’s theatrical poster was a closeup of Watts’ shocked face covered in tears.
“While We’re Young” pairs Watts with Ben Stiller as a New York couple whose marriage has grown stale. While Baumbach makes comedies, Watts said he pushes for a similar level of control as Haneke. “He’s absolutely not interested in deviating from the words that he’s given. There’s no improvisation. But once you learn the rules and trust your director, which in both cases I did, you just fall into it. It’s quite freeing because you’re working with someone you have complete confidence in.”
Co-starring with Stiller for the first time was a similar experience in trust, she said. “He’s so really brilliant at what he does,” even when his role balances humor and drama. “His subtlety is just extraordinary, so intense with comedy and so profound. Those eyes tell deep, deep stories. It was hard to keep a straight face because everything he said was so believable. But painfully funny and painfully real.”