Despite being separated by about 600 years and an ocean, Naomi Watts’ next two roles have a lot in common.
The British/Australian actor plays Hamlet’s mother, Danish Queen Gertrude, in “Ophelia,” which opens June 28 at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis and on streaming services. And, coming to Showtimestarting Sunday, she’s Anoka native Gretchen Carlson in “The Loudest Voice,” a seven-part miniseries about Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), whose throne atop the Fox News Channel was ripped out from under him when Carlson and other women came forward to detail his years as a serial sexual harasser (a movie version, with Watts’ buddy Nicole Kidman as Carlson, also is due this year).
“I shot these two pieces almost two years apart [‘Ophelia’ was first], so I didn’t really draw comparisons then, but, as I’m promoting both, I can see: They’re both ambitious, strong women. They have a strong sense of themselves. They’re involved in a corrupt power dynamic,” Watts said. “None of that surprises me because there’s this fascination now with the misuse of power, and women have been exposed to that for a long time.”
You could argue that Watts’ breakthrough performance, as an actor who transforms herself in a front of our eyes during an audition scene in 2001’s “Mulholland Drive,” also showed how Hollywood chews up and spits out women.
But Watts suspects that a few years down the road, we’ll marvel at the progress women have made, inside and outside the entertainment industry — and that will have had a lot to do with Carlson, a former Miss America who became a star at Fox only to see her career derailed when she refused Ailes’ advances.
“She was not going to be pushed away, disposed of. She stood up to him,” said Watts, 50, a two-time Oscar nominee for “21 Grams” and “The Impossible.” “Even in the span of my career, I’ve witnessed a massive change. We were told, ‘You’ll be washed up by 40,’ and now, here I am a decade after 40, with both of these projects. ‘Ophelia,’ especially, is a female-driven movie that is directed by a woman and adapted by a woman from a book that was written by a woman.”
Carlson’s settlement with Fox included $20 million, an apology and a nondisclosure agreement, so Watts could not meet with the TV host. But video and a dialect coach, who helped with Carlson’s Minnesota accent and her accentless anchorwoman accent, prepared Watts to tackle the violinist/Virginia Woolf scholar who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2017.
“I have a hard time with all accents. The thing about Gretchen is that, like all newsreaders or anchorwomen, they get rid of their accents, so you only hear it in a word or two,” said Watts. “With her, you hear it in ‘Minnesota.’ It’s like when I say ‘Australia’ [which Watts says quickly, like ‘Austrlya’]. You don’t say ‘Aus-tra-li-a.’ You say it like you live there, even if you’ve changed how you say all your other words. So I worked on — it seems like the most prominent vowel shape in Minnesota is the long ‘o’ sound.”
Watts said playing an actual person, rather than a fictitious queen, came with added responsibilities: “I hope this will reach people who feel like they can come forward and tell their versions of these humiliating experiences. That behavior is not to be tolerated anymore. The change is in motion and it will evolve over time, but at least we can feel encouraged that the next generation is going to have an easier time.”
Watts believes Carlson and Gertrude worked to make things better for those who would come after them. In “Ophelia,” Gertrude plays a much more central role than she does in “Hamlet,” as a warrior and adviser to Ophelia, whose intelligence and power she helps direct.
“ ‘Ophelia’ is a total reinvention, but we tried to keep the tone so it would titillate the old fans, the die-hard ‘Hamlet’ fans, but at the same time show younger generations there’s a reason for Shakespeare’s stories to stay alive today,” Watts said.
Watts plays Gertrude as a pragmatist whose decision to marry the man who murdered her husband seems to be the result of not having many options. “Ophelia” appealed to Watts because it gave her a chance to figure out what Gertrude wants, and to play a dual role: not just Gertrude but also her sister, Mechtild, a mysterious outcast who coaches Daisy Ridley’s title character. Viewers could interpret the sisters as entirely separate people or two halves of the same woman. (Watts has an opinion but doesn’t want to forestall conversation by sharing it.)
In fact, that’s yet another quality that links many Watts roles. There’s a point in “Mulholland Drive” where her character seems to split in two, and Carlson has to maintain a public calm in “The Loudest Voice” even as Ailes is making her work life a nightmare. In her recent TV series, “Gypsy,” Watts also played a character who adopted an alternate identity.
All of which is to say that Watts’ next project is the “Game of Thrones” prequel, and she’s unable to say anything about the character she plays. But don’t be surprised if it turns out to be characters, plural.