“At the beginning of my career, in my mid-twenties, everyone told me that I should expect it all to be over at 40,” recalls Naomi Watts. “And to be honest, it was kind of looking that way. At that time, there were only a few people who seemed to scrape through and have careers beyond that.” Watts turned 50 last September. This summer, she has a high-profile role in the TV drama miniseries The Loudest Voice, about the rise and fall of disgraced Fox News executive Roger Ailes, and she stars in the film Luce, a story that touches on topics such as interracial adoption and privilege. There’s also the small matter of her leading role in the Game of Thrones prequel, the pilot episode of which she’s just finished filming.
“I am literally not allowed to say anything about it,” she warns, ruefully miming zipping her mouth shut when I quiz her on the show, rumored to be titled Bloodmoon, and set thousands of years before Game of Thrones. What we do know is that it is being written by English screenwriter Jane Goldman (“A genius, completely brilliant,” says Watts), and will feature none of the characters from the wildly successful eight-season HBO show, which, Watts admits, she was late coming to. “I didn’t start watching until I was approached about this job,” she confesses. “But my brother [photographer Ben Watts], who is heavily into it, told me, ‘Under no circumstances are you going to turn this down.’” She tore through the first seven seasons in three months and “was in – hook, line and sinker.”
In spite of a career that has gained her critical acclaim and two Academy Award nominations (for 21 Grams and The Impossible), British-born, Australian-raised Watts has always managed to fly a little under the radar – she’s A-list without behaving like it. En route to meet Watts in the Hamptons, where she has a summer house (so far, so Hollywood), a text lands: she’s off to yoga, and will meet me at an outdoor cafe afterwards. Ridiculous as it sounds, after hundreds of interviews, I can count the times an actor has texted me directly (rather than via a publicist or agent) on one hand. When Watts arrives, the overwhelming normalness continues – yoga gear, no makeup, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail – and she appears to go completely unnoticed by our fellow customers. The GoT prequel is likely to ramp up her public profile significantly. “I still have fears about that,” she admits. “I don’t really know what to prepare for.”
“I didn’t START watching GoT until I was approached about this job. But my brother told me, ‘Under NO circumstances are you going to turn this down.’ [I watched it] and was in – hook, line and SINKER”
In the meantime, she is almost unrecognizable in a thick thatch of blond wig in The Loudest Voice, in which she plays Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News primetime anchor who, in July 2016, filed a lawsuit accusing Roger Ailes of forcing her off the air after she refused his sexual advances. Other women at Fox, including news anchor Megyn Kelly, came forward with allegations of harassment and, within weeks, Ailes had resigned. “She’s a hero,” enthuses Watts of Carlson. “She was the first, inadvertently bringing about the #MeToo movement [which exploded 15 months later], and she doesn’t get a huge amount of credit for that.” Fox settled with Carlson to the tune of $20 million, the terms of which meant that Carlson couldn’t be involved in the production of the series; Watts met her for the first time at the show’s premiere. “I had to do everything in my power not to cry and just fold into her,” she says.
Though Carlson’s mistreatment at Fox was, of course, specific and extreme, Watts did not struggle to put herself in the anchorwoman’s shoes: “We all went through it in some way or another at the beginning of our careers, when we had no agency.” She tells me about a time, at drama school in Australia, when she saw a notice on the board inviting auditions, and went to the address, only to be told to sit on the bed and take off her top. She managed to make her excuses and leave. “But I walked away going, ‘Was that me? Maybe I was being uptight. Maybe this is normal? Maybe this is just what I have to do.’”
“We all went through [harassment] in some way at the BEGINNING of our careers, when we had no AGENCY. But I walked away going, ‘Was that me? Maybe this is NORMAL?’”
Born in the English village of Shoreham in Kent, Watts had a uniquely bohemian childhood. Her mother, Myfanwy, known as Miv, is a costumier and interior designer, who was friends with Marianne Faithfull (“I remember being fascinated by her voice,” says Watts) while her father, Peter, a sound engineer for Pink Floyd, split from her mother when Naomi was four. He died of a heroin overdose at the age of 31, when his daughter was seven.
It was an itinerant childhood, moving between Wales, London, Cambridge and Suffolk, and money was tight. “I grew up poor, so I still think I’m poor,” Watts has said. I ask her – somewhat incongruously, across a garden table in the Hamptons – how that manifests itself. “There are certain things that I cannot spend money on. I will not let my washing be done in a hotel – even if I am living in that hotel for weeks at a time, I will not pay $6 to wash a sock – I will wash my socks in the sink,” laughs Watts. “I fly economy with my children. Those things don’t go away just because you start earning money.”
“I went through a DECADE in Hollywood of being told, ‘No, no, no’. Bit by bit, it tore me DOWN. [David Lynch] really DISCOVERED me in a way that I’d lost track of”
The family moved, with Watts “kicking and screaming”, to Sydney, Australia, when she was 14. As part of the deal, Miv agreed to enroll her in acting classes. She was soon head-hunted by an agent, began working in commercials and auditioning for TV roles, at one of which she met Nicole Kidman, who would become a loyal and lifelong friend. A few years later, it was Kidman – by then established in the US and married to Tom Cruise – who persuaded Watts, at 25, to cross the Pacific. It didn’t go awfully well. “I went through a full-blown decade living in Hollywood, of being told, ‘No, no, no,’” she puts it. “It was crushing. And, bit by bit, it really tore me down, to the point that I couldn’t get out of that cycle. There were many times where I felt like packing it all in and going home with my tail between my legs,” she admits. It wasn’t until Watts met the auteur David Lynch, who made her his lead in Mulholland Drive, that she managed to break that cycle. “He really discovered me in a way that I’d lost track of.” She hasn’t, she says, ever really had to audition for anything since.
“It feels like a SHIFT has happened. Women are now thinking: just get up and do it. Do not WAIT for the phone to ring. Before, you would just sit tight and HOPE. Not anymore”
Watts’ two sons – Sasha, 12, and Samuel Kai, 10, with ex-husband and fellow actor Liev Schreiber – have recently begun to show an interest in drama, and have spent some of this summer at a camp that specializes in performance arts. “Hashtag not my childhood,” laughs Watts. “It seems they’ve got the bug.” Her feelings about that are “definitely mixed”, but, she adds, she and Schreiber, from whom she split in 2016 after 11 years together, have always strived to give their sons a more stable and structured upbringing than their own. “We’re doing things very differently.” I ask if providing that stability and structure has been more challenging since their separation. “I’m pretty proud of us, corny as that may sound,” she says. “We’ve made it our absolute priority to be good and kind to each other and we’re absolutely committed to that.”
Gwyneth Paltrow, Watts’ friend and Hamptons neighbor here in Amagansett, was mocked for her ‘conscious uncoupling’ from Chris Martin back in 2014. “Now that’s what everyone wants to aim for – she was super ahead of the curve,” nods Watts. Paltrow has also been a point of inspiration and support for Watts in her burgeoning ‘clean beauty’ business, Onda, which she founded with two old friends. Though she is not, she says, planning on doing “as much of a pivot” career-wise as Paltrow, Onda has grown from an online-only brand to stores in New York, the Hamptons’ Sag Harbor, Sydney, and, soon, London’s Notting Hill. “If you’re going to spend a lot of time on something, do it with like-minded people,” she notes.
That mantra also holds true for her upcoming film, Penguin Bloom, an adaptation of a real-life story of a family’s near-fatal accident, which Watts has, for the first time, developed herself, along with her friend and fellow Australian Bruna Papandrea, who produced Big Little Lies with Kidman. In a week’s time, Watts will head off to begin filming in Australia. “It feels like a real shift has happened,” she reflects. “Women are now thinking: just get up and do it. Do not wait for the phone to ring. Before, you would just sit tight and hope. Not anymore.”
Career over at 40? Hardly.
The Loudest Voice is airing on Showtime (US). Luce is out now (US) and November 8 (UK)
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