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Naomi Watts Bio
Naomi Watts (born 28 September 1968) is a British actress. She made her screen debut in the Australian drama film For Love Alone (1986) and then appeared in the television series Hey Dad..! (1990), Brides of Christ (1991) and Home and Away (1991) and alongside Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton in the coming-of-age comedy-drama film Flirting (1991). After moving to America, Watts appeared in films, including Tank Girl (1995), Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996) and Dangerous Beauty (1998) and had the lead role in the television series Sleepwalkers (1997–1998).
After years as a struggling actress, Watts came to attention in David Lynch‘s psychological thriller Mulholland Drive (2001). The following year she enjoyed box-office success with The Ring (2002), the remake of a successful Japanese horror film. She then received nominations at the Academy Awards and the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards in the Best Actress categories for her portrayal of Cristina Peck in Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s neo-noir 21 Grams (2003). Her subsequent films include David O. Russell‘s comedy I Heart Huckabees (2004), the 2005 remake of King Kong, the crime-thriller Eastern Promises (2007) and the Tom Tykwer-directed thriller The International (2009). Since then, Watts has portrayed Valerie Plame Wilson in the biographical drama Fair Game (2010) and Helen Gandy in Clint Eastwood‘s biographical drama J. Edgar (2011). For her leading role as Maria Bennett in the disaster film The Impossible (2012), she received second nominations for the Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress and a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.
In 2002, Watts was included in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People. In 2006, she became a goodwill ambassador for Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, which helps to raise awareness of AIDS-related issues. She has participated in several fundraisers for the cause, and she is presented as an inaugural member of AIDS Red Ribbon Awards.
1986–2000: Early work and struggling career
Watts’ career began in television, where she made brief appearances in commercials. The 1986 film For Love Alone, set in the 1930s and based on Christina Stead‘s 1945 best-selling novel of the same name, marked her debut in film. She then appeared in two episodes of the fourth season of the Australian sitcom Hey Dad..! in 1990. After a five-year absence from films, Watts met director John Duigan during the 1989 premiere of her friend Nicole Kidman’s film Dead Calm and he invited her to take a supporting role in his 1991 indie film Flirting. She starred opposite future Hollywood up-and-comers Kidman and Thandie Newton. The film received critical acclaim and was featured on Roger Ebert‘s list of the 10 best films of 1992. Also in 1991, she took the part of Frances Heffernan, a girl who struggles to find friends behind the walls of a Sydney Catholic school, in the award winning mini-series Brides of Christ and had a recurring role in the soap opera Home and Away as the handicapped Julie Gibson. Watts was then offered a role in the drama series A Country Practice but turned it down, not wanting to “get stuck on a soap for two or three years”, a decision she later called “naïve”.
Watts then took a year off to travel, visiting Los Angeles and being introduced to agents through Kidman. Encouraged, Watts decided to move to America, to pursue her career further. In 1993 she had a small role in the John Goodman film Matinee and temporarily returned to Australia to star in three Australian films: another of Duigan’s pictures, Wide Sargasso Sea; the drama The Custodian; and had her first leading role in the film Gross Misconduct, as a student who accuses one of her teachers (played by Jimmy Smits) of raping her. Watts then moved back to America for good but the difficulty of finding agents, producers and directors willing to hire her during that period frustrated her initial efforts. Though her financial situation never led her to taking a job out of the film industry, she experienced problems like being unable to pay the rent of her apartment and losing her medical insurance. “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.”
“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.”
She then won a supporting role in the futuristic 1995 film Tank Girl, winning the role of “Jet Girl” after nine auditions. While the film was met with mixed reviews, it flopped at the box office, although it has gone on to become something of a cult classic. Throughout the rest of the decade, she took mostly supporting roles in films and occasionally considered leaving the business, but: “there were always little bites. Whenever I felt I was at the end of my rope, something would come up. Something bad. But for me it was ‘work begets work’; that was my motto.” In 1996, she starred alongside Joe Mantegna, Kelly Lynch and J.T. Walsh in George Hickenlooper‘s action-thriller Persons Unknown; alongside James Earl Jones, Kevin Kilner and Ellen Burstyn in the period drama Timepiece; in Bermuda Triangle, a TV pilot that was not picked up for a full series, where she played a former documentary filmmaker who disappears in the Bermuda Triangle; and as the lead role in Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering, in which children in a small town become possessed under the command of a wrongfully murdered child preacher.
In 1997, she starred in the Australian ensemble romantic drama Under the Lighthouse Dancing and also played the lead role in the short-lived television series Sleepwalkers. In 1998, she starred alongside Neil Patrick Harris and Debbie Reynolds in the TV film The Christmas Wish, played the supporting role of Giulia De Lezze in Dangerous Beauty, and provided some voice work for Babe: Pig in the City. She said in an interview in 2012, “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. 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. But I was one in a hundred, so I’m sure you would never be able to identify my voice. I probably couldn’t either!” In 1999, she played Alice in the romantic comedy Strange Planet and the Texan student Holly Maddux in The Hunt for the Unicorn Killer, which was based on the real life effort to capture Ira Einhorn, who was charged with Maddux’s murder. In 2000, while David Lynch was expanding the rejected pilot of Mulholland Drive into a feature film, Watts starred alongside Derek Jacobi, Jack Davenport and Iain Glen in the BBC TV film The Wyvern Mystery, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Sheridan Le Fanu that was broadcast in March of that year.
Much of her early career is filled with near misses in casting, as she was up for significant roles in films such as 1997’s The Postman and The Devil’s Advocate and 2000’s Meet the Parents, which eventually went to other actresses. In an interview in 2012, Watts said, “I came to New York and auditioned at least five times for Meet the Parents. I think the director liked me but the studio didn’t. I heard every piece of feedback you could imagine, and in this case, it was ‘not sexy enough’.” Watts recalled her early career in an interview in 2002, saying, “It is a tough town. I think my spirit has taken a beating. The most painful thing has been the endless auditions. Knowing that you have something to offer, but not being able to show it, is so frustrating. As an unknown, you get treated badly. I auditioned and waited for things I did not have any belief in, but I needed the work and had to accept horrendous pieces of shit.” Watts studied the Meisner Technique.
2001–2002: Breakthrough with Mulholland Drive
In 1999, director David Lynch began casting for his psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. He interviewed Watts after looking at her headshot, without having seen any of her previous work, and offered her the lead role. Lynch later said about his selection of Watts, “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.” Conceived as a pilot for a television series, Lynch shot a large portion of it in February 1999, planning to keep it open-ended for a potential series. However, the pilot was rejected. Watts recalled thinking at the time, “just my dumb luck, that I’m in the only David Lynch programme that never sees the light of day.” Instead, Lynch filmed an ending in October 2000, turning it into a feature film which was picked up for distribution.
The film, which also starred Laura Harring and Justin Theroux, was highly acclaimed by critics and would become Watts’ breakthrough. She was praised by critics, including Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, who said, “Watts’s face metamorphoses miraculously from fresh-faced beauty to a frenzied, teary scowl of ugliness.” and Emanuel Levy, who wrote, “… Naomi Watts, in a brilliant performance, a young, wide-eyed and grotesquely cheerful blonde, full of high hopes to make it big in Hollywood.” The film premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and received a large number of awards and nominations, including the Best Actress Award for Watts from the National Society of Film Critics and a nomination for Best Actress from the American Film Institute. The surrealist film following the story of the aspiring actress Betty Elms, played by Watts, attracted controversy with its strong lesbian theme.
Also in 2001, she starred in two short films, Never Date an Actress and Ellie Parker, and the horror film The Shaft, director Dick Maas‘ remake of his 1983 film De Lift. In 2002, she starred in one of the biggest box office hits of that year, The Ring, the English language remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu. Directed by Gore Verbinski, the film, which also starred Martin Henderson and Brian Cox, received favourable reviews and grossed around US$129 million domestically (equivalent to US$169.1 million in 2015). Watts portrayed Rachel Keller, a journalist investigating the strange deaths of her niece and other teenagers after watching a mysterious videotape, and receiving a phone call announcing their deaths in seven days. Her performance was praised by critics, including Paul Clinton of CNN.com, who stated that she “is excellent in this leading role, which proves that her stellar performance in Mulholland Drive was not a fluke. She strikes a perfect balance between scepticism and the slow realisation of the truth in regard to the deadly power of the videotape.” That year, she also starred in Rabbits, a series of short films directed by David Lynch; alongside several other famous British actors in the black comedy Plots with a View; and with Tim Daly in the western The Outsider.
2003–2007: Critical acclaim and commercial success
“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 following year, she took the part of Julia Cook in Gregor Jordan‘s Australian film Ned Kelly opposite Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush; as well as starring in the Merchant-Ivory film Le Divorce, portraying Roxeanne de Persand, a poet who is abandoned by her husband Charles-Henri de Persand at the time she is pregnant. Roxeanne and her sister Isabel (Kate Hudson) dispute the ownership of a painting by Georges de La Tour with the family of Henri’s lover. Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and lamented Watts’ performance: “I’m disappointed to report that Hudson and Watts have no chemistry as sisters, perhaps because Watts never seems like the expatriate artiste she’s supposed to be playing”.
Conversely, her performance opposite Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro in director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2003 drama 21 Grams earned Watts an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress later that year. In the story, told in a non-lineal manner, she portrayed Cristina Peck, a grief-stricken woman living a suburban life after the killing of her husband and two children by Jack Jordan (Benicio del Toro), who started a relationship with the critically ill academic mathematician Paul Rivers (Sean Penn). She said of the nomination, “It’s far beyond what I ever dreamed for – that would have been too far fetched”. She also was nominated for Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, as well as many other nominations and acclaim. The New York Times praised her: “Because Ms. Watts reinvents herself with each performance, it’s easy to forget how brilliant she is. She has a boldness that comes from a lack of overemphasis, something actresses sometimes do to keep up with Mr. Penn”. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Watts is riveting, but she’s much better in scenes of extreme emotion than in those requiring subtlety.”
She then starred alongside Mark Ruffalo in the 2004 independent film We Don’t Live Here Anymore. The film is a drama which was based on the short stories We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Adultery by Andre Dubus, and depicts the crisis of two married couples. She reunited with Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which was set in 1974. She played Marie Andersen Bicke, the wife of the would-be presidential assassin Samuel Byck (Penn). Finally in 2004, she teamed up with Jude Law and Dustin Hoffman in David O. Russell‘s ensemble comedy I Heart Huckabees. Watts next starred and co-produced with director/screenwriter Scott Coffey her film, the semi-autobiographical drama Ellie Parker (2005), which depicted the struggle of an Australian actress in Hollywood. The film began as a short film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and was expanded into a feature-length production over the next four years. Film critic Roger Ebert praised Watts’ performance: “The character is played by Watts with courage, fearless observation and a gift for timing that is so uncanny it can make points all by itself.”
Watts returned in the lead role in the sequel to The Ring, The Ring Two. The film received several negative reviews, but was a major success at the box office, with an over US$161 million worldwide gross (equivalent to US$194.4 million in 2015) and Watts was once again praised for her performance. Her third film of the year was Marc Forster‘s psychological thriller Stay. Written by David Benioff, it also starred Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling and Bob Hoskins. Watts then starred in the 2005 remake of King Kong as Ann Darrow. Watts was the first choice for the role, portrayed by Fay Wray in the original film, with no other actors considered. In preparation for her role, Watts met with Wray, who was to make a cameo appearance and say the final line of dialogue, but she died during pre-production at the age of 96. King Kong proved to be Watts’ most commercially successful film yet. Helmed by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, the film won high praise and grossed US$550 million worldwide (equivalent to US$664.1 million in 2015). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer praised her performance: “The third act becomes a star-crossed, “Beauty and the Beast” parable far more operatic and tragic than anything the original filmmakers could have imagined, exquisitely pantomimed by Watts with a poignancy and passion that rates Oscar consideration.”
Her next film was The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber. Watts played Kitty Garstin, the daughter of a lawyer, who marries Walter Fane (Norton) for his reputation as a physician and bacteriologist. The film centres on the relationship of the couple at the time they move to China, where Fane is stationed to study infectious diseases. Comparing her portrayal with Greta Garbo‘s in the original movie, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote “Watts makes the role work on her own terms – her Kitty is more desperate, more foolish, more miserable and more driven … and her spiritual journey is greater. For her only other film of that year, she provided the voice of a small role, Suzie Rabbit, in David Lynch’s psychological thriller film Inland Empire. Also that year, she was announced as the new face of the jewellers David Yurman and completed a photoshoot which was featured in the 2007 Pirelli Calendar.
She later appeared in David Cronenberg‘s crime thriller Eastern Promises with Viggo Mortensen, which premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, to critical acclaim. As the movie, Watts also generated positive feedback among critics; Slate magazine remarked in its review that she “brings a wounded radiance to the overcurious midwife Anna. Though it’s a bit of a one-note role, it’s a note she’s long specialised in, a kind of flustered moral aggrievement”. Eastern Promises grossed US$56 million worldwide, (equivalent to US$67.6 million in 2015). In 2007, Variety reported that Watts and George Clooney would star in the remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1963 film The Birds, which would be directed by Casino Royale director Martin Campbell. On 16 June 2009, Brad Fuller of Dimension Films stated that no further developments had taken place, commenting, “We keep trying, but I don’t know.” Martin Campbell was eventually replaced as director by Dennis Iliadis in December 2009. In an interview in December 2010, Watts said, “It sounded like a good idea, but the script’s not there yet. I’d love to have been a Hitchcock blonde. A few directors I’ve worked with have been heavily influenced by Hitchcock, so I feel like I’ve gotten close.”
She appeared with Tim Roth in Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games (2007), a remake of Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name that opened at the London Film Festival. The director said that he agreed to make the film on condition that he be allowed to cast Watts, according to UK’s The Daily Telegraph. In the picture, she portrayed Ann Farber, who with her husband and son are held hostage by a pair of sociopathic teenagers. Watts also served as a producer, as this charge was for her “one way to spice up the deal and be involved in all the creative decisions”. The movie generated mixed reviews and received a limited theatrical release in the United States, grossing $7 million, on a $15 million budget. Newsweek felt that Watts “hurls herself into her physically demanding role with heroic conviction”. David Stratton, from At the Movies concluded that she was “as usual, really fine”. However, New York Daily News criticised her part for being half-naked throughout most of her appearance, considering that it was “an awfully strange way to make a righteous point about exploitation”.
2009–2013: Independent film territory
After a short hiatus from acting following the birth of her two children, Watts returned to acting in 2009, starring alongside Clive Owen in the political thriller The International. She played a Manhattan assistant district attorney who partners with an Interpol agent to take down the titular bank. During an interview, Watts commented on her role: “She was operating in this fast-moving world and was a great bouncing board for her colleague, Salinger, but also trying to balance that with motherhood as well, and I think I definitely relate to that now and hopefully other career mothers will too.” The International was well received by critics, and grossed over US$60 million (equivalent to $66 million in 2015) worldwide. The same year, she appeared in the American drama Mother and Child, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. She portrayed the role of Elizabeth, a lawyer who never knew her biological mother. Watts co-starred the film along with Annette Bening, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Mother and Child received several favourable reviews, and Watts’ performance was praised by Tom Long of Detroit News, who stated that she “has the ability to make such a ragged transition somehow work.” She was nominated for the Best Actress award at the Australian Film Institute Awards and was also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the category of Best Supporting Female.
Her next film, the Woody Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, opened at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival on 15 May 2010. She portrayed Sally, a woman who has a troubled marriage with author Roy, played by Josh Brolin. Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch and Anthony Hopkins also co-starred in the film, which received mixed reviews from critics and grossed over US$26 million (equivalent to $28.1 million in 2015). Also in 2010, she starred as Valerie Plame in the film Fair Game, which opened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, and was later released in the United States on 5 November 2010. Based on Plame’s memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, it also marked the third pairing of Watts with Sean Penn after 21 Grams and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Watts was nominated for the Satellite Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film. Boxoffice magazine wrote: “Watts doesn’t get the big emotional scenes that have characterised much of her past work, instead she plays Valerie as a woman suddenly in a corner when her identity goes public. It’s brilliantly understated and admirable work.” In July of that year, she was announced as the new face of clothing retailer Ann Taylor.
In January 2010, she was cast in the thriller film Dream House, which was released in September 2011. Directed by Jim Sheridan, Watts starred in the film along with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. In October 2010, it was announced that Watts had landed the role of Marilyn Monroe in the film Blonde, which was set to start shooting in January 2011, but has been delayed. In early 2011, Watts was cast in Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the starring role. Watts played Edgar’s secretary Helen Gandy. The film was released in December that year, to generally mixed reviews and modest earnings at the box office, with a $84 million worldwide gross over a production budget of $35 million. About Watts’ performance, The Hollywood Reporter remarked that she “has little opportunity to express much beyond dogged loyalty” and while Los Angeles Times called her “talented”, it also noted that her part was a “thankless one” for the actress.
In 2012, Watts starred in The Impossible, a disaster drama based on the true story of María Belón and her family’s experience of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, with Watts playing the lead role. The film received very positive reviews, with critics praising Watts’ performance. Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter said that “Watts packs a huge charge of emotion as the battered, ever-weakening Maria whose tears of pain and fear never appear fake or idealised.” Justin Chang of Variety magazine noted that “Watts has few equals at conveying physical and emotional extremis, something she again demonstrates in a mostly bedridden role.” Damon Wise of The Guardian said that “Watts is both brave and vulnerable, and her scenes with the young Lucas … are among the film’s best.” Watts went on to be nominated for the Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress.
Her first film role in 2013 was in the Australian drama Adore, that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as Two Mothers. The film opened in selected cinemas, receiving mixed feedback from critics, who concluded that Watts and Robin Wright “give it their all, but they can’t quite make Adore’s trashy, absurd plot believable”. Her next role was with Matt Dillon in Laurie Collyer‘s indie Sunlight Jr., which was first screened at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Reviewers expressed a warm reception for the film and Watts’ performance; AM New York wrote that the film ‘”belongs to Naomi Watts, playing a woman who retains her dignity in spite of endless difficulties. It’s work done between the lines, in the silent moments”. San Francisco Chronicle praised the actress and co-star Dillon, stating that they are “formidable actors at the top of their game here and exhibiting a remarkable chemistry”. She starred as Diana, Princess of Wales in director Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s Diana, a biographical drama film, about the last two years of the life of Princess Diana. A box office bomb, the feature received moslty negative reviews, although Watts was acclaimed by a number of critics. Her part was called “extraordinary” and “impressive” by Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Jim Schembri (3AW), respectively. Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily also gave Watts a positive veredict, writing that her “brave performance should not be under-estimated given the poverty of the dialogue and the pressure of the part”.
2014–present: Comedy and dramatic balance
She then appeared in the 2014 comedy-drama St. Vincent, opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. The film was released in limited release to a positive critical reception and box office success, with a gross of $43 million over its budget of $13 million. Los Angeles Times reported a dividing reaction towards Watts’ role, asserting that the part “has put off some critics with its outrageousness”, but has “earned plenty of plaudits too”. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that she was “salvaging a role conceived in cliché”. Austin Chronicle noted that although she has not always “scored well” in comedy, she is “quite funny” in the movie. Watts played a “Hollywood-turned-stage actress who provides a foil to pretentious on-screen partner Edward Norton” in Birdman, the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2014. It filmed in 2013 but released a week after St. Vincent. Watts and the film attracted favourable reviews, with CinemaBlend saying that she and co-star Norton shared an “explosive chemistry as warring co-stars/lovers”. San Francisco Chronicle also expressed approval of Watts’ portrayal, calling her “poignant and funny”. Watts and the cast received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
She will also appear in filmmaker Gracie Otto‘s upcoming documentary film Chalky about British film and theatre producer Michael White, who is a close friend of Watts’. Watts played rebel leader Evelyn Johnson-Eaton in the sequel The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015). The film was a commercial success, grossing $274.5 million worldwide, but received mainly mixed reviews from critics. On 4 August 2014, it was announced that Watts would reprise her role for the series’ final two installments: The Divergent Series: Allegiant – Part 1 will be released on 18 March 2016, while Part 2 will be released on 24 March 2017. Watts then starred in Gus Van Sant’s mystery drama The Sea of Trees, opposite Matthew McConaughey. The film premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d’Or. The film was heavily panned by both critics and audiences, who reportedly booed and laughed during its screening. Critic Richard Mowe stated the audience reaction should “give the film’s creative team pause for reflection about exactly where they went so badly awry.” Justin Chang of Variety also criticised the film, but commended Watts’ performance for being “solidly moving and sometimes awesomely passive-aggressive.”