By David Hochman | February 29, 2016 | People
The high-voltage, up-down-and-durable star of this spring's super-movie sequel The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Naomi Watts has been kicking butts on-screen—and off—for 25 years. And winning.
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It is one of those frigid New York City mornings when you can practically breathe icicles and the only sane place to be is by the fire with a mug of hot cocoa. Naomi Watts is undaunted. She and her two young boys—Sasha, 7, and Kai, 6, the little blondies from her 11-year relationship with actor Liev Schreiber—are braving the elements like an intrepid band of Arctic explorers: Parkas with fur collars, wool beanies down around the eyebrows, scarves over turtlenecks over base layers. The trials urbanites must endure for an outing to Whole Foods!
Watts looks relaxed and happy even as a paparazzi photographer trails them back to their Tribeca apartment. The actress has not had much time lately for routine errands. Between this year and last, her name has appeared on eight different movies, including some of the most acclaimed projects of her career. Birdman, While We’re Young, and St. Vincent were fêted by critics and honored on the awards circuit, and Watts is now a full-fledged sci-fi icon as well.
As the abused wife turned rebellion leader in the popular Divergent series, Watts returns for a second time as the butt-kicking antagonist, Evelyn Eaton, in Allegiant (scheduled for release on March 18). The actress joined the massively popular franchise, based on the YA novels by Veronica Roth, after killing off Kate Winslet’s character in last spring’s Insurgent. “We needed someone who could play brittle and damaged on the outside and yet carry immense power under the surface, and Naomi delivers that magical mix and makes it look effortless,” says Doug Wick, the series co-producer. “She’s also someone who’s just, you know, great to hang out and gossip with.”
The part is a departure for Watts, who at this stage in her career had not quite pictured herself heading a rat-a-tat army in a dystopian walled-in version of Chicago. “It’s something of a stretch but in terms of character, Evelyn is someone I can appreciate,” Watts says. “She is a survivor and she’s made the most of her experience despite a bunch of twists and setbacks.”
At 47, Watts gets major points herself for endurance. She struggled for years to find steady footing in Hollywood after a childhood that she describes as “less than consistent.” Born in seaside Shoreham, England, and reared there and in Wales, Watts was 4 when her mom, an antiques dealer and designer, split from her dad, a road manager and sound engineer for Pink Floyd. Peter Watts, whose voice and manic laughter can be heard in the background on the album Dark Side of the Moon, died of an apparent heroin overdose when Naomi was just 7. “I wish I could say otherwise but I don’t have any clear memories of my father,” Watts says. (The rock gene lives on nevertheless. Watts recently posted a shot of herself backstage with David Bowie to mark the singer’s passing in January.)
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Watts and her older brother, Ben, a photographer who lives near her in Manhattan, relocated to Australia with their mother and stepdad when Naomi was 14. “Mum was young and did not have much of a plan,” Watts says. “I think there’s a combination of grit and perseverance and tricking yourself into believing things are okay even if you’re not getting the results you want—that’s what I learned from her. Even if you’re being batted around, you keep going. It’s basic human determination.”
Watts caught the acting bug after seeing the movie Fame at a young age, and took drama classes in Australia before heading off to Japan for a modeling stint in her late teens. Success was spotty at first. She landed a part in an Australian romance, For Love Alone, in 1986, but the roles that followed were of the type that now makes for amusing late-night YouTube viewing. When she was around 18, Watts, wearing ’80s hair bows and shoulder pads, shot a Tampax commercial for Australian TV. But even that was a bridge to somewhere. “I was fresh out of school and wasn’t thinking, This is so humiliating,” she says. “I was thinking, Fantastic! A paycheck. Now I can buy a Mini Cooper and drive myself to auditions rather than taking three buses and a train.”
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In one of her acting classes, Watts met another rising talent who would soon burst onto the global stage and help open doors for her. Nicole Kidman was a friend and early mentor and the name above the marquee in Flirting, the 1991 boarding school romance that was Watts’s first real break in Hollywood. “Nic was incredibly generous in introducing me to people and showing me that an Aussie girl from around the corner can make it big,” Watts says.
But as Kidman continued to soar with blockbusters like Far and Away and Batman Forever, Watts, who was now living full-time in LA, scraped the barrel with gigs like the TV movie Bermuda Triangle and the straight-to-video train wreck Children of the Corn IV. She recalls that period as a time spent “driving 45 minutes deep into the San Fernando Valley to wait as six actors auditioned before me, only to have to sit in two more hours of traffic on the 405 freeway coming home.” None of it made Watts give up. “I would play mental games with myself,” she says. “Rather than dwell on why I didn’t have this role or that opportunity, I would say, ‘Well, I do have a SAG card and I do have an agent and I am perfectly fine until the right something comes along.’”
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That something would be Mulholland Drive. Even after more than a decade in the business, Watts was an unknown in David Lynch’s 2001 noir mystery. She plays a wide-eyed Midwestern starlet new to LA who puts aside her dreams of fame to help an amnesiac woman figure out her true identity. Major surrealism ensues. There are torrid lesbian scenes, a frightening cowboy, and a miniature elderly couple that comes crawling out of a mysterious box. Moviegoers went “Huh?” but the film became an instant cult classic. Agents started chasing Watts down with scripts. Big directors wanted to meet her. Children of the Corn V would have to wait.
Watts received her first Academy Award nomination two years later as a recovering drug addict struggling to live a normal suburban existence in 21 Grams. She followed that with standout performances in the offbeat comedy I Heart Huckabees and opposite Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Watts played muse to Hollywood’s most famous gorilla in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake and earned another Oscar nod for 2012’s The Impossible, based on a true story about a mother swept up by the 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand. Horror fans loved her in the sleeper hit The Ring and its sequel.
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“Even if you feel completely connected to the material it often doesn’t go the way you think it will,” Watts says. “It’s no different than anything else in life. You can’t calculate how things will turn out. All you can do is try to have fun, push yourself to do well, be with people you love being with, and stay in the moment. The rest is basically out of your hands.”
Back inside her warm apartment, Watts is enjoying a rare hiatus from early call times and long days on location. She was up early to meditate, then fixed breakfast for the kids, caught up on phone calls, and may sneak in a workout before turning to a couple scripts her agent wants her to consider. Watts is on the board of the New York Academy of Art and for a decade has been a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for a program helping to raise awareness of AIDS issues. Still, her schedule today is blissfully open. “My biggest challenge,” she says, “might be figuring out whether to read the boys one of the Narnia books or Harry Potter.”
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Watts and Schreiber try as much as possible not to be working at the same time so that one of them can focus on parenthood exclusively. They never married, but they have vowed to keep things as stable as possible for Sasha and Kai. Watts recently purchased a large-scale painting by British artist Harland Miller. It is part of a series in which he re-imagines covers of vintage Penguin books. This one is a made-up volume titled Love Stretch Me No Longer in This Rough World. Those words hit a chord the minute Watts saw the piece in the gallery, she says. Before she and Schreiber got together, Watts dated Heath Ledger for several years. Asked if coupling is harder when both people are well-known, Watts does not hesitate. “Relationships are hard whether you’re famous or not,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have to work on it. Being an actor doesn’t change anything. I’m sure it’s the same if you’re a doctor or a couple of lawyers. You have high-pressure jobs, lots of hours, stresses that come at you unexpectedly—and you have to figure out how to be present in the midst of it all.”
Watts knows her kids are about to burst through the door and make the day all about mommy time, which is more than fine with her. Her schedule is about to go bonkers again. Watts costars with Schreiber later this year in The Bleeder about the life of heavyweight fighter Chuck Wepner (the film shot in New York so both actors could be at home). In June, she appears opposite Oliver Platt in the psychological thriller Shut-In. She recently wrapped production on The Book of Henry, a crime drama about a precocious boy who falls for the daughter of the New York City police commissioner. Watts plays the boy’s single mom. She also has another Divergent installment ahead—Ascendant hits theaters in 2017.
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Watts is reluctant to say this is the culmination of everything she struggled to achieve on those drives out to the Valley. “This isn’t the life I imagined,” she says. “In many ways, it’s far, far better, and yet I look at what’s possible—I mean, look at Frances McDormand or Helen Mirren or, come on, Meryl Streep—and I go, ‘Okay, there’s still a lot of room to grow and improve.’”
The trick is to do that and still appreciate what you have. When Watts was making King Kong in the early 2000s, she paid a visit to Fay Wray, the legendary star of the original 1933 film. Watts and Peter Jackson and a few others crammed into Wray’s tiny book-lined apartment on New York’s Upper West Side as Wray, who was in her 90s and near the end of her life, told story after story about a career that spanned 57 years.
“Something beautiful happened near the end,” Watts says, her voice growing soft. “She leaned over and whispered in my ear. The specific words are a blur now but the feeling was that she was passing the baton. It wasn’t from her to me specifically but more like her generation making room for a new one. ‘It’s your turn. It’s your moment.’ Since then, I always think, you have to be awake to that.”
photography by WARWICK SAINT. Styling by Jeanann Williams at The Wall Group Prop and set design by Kerry Reardon at RayBrownPro.com. Furniture and props from PrettyProps.com. Flowers by L’Atelier Rouge. Hair by Chris McMillan for Living Proof at Solo Artists. Makeup by Tyron Machhausen at The Wall Group Manicure by Chanel. celebrity manicurist Gina Viviano using Chanel Le Vernis