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It's a Road She Knows Well

'Mulholland Dr.' star Naomi Watts has lived the Hollywood metaphor behind the fabled highway.

October 12, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The first time it was just magical and beautiful," actress Naomi Watts recalls of her introduction to Mulholland Drive, that long, windy stretch that traverses the spine of Los Angeles. When she looked down from the hills to the city spread before her, she thought, "it looked all dreamy, like a vast unknown and therefore exciting, but kind of eerie at the same time."

Later the road would become all too familiar--as a means to get somewhere else or maybe to get lost in while suffering career disappointments. "I remember driving along the street many times sobbing my heart out in my car, going, 'What am I doing here?"'

About seven years ago, Watts arrived here armed with Australian optimism, creditable credits and a helpful contact in fellow countrywoman Nicole Kidman--they had worked together in the 1990 film "Flirting." For Watts, Kidman was a role model, the Aussie who conquered Hollywood, and in 1995 her own road to stardom seemed paved when she won a supporting role in "Tank Girl," based on a popular cult comic strip and fueled by a hefty budget. However, the film proved just too fringe and tanked at the box office.

Then in 1999, she won a starring role in "Mulholland Drive," a TV project created by David Lynch. They shot a two-hour pilot, which ABC recoiled at because it was deemed too dark and confusing. The project floated in the netherworld until Studio Canal and French producers Alain Sarde and Pierre Edelman decided to fund Lynch's transformation of the material into a feature film, which opens today.

Not that "Mulholland Dr.," the film, is a shoo-in for box-office blockbuster--like much of the director's work, it is colored by paranoiac fantasies and strewn with loose ends. It is also a compellingly dark fable about how the beautiful dreams that draw hopefuls to Hollywood can turn out to be blistering nightmares. Something Watts can understand.

In the film, Watts plays two roles, polar opposites, both of which reflect the L.A. experience. In part one, she is perky blond Betty who lands at LAX in wide-eyed wonder, a budding young actress ready to conquer Hollywood. At the apartment of her aunt, who is conveniently away, she finds Rita, a sultry brunet amnesiac (Laura Harring). While Betty makes the rounds of auditions--and demonstrates she has real talent--she also valiantly tries to help Rita unravel the mystery of who she is.

In part two, Watts has become Diane, an embittered also-ran in the Hollywood race, overlooked in more ways than one. She's a wretch of a human being, as mired in despair as Betty was flying on the wings of hope.

In Awe of Her Mother's 'Fantasy World' Onstage

There's something in the film that reflects Watts' own coming to terms with Los Angeles. "I think that's what David tries to capture about Mulholland Drive," she says. "It's a road that leads everywhere but nowhere at the same time, and it's twisting and turning in an unpredictable way. In some places, it's just pure beauty, then in other places, it's just barrenness."

There's an offhanded teenage casualness to Watts, who has shown up for lunch in a white T-shirt and baggy jeans with flat sandals. The 31-year-old actress is petite, almost frail and just a little nervous. After a while, her natural expressiveness bubbles up, and she begins to convey the determined clear-mindedness that's allowed her to survive in Tinseltown.

Born in England, Watts moved to Australia when she was 14. Her mother, an actress, was the inspiration for her own career. Once, when she was a young girl, Watts saw her mother onstage.

"I was in awe of seeing this whole fantasy world before my eyes," she says, a mild but distinct Aussie twang coloring her speech. "If I were to be able to be in that world, we'd be closer somehow. When she gave me that little wave, that was a key moment in my life."

Later, when Watts worked as assistant fashion editor at a fashion magazine in Sydney, she began taking acting lessons on the side. It gave her the buzz she'd been missing in her life, and the same time she was giving notice to her office, she auditioned successfully for a part in "Flirting."

After a handful of roles in television and film, she decided to check out Los Angeles. Why? "Because I was naive!" she says, laughing easily. After the disappointment of "Tank Girl," Watts kept going, picking up parts in film and television; last year she was the heroine in the BBC miniseries "The Wyvern Mystery," and she's been working with a friend to develop "Ellie Parker," a film about an actress trying to break into Hollywood, a short section of which screened this year at Sundance.

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