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Free of 'nots' and 'toos'

Not enough of this? Too much of that? Naomi Watts has overcome Hollywood's reasons to reject her and enjoys being a star.

November 30, 2003|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

"Too intense." "Too desperate." "Not funny." "Not sexy." "Too old." "Too young."

For a decade Hollywood kept telling Naomi Watts that she didn't have the right stuff. And it hurt. "When you hear such comments made about yourself," she says today, "you start believing them. You start seeing them as the truth. You become so afraid of being any one of those things that you become nothing."

Except Watts became everything.

Now the British-born, Australian-bred actress who once told an interviewer that "not having to do an audition is the meaning of success for me" is working happily at the top of the business that shunned her and enjoying a newfound status as a character actress turned star. Big, bold new filmmakers such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David O. Russell and Marc Forster want to collaborate with her.

And while her face now may be on magazine covers and the red carpet unfurls at her feet, all that time she spent auditioning, failing and pulling herself back up again is inextricably contained within Watts' acting repertoire.

It was fateful, and fitting, that in David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr.," the film that awoke the world to her gifts, she played both sides of the eternal Hollywood archetype -- the aspiring actress. Her dual roles as Diane, a broken woman wilting at the periphery of the dream factory, and Betty, her high-spirited, hopeful alter ego, turned the 2001 movie into a critical and cult favorite.

The impossibly dreamy and elliptic nature of that film showcased Watts' chameleon skills, as does her most recent role in "21 Grams," the English-language debut of rising Mexican director Inarritu, which opened this month to mixed reviews (though raves for the performances of Watts, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro).

The title comes from the amount of body weight supposedly lost at the time of death; the story traces how the fates of three families grow entwined in the aftermath of an accident involving the husband and young daughters of Watts' character. Even against the lyrical hyper-realism of the film, her performance as a grieving mother and wife rings ferociously true. And it spans a frenetic range: On Watts' pale complexion, the still mask of desperation melts naturally into a scowl of pain or a flare of vengeful rage, often within the same scene.

"She has these skills and this organic emotion that she manages like a theater actor," Inarritu says. "She's well-rounded, and not all film actors are like that. Some get used to a beat-by-beat kind of approach. She can do that, but she can also do one 10-minute scene with no cut, going from one place to another. With her, people get that full impact because it's real."

She is as much at home in the skin of an American poet jilted by her Parisian husband in last summer's "Le Divorce" as she is playing an inquisitive journalist in the 2002 horror film "The Ring." The box-office success of the latter must taste sweet after her previous turn in 1996's "Children of the Corn IV." "Listen, back in that day I didn't have much choice, but I was happy to work," she says now. "I always believed that work begets work. It wasn't an A-class picture, but it was a job."

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Confidence gained

During a recent interview on the verdant patio of a Sunset Strip hotel, it is abundantly clear that Watts' years of shuffling at the gates of Hollywood are behind her.

Having just turned 35, she is radiant, confident -- her own woman -- even though she giggles occasionally and she sometimes toys nervously with the fringes of her scarf. Her delicate features, corn-silk hair and sincere blue eyes invoke the charms of an English rose -- albeit a resilient one.

"She has worked a lot, went through many rough times," Inarritu notes. "She knows the source of pain."

With acting ambitions passed on from her amateur-thespian mother, Watts tried commercial acting and modeling and eventually found her way into the movies in her teens. Among the first entries on her resume is a sweet film called "Flirting." The 1991 coming-of-age tale set in a boarding school was a modest cult hit, which also launched the careers of Thandie Newton and fellow Aussie actress Nicole Kidman.

Afterward, success at home was swift. "I worked," Watts says in her faint Australian accent, "but there, you're lucky if you do it more than once a year, and you're lucky if you make $15,000."

So at 22 the actress came to test the waters of Hollywood, where her longtime friend Kidman was rapidly rising and Australian actors had begun to be seen as intriguing commodities. But the encouraging feedback Watts got upon arrival scattered away soon into empty promise. She pushed onward, and for four years she skipped back and forth between television and movie projects in the U.S. and Britain.

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