Reporting from New York — To tell the big-screen tale of Valerie Plame, a real-life CIA spy whose covert identity was blown by the White House, director Doug Liman needed a special kind of actress: someone who could build an emotional wall around herself and still convey "a sense that there's a good person inside her."
He was convinced that that actress was Naomi Watts. But after a pre-shoot with Watts and costar Sean Penn last year, Liman called his producer in a panic. "We've got to toughen Naomi up, a.s.a.p.," he told Janet Zucker, "and we don't have much time."
He wasn't sure it was even possible. Plame had been a CIA operative who spent 17 years living a life of secrecy and deception. Watts was, by contrast, a movie star who walked red carpets, was trailed by an adoring entourage and, on top of it all, was breastfeeding a new baby. "She was a little soft," Liman said.
Two days later, the director drove his star to a paramilitary camp run by government contractors in Virginia. Minutes after he left Watts there, an instructor threw her to the ground, bruising her shin. When she cried out in pain, the instructor glared at her. "Don't say 'ow,'" he said slowly, "unless you need to go to the hospital."Over the next two days, Watts was "stripped of everything that cloaked her in specialness," Liman said. "It was kind of a Hail Mary, and nobody was more surprised than me that it actually worked."
The political thriller "Fair Game," opening Nov. 5, revisits one of the more murky episodes in the George W. Bush presidency — the 2003 outing of Valerie Plame Wilson by White House aides trying to discredit her husband Joe Wilson, a former ambassador and vocal administration critic played by Penn.
The blond, blue-eyed spy and her blond, blue-eyed doppelgänger were sitting on a sofa in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria recently, chatting like old friends. Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts first got to know each other in a series of telephone calls before shooting began.
"The roles of a covert CIA officer and a Hollywood actor don't collide frequently, and I was very nervous" about meeting her, Watts said. "It's not often that I get star-struck but, meeting Valerie, I was definitely very impressed."
For Plame, "I was getting this peek behind the Hollywood curtain and … there's a lot of…"
"Go ahead, say it," Watts interjected, laughing.
"… a lot of strange behavior," Plame said, smiling. "It's not my world of briefings and PowerPoints. But Naomi was so professional, and that just got my respect from the get-go. We just clicked."
After several telephone conversations, they met over a dinner at Il Buco in New York. ("The wine was helpful," Plame said.) Watts said she wanted to know "all the stories about the CIA and the secrets." But she learned that Plame, even four years after leaving the CIA, was still bound by the agency's secrecy rules, "so I thought, 'OK, that's not going to happen.'"
That led them into rich personal territory, where both felt more comfortable. "At the end of the day, we're both working mothers, and we really liked each other," Plame said.
A scandal revisited
"Fair Game" resurrects a question that will be debated for years: Were the warnings about Iraq's supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction an intelligence failure or a fraud perpetrated by the White House? But the film, based on Valerie and Joe Wilson's memoirs, is aimed at another question: What happens to a Washington couple with two small children when they become the center of a political firestorm?
Plame was one of the CIA's brightest agents, graduating at the top of her class at the Farm, the CIA's secret training facility. She worked as a covert agent in Athens and later went deeper undercover, as an operative with "non-official cover," meaning she had a fake, private-sector identity and no diplomatic protection if captured.
She eventually returned to CIA headquarters and, shortly after 9/11, became chief of operations for the Iraqi branch of the Counterproliferation Division, running agents collecting information on Iraq's WMD programs. When Vice President Dick Cheney's office asked the CIA to investigate British intelligence reports that Niger was selling uranium to Iraq, a CIA colleague suggested that Plame's husband, a retired diplomat who previously had postings in both Iraq and Niger, be dispatched to look into it.
Although Joe Wilson's report concluded there was no evidence of a uranium sale, Bush and other administration officials continued to publicly cite the sale as a fact. In July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times describing his findings, under the headline "What I Didn't Find in Africa."