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The Contenders: A world through Naomi Watts' eyes

In 'The Impossible,' the actress was expected to convey a range of complex emotions, with little dialogue. But she was a 'wild beast,' the director says admiringly.

November 15, 2012|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Naomi Watts had to express much of her character in "The Impossible" wordlessly.
Actress Naomi Watts had to express much of her character in "The Impossible"… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Like many mothers, Naomi Watts is often unsure about her child-rearing decisions. With two young boys, the British actress constantly fears for their safety. Falling down stairs, choking or becoming separated on a New York City subway are just a few dangers she's currently fretting about. And don't expect her to rise to the occasion should an emergency occur. She's the first to admit she has trouble dialing a phone when a crisis arises.

So it was with great uncertainty that she took on the role of Maria, the brave, and very lucky, mother in "The Impossible," the upcoming film from Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona that chronicles one family's horrific experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Despite a grave injury, the character, based on the real-life Maria Belon, was confident and sure-footed, able to display great courage in getting herself and her oldest son to safety while unsure of the fate of her husband and her two youngest boys.

Watts spent a good amount of time with Belon to better understand her mind-set and determination. She had a lot of questions.

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"I'm the most self-doubting, second-guessing human on the planet," acknowledged Watts in a recent interview. "But Maria said she never felt more centered. Every decision she made felt like it had to be the right one. I crave that."

To play a woman struggling to survive the wreckage, Watts spent hours getting tossed around in a massive water tank in Spain and days confined to a hospital bed. She probably had no more than two pages of lines, she said, yet the range of emotions she was meant to convey throughout the film was vast.

Not the least among them, working with costar Ewan McGregor and the three young actors who played their sons to establish a real familial relationship with only six minutes of screen time before the giant wave hits.

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But nothing, according to Bayona, seemed too difficult for the 44-year-old British actress.

"Naomi, she's a beast. A wild beast. In Spain, actors like Javier Bardem, we call them beasts," said Bayona, using the term as the utmost compliment. "She loves to go to dark places, to go to that suffering. And she loves for the director to put her there, to push her. No matter how much I pushed her, she was always happy about it."

Even Bayona's spontaneous decisions asked a lot of his lead actress. Agonizing over how to best convey Belon's attachment to the man who brought her to the hospital after she and her son reached dry land — which the woman had detailed to Bayona in a four-page email — the Spanish director concocted a quick shoot in which the cinematographer would focus solely on Watts' eyes while she expressed those emotions.

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Bayona put Watts on the ground, turned on some soaring music, called "action" and let the camera run for the entire seven-minute piece of music. "I wanted to give the audience the ability to see what she's going through," said Bayona. "It was a way to put that four-page email into that shot. You can see it all in her eyes."

"The Impossible," which required the cast to spend close to four months in Thailand, proved to be much more than a movie to Watts, who brought her boys with her for the duration of the shoot, forming their own makeshift family with the other cast members and the primarily Thai crew.

"It was a life adventure," said the actress. "We had a lot of time in Thailand, connecting with people who had lost family members. We became really close with these people."

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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