Naomi Watts has been earning awards nominations for her portrayal of a mother who suffers devastating injuries during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in the dramatic film, The Impossible, co-starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland. The Impossible is based on the harrowing true story of a family who had to overcome incredible odds to not only reunite following the devastating tsunami but also just stay alive in unbelievably difficult circumstances.
Sitting down to discuss the December 21, 2012 release of the Summit Entertainment film, Watts talked about drawing inspiration from the real woman she portrays in the movie. Watts also talked about shooting the water scenes and the challenges of starring in The Impossible.
On working with the real Maria:
"Working with Maria was just wonderful. I felt completely connected to her from even before I met her, and then when I met her it was sort of like how do we begin this journey? This is a different part of her journey, but it was new for me. We both felt like what should we say and where do we begin? Particularly as an actor I felt like I wanted to siphon things out of her. It's all going to sound weird, so I just waited for her to speak. She didn't speak for a while and then we were just looking at each other and tears came and my tears came, and then we just gave each other a big hug. I just said, 'I'm so sorry what you went through.'"
On disasters bringing out the best - and sometimes the worst - in people and what she discovered during the research process:
"Yes, I did. I was worried about doing the movie for those reasons that you pointed out, and then once I got caught up in the story and I learned it was a true story I felt it was going to be okay because it felt like it was speaking about humanities as well - and then this intimate story telling of the relationship between her and her son and the rest of the family. I knew that Maria was very involved in the script writing process and everything that happened to her is on the screen blow by blow. It was very little to none that was invented. Some things happened organically on the day that were not in the script."
On the real Maria's uplifting and positive attitude:
"It's incredible, isn't it? It's impressive. I was blown away by her. If I'd met her before knowing that she had gone through the tsunami, I would probably think, 'I can't relate. I'm full of self doubt and I'm second guessing and cynicism. That's another type of human being.' But now having gone through this experience together and I know what she went through, you want to hold onto everything she feels and says because you know how close she came. It's something now about her that makes her just understand life better. It's just deeply impressive."
On the real fear of possibly being separated from her own children:
"Oh yeah, it's a fear. I'm not thinking about a tsunami on a daily basis - although Maria had a nightmare. Before we even really knew the word, or some of us, she predicted it in her dreams. [...]I have fears about getting separated from my children just like on the subway. I know that's something you laugh at, but I've gone through my head, 'What would I do?'
It's happened on an elevator before and then you're like is your child going to know where to get off. Luckily it's only ever happened in our building so it's okay. They know the number five. But if it's a subway, and you haven't had a conversation about it... [Laughing] I've actually tried to have a conversation but it's just too confusing for them."
On her reaction to director Juan Antonio Bayona saying she is a great actress at portraying the dark aspect of life and what could've made him say that:
"I just like working with a director who has a vision and who is very sure of that vision and connected to it. I trust their instincts. I will be putty in a director's hand if I trust them. I will give him or her anything they want. But if I don't trust them, it's much harder and I won't go to that place.
This story, we were all connected to. It was easy to go there and it was important to go there. People have said this in different ways before. 'Does that make you a dark person that's full of some kind of weird suffering that makes you different from another person?' But I think we all have a dark side and different variations of that dark side are visible. I find it actually fun to do. It's not like I walk around with it all the time. It's quite liberating, I suppose."
On shooting a scene in which she hugs tightly to a tree in order to not be swept away by the wave:
"That one where I'm stuck on the tree, I was there for a long time. I was anchored with a harness but still, the pressure of the water coming, you still had to hang on tight. You just kept reminding yourself, 'I'm not going to complain. I'm an actor recreating this. There were people who hung onto trees for 10, 12 hours.'"
On shooting the scenes in the water tanks:
"Physically the most demanding thing I've ever done. Working with water is always going to be tough. It was five or six weeks in those tanks. Tom [Holland] thought it was the most fun he's ever had. It was like the water park every day, but the scariest possible one. He's not only a trained athlete but he's 14 - and I'm neither of those things."
On the awards buzz surrounding her performance in The Impossible:
"Look, I don't know. People keep saying that and I just never know what to say to it other than I'm proud of the film. It seems to be affecting people, but the greatest critique I've had is a letter from Maria that came after she saw the film and she knew I was going to watch the film. Belén Atienza, the producer, brought the letter to me and it was just the nicest letter I think I've ever received. That was so great. I feel like I've done my job.
I just hope the movie keeps reaching people and moving people and helps people understand what the tsunami was because I think we're quite removed from it despite the amount of news which we may have watched and read. It would be very nice to be recognized by my peers, always, of course."
On the appeal of portraying real people, including this character and Princess Diana, and the difficulties of doing so:
"[...] It's different reasons for each person. In Maria's case, I just felt I had this responsibility for her but she feels she has the responsibility for everyone else that suffered or lost lives. So I took that on board and it was such a big thing. Every day we were being reminded of that. Each day we met a new extra or new person on the crew, just so many people would tell us a new version of their story. That was really weighing on me, which is a lot of pressure. But it was very helpful to have all of her information. She wrote endless letters to me throughout. Each time we changed location and went to a new scene she would write very expressive letters.
In the case of Princess Diana, yeah, a huge pressure of a different kind because the most recognizable woman of our lifetime and instantly people are going to jump to comparisons. With Maria, I didn't have to create the walk and talk or the look or anything. She's not in the public so I didn't have to recreate that. With Princess Diana, that's the first thing people are going to talk about."
On what drives her in her acting career:
"Be connected to myself and others. I don't know how to explain it, really. Understand myself in the hope to understand others. I don't know. It's a gut-driven thing; it's hard to put into a sentence. But I really enjoy what I do. I feel it's a privilege to take on important stories of people, human beings, and hopefully that's what you get out of the experience of being in the theater is to take it home with you and learn something about yourself, I guess. And in this case, you definitely are going to sit through that movie and put yourself in that scenario and go, 'What would I do? Who would I be and how would I move through this?'"
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The Impossible is rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.
Also of Interest: Ewan McGregor The Impossible Interview