Naomi Watts is easily the leading candidate for the most daring actress in Hollywood, having deftly balanced a steady slate of high-profile commercial films like The Ring and King Kong with a generous selection of outside-the-lines choices – edgier, more difficult material from visionary directors like David Lynch, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David O. Russell and David Cronenberg.
But even with her taste for challenging roles, even Watts wasn’t sure she was up to the task of taking on the harrowing psychological drama Funny Games, a near shot-for-shot American remake of Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film – more than a conventional thriller, deeper than a gore-and-guts horror flick, Funny Games is a polarizing film that taunts convention and defies audience expectations, and left its star “terrified” by the mental and emotional places the film would take her.
Hollywood.com: Director Michael Haneke said he wouldn’t remake this film without your involvement. What’s your reaction to that, and would you have done this film without him?
Naomi Watts: Definitely not. It was put to me that he only wanted me and while that felt like a huge amount of pressure it was also very flattering and sort of slightly seductive in a way because he’s someone who’s work I admire greatly and he’s worked with fantastic actresses before. It made me think that an artist that I admire respects my work and he’s that passionate about it and so it made me want to do it. It’s probably just a bald-faced tactic of his [laughs]. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I wouldn’t make this film with just anyone. It’s by no means a no-brainer.
HW: Had you seen Haneke’s original 1997 film?
NW: Yes. I had seen the original, but only after we did this. The way that this came about was originally a phone call from Johanna Ray who’s a casting director that was instrumental in casting me in Mulholland Drive and they’d come to her saying that they wanted her to get a hold of me and for her to cast the rest of the film. She called me and the minute that she said ‘Michael Haneke’ I was very excited. I feel blessed to have worked with some of these great directors. The minute that his name was mentioned I got excited, and then I saw the movie and I was both excited and angered and I felt so messed with…I was repulsed and terrified. Apart from my obvious reactions about the movie itself, to do this film was terrifying and that always interests me, being afraid of something. Because it’s nice to think that you can combat your fears, I think.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: Did the challenges as an actress help you overcome your problems with the material?
NW: There was a different set of challenges. Working in the style that Michael likes to work in is going to be challenging, and I think that’s for any actor. The fact that this was a remake, it’s always hard doing a remake because you fear you’re going to be compared to the original actors. But the fact that he was designing each shot in the exact same way as the original meant that you had to do the same blocking and tread the same steps as those actors, and then you suddenly feel like, ‘Oh, wow. How can I reinvent this character? How can I find the scene in my own organic way? It’s so mapped out. I go to the sink. Then I go to the fridge. Then I go back to the sink and then I go back to him.’ It became like such a heady thing, and that’s so not the way that I like to work. I like to intuit it and feel it and surprise myself. So it was a great challenge to do.
HW: What about this story and this character really spoke to you?
NW: It screamed at me [laughs]. It didn’t speak to me. It wasn’t an easy decision to make and I feared that it’s such a beast of a film, and it’s so powerful in it’s effect that you fear it’s not going to land well with everyone. Some people are just going to be repulsed and not enjoy the ride because it is so disturbing. I don’t think that it’s supposed to be enjoyed, that ride. It’s supposed to be work for you. You’re supposed to participate and be a part of the film and walk away feeling richer for the experience, for knowing and understanding your place as an audience member better. So therefore the next violent film that you see you’ll perhaps be more conscious and mindful of those moments where ordinarily we’d sit there and go, ‘Yeah!’ and brains are splattering everywhere. It definitely makes you more conscious. To me, that’s a success because it’s provocative. It’s discussion and thought-worthy.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: Why do you think this remake was done?
NW: Because Haneke made this film to speak to American audiences originally. The fact that it didn’t reach here was a shame to him. He feels that we’re the biggest consumers of violence and that might be not just because, or well, it’s also about numbers. It’s a huge market here for film. When Hollywood called and said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money. Remake this film.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, okay. Now I can change it. Now I can correct this bit and that bit and glorify it.’ His intention and message remained pure and therefore it is a very similar film.
HW: What are your feelings about the traditional horror genre?
NW: I’ve never been a fan of gore. Even though I’ve done quite a few thrillers and films of this genre there’s never really been much blood and guts in the films that I’ve done. It’s been more psychological. I’m not here to say that just because I’ve tapped into his mindset and what he’s trying to say, I’m not trying to say now shame on you for all those other films that are being made. I’m not on a soapbox here. I understand that every film has it’s value in it’s own different way. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. I’m an actor. I enjoy playing fear and if I’m in another thriller that’s of that type – but again, I’m not ever really interested in the gory, gory stuff.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: Do you think this film, which is far more psychologically terrifying than sadistically gory, will make fans of films like Saw and Hostel think a little more deeply about their reactions to that kind of horror.
NW: I think that, yeah, Michael is trying to invite that audience in and say, ‘Come, come, come. I’m talking to you.’ He tricks them with Funny Games. That’s the irony of it all. That audience is such a mass audience and I suppose that he does feel that they are culpable. Again, he’s trying to build awareness of what he feels violence is and by depicting it in a very authentic way it becomes very, very grotesque and brutal even though he never actually gives it to you. Although, he does in that one isolated moment, and then he says, ‘No. You can’t have it. I know you want it.’ So those people might feel very angry, but I think that’s the point of the film.
HW: Do you think not showing the violence, graphically, is more effective?
NW: Yeah, that’s the thing. It ends up being a much more powerful effect. You hear it and then you see the aftermath. You don’t see the actual thing except for that one moment which he almost gives you. But yeah, it becomes much more authentic and you’re not numbed by the violence. You don’t think that it’s cool. You don’t think it’s hip. You don’t think it’s sexy or funny. You see it and you feel it in its most brutal way, which again, is sort of Michael saying, ‘Violence is hideous and inexcusable no matter what.’ I think that we’re so used to sitting in films and excusing violence because it’s a bad guy and it’s revenge. So you’re cheering it on.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: Was it a physically demanding role?
NW: Yes. The way that Michael likes to work is from a very authentic point of view. Like the first time I was bound and gagged he came up and said, ‘That looks like shit. No way. I don’t believe that. Let me do it.’ He bound me up and you saw the way that I was bound. It was all around my neck and my feet. So if you fell or tried to walk you could be strangled [laughs]. I’m laughing, but it’s a nervous laughter.
HW: Does being a parent now change your opinion of the film, particularly with the scenes where the young boy is terrorized?
NW: Yeah. I mean, I had a very adverse feeling at the time, even before I was a parent. Being a mom changes you in every possible way. I certainly don’t want my son to see this film for a very long time. When he’s an adult he’s going to make his own decisions about what he sees, and hopefully he’ll understand my reasoning behind it.
HW: Did you find a way to use your own acting methods? You mentioned that his style was a little restrictive – did you figure out how to bring Naomi‘s way to it?
NW: I really just went with his flow. Even though I struggled with it at times I liked that he had such a defined and clear vision of my character and the story, everything. When someone is so sure you trust it. It’s actually much more of a fun way to work rather than working with a director that says, ‘Lets try this. Okay. Lets try it like this. Whatever.’ You sort of think, ‘God, what’s going to happen in the editing room. I’ve done it 75 different ways. How is my character going to come out?’ So he’s very deliberate and precise. Sometimes it was hard to get there and get out of your head.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: When you first read the script and realized that you’re spending a lot of time in your underwear, is that terrifying in its own way?
NW: [laughs] It is terrifying, but that added to it all. I don’t know if you’ve seen the original, but she strips down and then puts back her slip, and to be honest with you, when I saw the original that was one of the only false moments to me. It felt a little bit like the wonderful actress was being slightly modest and I completely understand that. Michael said to me, ‘How do you feel about this scene?’ I could tell where he was going, like did I feel right about doing it in my underwear versus in a slip. I said right away that we should do it in the underwear because it felt less self-conscious. It’s like, ‘Oh, I just happened to have a slip on.’ I don’t know how many people wear slips these days at home. So it was frightening and for such a large portion of the movie, but again it added to it. I felt so vulnerable at that place in the story and the fact that I didn’t have any clothes on added to that vulnerability.
HW: How do you get into the reality of a situation like this actually happening?
NW: The preparation is endless discussion and imagining the scenarios, the ‘what ifs’ and how you would deal with this. I happen to know two people who’ve had situations – not the same as this, but similar where they’ve been held hostage in their homes. To know even two people is pretty scary. This sort of thing can take place.[PAGEBREAK]
HW: Can you talk about the atmosphere on the set, because the film is so intense and there’s so much fear on the screen?
NW: It was quite hard to turn off at the end of the day and in fact it didn’t happen that often. Most of the time while working on a film people will ask if it was scary to make because it was scary to watch and usually the answer is no. Usually what’s scary in a film is a succession of moments that build up to a scary payoff and you shoot out of sequence and everything is fragmented. That’s not the case with this film. The way we shot it was very much in chronological order. It pretty much all takes place on the one set and as you’ve seen the film, Michael‘s framing is evident. He doesn’t cut a lot. One shot is held for endless minutes and so it was hard. The set was at times a very tense place, but then you also go, ‘Okay, I have to break this.’ Tim [Roth] would crack a very crass and base joke.
HW: Can you specify how that feels when you get home and how it effects you there? Does it help to be in a relationship with another actor that can support and understand you?
NW: Yeah, it does actually. You can talk about it and they understand it. Liev [Schreiber] came to the set a few times. I think he liked the way that Michael worked too. I don’t think that every actor could deal with it, but he’s an actor that likes to takes risks. In my mind there isn’t a director that I respect that wouldn’t appreciate Michael Haneke and his work. In fact, as I was wrestling with the decision making of this I called a couple of directors that I’ve worked with and bounced the idea off of them and unanimously they all said, ‘You must work with him.’
HW: That said, though, would you be eager to work with Michael again soon?
NW: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I loved it. As much as there was a struggle along the way he makes you realize your potential I think and he makes you realize also your inhibitions and you’re willingness to go there and then you feel better for it.