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Peeking Behind ‘The Painted Veil’ With Naomi Watts

Even when she’s in a state of exhaustion, Naomi Watts is capable of delivering a remarkable performance. Just ask Edward NortonWatts’ co-star in The Painted Veil, the new adaptation of the classic 1925 W. Somerset Maughm novel.

“When Naomi showed up in Beijing, she was coming off of King Kong,” Norton told Hollywood.com. “We had to do a lot of those scenes in the house in China, which are some of the heaviest scenes in the movie…This was literally the first week of filming and it was very, very challenging to do that without reference points to what the scenes are before that.”

“She was very tired,” the actor continued. “I watched her, saw her kind of take a deep breath and do that thing that I think really, really good actors do: instead of combating the state that she was in, she just took it and put it right into the work. She just embraced the way she was feeling in that moment and said, ‘Well, that’s what this is. I’m not going to try to layer something over the top.’ I think that was beautiful, because it was perfect for the state that Kitty is in. I think that any actor who is worth anything fights the eternal struggle between what goes on up in here and the releasing of that and just getting into it.

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“It was almost the most intimate interaction with another actor that I’ve ever had, certainly,” Norton explained. “I haven’t done a film where the two roles were that inextricably intertwined with each other. I just could not have asked for a better tango partner in a way.”

Hollwyood.com sat down with the actress herself to learn about the other side of that dance.

Hollywood.com: What drew you to the character of Kitty?
Naomi Watts:
I loved Kitty from the moment that I first read the script. She just kind of leapt off of the page. She was sort of ahead of her time, or at least she thought that she was, and refused to conform to conventions and just sort of swept up in this frivolous world of who’s who and how one should look. She can’t stand her family sort of breathing down her neck and constantly saying ‘You’ve got to do something and you have to be married.’ She was sort of enjoying just floating by and the attention of many rather than focusing on just one person. So when she gets this proposal it’s a form of escape. It’s like, ‘Please, let me just get out of here.’ The fact that he’s going to an exotic place sounds even more exciting. Then when she has the affair and just continues to be a self-destructive person and when he starts punishing her when they get to the new place, I just loved her transformation there. I thought that it was important to commit to these flaws in her so that the transformation is that much greater, and her journey is more powerful.

HW: You also served as a producer on The Painted Veil and stuck by it on its lengthy journey to the screen. What did that entail?
In terms of being a producer on this, I think that this was a long journey and it took a long time to find it’s feet and there were many obstacles along the way. By getting onboard as a producer it was really just to show my passion for it. And quite often you’re attached to something and if it doesn’t get up and go soon, it can loose its shine, if you will, and get a little bit lackluster if no one else is jumping onboard. But this never lost its shine. Edward and I championed it and then we found John [Curran].

HW: Having worked with John previously in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, what did you see in him that made you believe he was the best director for the project? NW: I knew that he’d be able to handle this material brilliantly because of his ability to understand the relationships and the conflict within that and without judgment, even putting humor in the most awkward of places. Really creating that collaborative workspace was good. And sometimes when you fight for what you believe is right for your character you don’t want to come across as seemingly being an actor who’s trying to buy more screen time or something. You want to have the voice from a point of view that is thinking of the whole film. I think that for me it was important that the backstory was there, that she was running away from something. And that we didn’t get straight into the love story and that there were temptations there to get the story moving at times and really slimming down that beginning part of the story. I really felt that it was important for that to happen.

HW: Did you feel emotionally beat up after finishing this film?
No, actually, I felt the opposite. King Kong was so physically draining, eight months of fourteen hours a day jumping and running and being punched and pushed and pulled. It really did take its toll, and I’m not a big person. So this was a luxury. The emotional aspect of it was exhausting, but we had time. We actually had quite a luxury of time and we moved from place to place.

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HW: What do you prefer to do, Naomi, the huge-scale King Kong type movies or more intimate films like this?
They’re so different, and I probably never would’ve done King Kong without someone like Peter Jackson. It’s just not like the stuff that I normally gravitate towards, but it was a great experience and really just different from what I’ve done. I do like the intimacy of an independent film and the collaborative workspace. I mean, every day we started with probably a two-hour discussion about how we felt that this scene should go. Sometimes there would be disagreements and there were often three varying ideas to honor. So there was something great about that that we did see when we looked at it in different ways and sometimes the ideas we shared, and then other times not so much. We just kind of played them all out. On a bigger movie it’s a much more controlled environment and there are so many other things going on, particularly on a film like King Kong where there are FX to consider and stunts and all kinds of other things. I’m fortunate to have been able to have done something like that and then flip back to an independent film—perhaps something that might not have been so easy to get off the ground because the tone is too obscure, things like King Kong can help that.

HW: Was the love scene hard to do?
Not really. I mean, you find yourself anticipating them a lot and you get in your head and you think, ‘Oh, how do we see this? How are we going to play it and how much am I going to show?’ but once you’re there you’re there. With the love scene between Walter and Kitty it was great because it’s such a pivotal point and it’s almost animalistic, the hunger and the desperation to just connect with a human being and all of that tension, but then I really fought for not just that, but to then have a tender moment and that finally that they were able to be gentle and accept and receive. So that was important, to have both of those because I think it expresses a lot.

HW: You have a strong sense of style and a background in high fashion. Do the period clothes help you define a character like this, and do you have much input in deciding what you’re going to wear?
Well, really, with a period film you kind of leave it up to the experts, but you want to know that someone isn’t going to put orange on me because I can’t wear orange—my skin just is going to look disgusting. But I really think that’s a period that celebrates women and I think that [costume designer] Ruth [Myers] did an incredible job. She knows period like no one. The Flapper in the ’20’s just started showing the knees and it’s very rebellious and the short haircut showing the neck – those are all things that help you get closer to the character and I do love clothes for that reason in film.

HW: You changed your hair color for this movie as well. Was that your decision?
Yeah, it was. We fought over it too. But actually in the end, basically we arrived there. I always saw Kitty as a brunette. I thought that she was somehow more exotic with it and stronger, and it felt very authentic to the period. John always saw Kitty as a blonde and so we had two wigs made and we did camera tests. But in the end, come on, you did go for it. I always said, ‘It’s up to you.’ I’m always scared. I always start with a strong idea. I always have strong ideas and you fight for it and then suddenly everyone is going to go along with what you’ve chosen and then you think, ‘I hope that this is the right one.’

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