They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most people will agree that Australian actress Naomi Watts defines the type of beauty that one would expect from an actress taking over a role made famous by Fay Wray. This is probably why Watts was the first and only choice by director Peter Jackson to play the “beauty” to his 25-foot beast in his new remake of King Kong, which opens on Wednesday.
Of course, that’s not to take away from Watts’ amazing acting skills, which have taken people by surprise right back to her breakout role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and continuing through the daring choices she’s made in her career.
At a recent New York press conference, Watts answered questions about her role as actress Ann Darrow in Jackson’s latest epic.
CS: Would you have been more reluctant to take this movie on, if Peter Jackson wasn’t directing it? What discussions did you have with him to make sure this character was not a conventional screaming heroine? Naomi Watts: I don’t think I could have signed onto this project if it hadn’t been someone like Peter. I would have been concerned that it would have just been too much of an action movie and a damsel in distress. But when I first heard about it, and I heard that Peter was doing it, I thought “Oh, wow, that’s interesting.” The guy who is pretty much the frontrunner, in terms of the effects world, as well a man who made “Heavenly Creatures,” which is a beautifully complicated movie about very emotional stuff. So it seemed like a great idea, so I went and met with him and his partner Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, their writing partner, and I heard them speak about it, that it was the legendary “King Kong,” but with a number of great new ideas, and how they definitely wanted to change the female role into something much more than just a screaming beauty.
CS: Since Peter has been in love with the original film since he was 9, what’s the difference between working on somebody’s dream project and any other film you’ve done? Watts: Yeah, well that was another thing that just got me going. When someone has that must passion for a project, you know, it’s great, it’s just wonderful to be part of the excitement. He’s just loved it for all that time and he’s so invested. From that initial meeting in London when they invited me to dinner, he had images and he could just talk so wonderfully about the characters, and who Kong is, I just thought yeah, I want to do this. I want to work with a man with that much passion and vision.
CS: Did you get caught up in that and fall in love with the 1933 version yourself? Watts: Yeah, I did. I also knew that although he wanted to honor that version, he had so many great new ideas that would make it modern and its own thing.
CS: Your relationship with King Kong is very touching in the movie. Have you ever felt like you were in love with a big dumb ape? Watts: Yes. (laughs) No, but there are so many things about that big dumb ape that it’s just completely the same as any man, you know? They get jealous, they get full of rage, they get protective, they get dark and then they get compassionate and caring, and humorous. A lot of the emotions match human beings as well.
CS: What kind of emotion is running through your head in the scenes where Ann is showing love for Kong? What kind of love would you say it is? Watts: It’s definitely not lust like the ’70s version. It’s more pure and caring and paternal. I mean, in the way that they see each other and identify with each other that they’re two lonely beings, and I think they kind of understand each other in a way, and that they’ve struggled and been through desperate times. The first moment I think that they make that connection is when, instead of making the decision to pull her to pieces, he thinks she’s kind of amusing and he pushes her around a bit, and then, because of her days of Vaudeville, she kind of cottons on to what he’s amused by and this is going to buy her more time, basically. And all the time, she’s thinking “Okay, I’ll just do a couple pratfalls and think of a way out of this” but then she kind of sees what it is that is amusing him and finds that kind of fascinating, and he becomes like obsessed with it and wanting more and more and more, and she’s beyond exhaustion and can’t give any more and then he gets frustrated and starts smashing things, and then becomes completely embarrassed by his behavior and has to run away and hide. And she finds that odd, but kind of understands it as well. In fact, that’s sort of the beginning of their connection.
CS: You talked about not wanting to play the damsel in distress. There is a bit of a turning point for Ann where the relationship between her and Kong changes. Could you talk about that? Watts: Well, I think that is one of the turning points. For instance, when you see him take her from the altar, and then he’s throwing her around and trying to find a place probably to pull her to pieces, and you see all those thingsthe leisthat have been around the other women. So clearly, they have been shredded and there are their bones as evidence. She makes a great turning point there. She manages to get away, and that’s what it’s not “beauty killed the beast” so much. There’s something about this woman that is so different, and she kind of gives him a heart, in a way. It’s not her beauty. It’s her heart, and their connection, and his ability to love, which he probably never knew he had. So that’s another turning point for him.
CS: A lot of people are critical of the 1976 remake. Had you seen it and was there anything you could learn from Jessica Lange’s performance that you used or avoided? Watts: Yeah, I mean, they do poo poo it, I think because of the sexual undertones in it, but I saw that a long time ago, and I’m still very moved by her performance. I mean, I’ve always loved Jessica’s work, and actually, it reminded me even when the story falters, the role is fabulous and if it’s done right, then it still works. But Peter’s passion was for the original, and that’s what he fell in love with at 9 years old and that’s what made him want to be a filmmaker.
CS: Are you worried that you might be forever linked to this character, much like Fay Wray or even Jessica Lange were? Watts: I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet. In the beginning, one of my fears of taking on the part was that this is such an iconic movie and an iconic part, and how do you survive those comparisons that are naturally going to be drawn. But then I also felt that I had done quite a bit of work beforehand. Maybe it won’t be just this one role that people will think of me as. I’ll continue to do lots of other diverse work as well. This is just different for me and it was fun. It’s an adventurous film with all kinds of other elements. Love story, it’s great humor and yeah, I hadn’t thought of it very much.
CS: How important was it to have Andy Serkis on set pretending to be Kong and what was that like? Watts: Oh, so important. I couldn’t have done it without him, because truly, if I had yeah, I really can’t imagine. It was as if he was a character, like playing opposite any other man. He didn’t have any words, but he had a huge amount of expression, be it physical or emotional, so I just was reacting to him the whole time and in as truthful a way as possible.
CS: Was he in a full monkey suit? Watts: He wasn’t in a monkey suit with fur all over it. He was in a special suit that helped him move a sort of way. It was more about giving him the structure and posture that a primate has. He had teeth in because that helped him and he also had a microphone and this thing they called the “Kongalizer” that did something to change the vibrational frequency in his own voice, but every thing that you see on the screen is Andy Serkis. Yes, there’s been some magical stuff happening in the post-production and special effects, but all the emotion, all the movement, you know how you see that ferocious face turn from that to sort of a smile come over him and a light in his eyes, that’s all Andy. And that’s what I was reacting to, so that’s why it felt like a normal workspace for me.
CS: How did you do the scenes where Kong is holding you, like that beautiful scene between the two of you on the ice? Watts: We shot that scene in the reshoots. I think after we finished shooting, Andy and Peter went into motion capture and I think Andy had the idea that wouldn’t it be great to see them have their last loving moment? And Peter loved the idea and I guess he built on it from there. I mean, I think it just makes so much sense to go from all that chaos and then have a moment of reprieve, and then obviously, you’re going back into the chaos again. Yeah, it worked really well. They sat me in this piece I mean, it’s basically a seat with a piece of foam around me and it’s on a I don’t even know these technical names. I was there for seven months but they didn’t stick. Anyway, they move you around slowly as you gently walk through the park and then as we’re falling, the chair moves a little bit more and then that same device worked for many other scenes, you know, when he’s shaking me. It changed speed, but the hand always remained the same.
CS: When you’re doing the scene with the T-Rexes, was that you actually swinging around on vines? Watts: A lot of it, yes. That was one of the hardest things to do because it was truly
CS: Did they make a CGI Naomi Watts? Watts: They did a lot of digital scanning of me, and I had all those things [motion capture sensors] all over me. I didn’t do the full motion capture. I just did a tiny bit of just facial expressions, but there were some shots where they put my face on the CGI version.
CS: Did you also do the juggling? Watts: No, I didn’t do the juggling. I did do some of the dancing though.