Spy vs. spy
Naomi Watts on boot camp, espionage and parenthood
By Ivor Davis 11/24/2010
Versatile actress Naomi Watts is a busy lady as mother of two children with actor/director Liev Schreiber, and with a prolific career that shows no signs of slowing. In her most recent role, in Fair Game, she plays the real-life spy Valerie Plame, who was outed in 2003 by a columnist during the George W. Bush era — in what many believe was a savage payback by the Bush administration. Her husband, Joe Wilson (played in the movie by Sean Penn), was sent to find out whether Sadam Hussein was getting uranium from Niger for weapons of mass destruction. Much to the chagrin of the Republican hierarchy, he reported back that it wasn’t true. Fair Game focuses on what happened when Plame’s CIA cover was broken. The British-born, Aussie-reared, 42-year-old Watts gets the American accent just right. Recently, the actress, who now makes her home in New York with Schreiber and their children, discussed the film with VCReporter.
VCReporter: How did you relate to Valerie? You are both mothers and have intense careers.
Naomi Watts: I had the utmost respect for her because of that, and how she managed with her twins, traveling all kinds of places all over the world, and outrageous hours, week in and week out. My job can be like that, but then there are also incredible breaks. So we talked a lot about that, how she managed to be a professional and a mother and be really good at it.
What did you know about Valerie’s story before you began the film?
I was familiar with the story, and was not following it as avidly as I wished I had. I got an e-mail from Jez Butterworth [writer Jeremy Butterworth], who’s an old friend, and I said, “Listen, I just had a baby. I don’t think I’m going to read a script for a while.” He said, “Well, this is about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe. Just read the first 10 pages.” Of course, he was very smart, as he always is, because you couldn’t just read 10 pages of the script.
Were you worried about playing someone who is still alive?
When you play someone who is a true living person, it definitely ups the ante and the pressure is tenfold. Everyone in America is familiar with this story, and so I felt an extra amount of pressure because I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could.
Was Valerie involved in this movie?
She was one of our CIA consultants and on the set frequently, being our B.S. barometer and saying, “This is how this scene would work” or “We wouldn’t have those signs there” or “You wouldn’t address someone like that.” She was very hands-on. It’s not every day as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who’s truly impressive to me.
Did having her so close make you edgy?
I was nervous because I felt like it was a big undertaking. Also, because of the injustice and that level of betrayal, it was deeply important for me to somehow serve her story in the best possible way. Our relationship formed in a very quick amount of time. Basically, I had a baby on Dec. 13, I read the script on Dec. 28 and we were filming. We did, like, a little mini-shoot to catch the end of winter in February. So there was so little time and so many facts.
Did you know it was such a big story when it first broke?
The story was told through the media in a fragmented way and it was about piece-mealing it together, and then sort of letting go of the facts and concentrating on the character and really learning her story — who was this woman and how did she deal with this betrayal? How did her marriage and family function? How did her lifestyle change? Who did she become, and how it would be so easy that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or come undone — she did neither.
Was it wise to hire Sean Penn, who is so strongly identified with left-wing politics, to play your husband in this movie?
He’s also one of the best actors in the world, living or dead.
Did Sean get personally involved in his role as the husband?
He actually went to Santa Fe and stayed with them a couple of days. I couldn’t do that. I was nursing a child. Doug [director Doug Liman] was like, “Nope. You’re too soft and maternal, and you’re going to boot camp.” I did some paramilitary training for three days.
What else did you learn about Valerie the woman?
She’s not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s not an emotionally driven person. She was a brilliant covert agent, and that is who she is to this day. She’s very controlled and reserved and quiet and warm, but you don’t get her all at once. She’s not easy to read, and at times in playing this character, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around that because I would handle it very differently than someone like her. But that’s who she is, through and through, and she talks about it in the movie, that nothing ever broke her. She was the one person in her training class that got through. She’s not a victim or a martyr. She absorbs things slowly and learns how to deal with them.
It was quite a coincidence. Liev was working on his all-action spy movie Salt — and you were working on your spy movie.
It was very funny and very strange to have the two of us shooting at the same time. That’s the first time that’s ever happened with us, and second of all, that we were both playing spies. But they couldn’t really have been more different. One was the classic kind of spy story, and one was based in truth and facts. So we were laughing about it.
There were a lot of moments where we shared our research and watched documentaries on the CIA and compared notes. It was quite funny and unusual and good timing, in a way, because he helped me and I helped him.