Much in demand since her breakthrough performance in Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts has enjoyed great success in films such as 21 Grams – for which she was Oscar nominated – King Kong, The Painted Veil and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.
Now she stars and executive produces Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a remake of his 1997 hit transferred to an American setting. In this dark and unsettling tale she plays Anna who has a seemingly idyllic life with her husband George (Tim Roth) and young son (Devon Gearhart).
Settling in at their plush holiday home they meet a pair of charming strangers (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who slowly unsettle the family and over time shatter their notions of security.
Michael Haneke ensures that Funny Games is a tough watch until we realise he is depicting us in the audience as voyeurs. Did that help you make up your mind to be in the film?
“It wasn’t an instant decision, I struggled about whether or not to do it. I got a phone call that Michael Haneke wanted to do something with me, they told me the film and I wasn’t familiar with it. But I was familiar with Michael’s work, I’d seen Caché and The Piano Teacher, and actually Alejandro González Iñárritu screened Code: Unknown to us as a source of inspiration (for 21 Grams). So I knew and very much admired his work.”
So did you quickly catch up with the first film?
“I saw it at home with a girlfriend and was utterly shocked by it because it was so damn creepy and difficult. It’s not like you can say ‘I loved the film,’, but you can have a really extreme reaction, and what makes it worthy to me is that you think about it and talk about it for hours and days afterwards. It still wasn’t like I made my mind up there and then, but what he was doing, it was landing with me. That he was speaking to us as an audience, that we’ve got blood on our hands, that we are culpable for this thing about violence in films. He really messes with you, he sets everything up in that genre way and then totally toys with you.”
Do you have a particular way of choosing roles?
“That’s what makes those things difficult, because it’s impossible to explain. You end up doing these things and they’re not always that calculated. The reasons are often hard to articulate as well. I operate from an intuitive place a lot the time, it feels right. You can articulate it later.”
There is a real attack on bourgeois values evident here, isn’t there?
“I think he plays those moments. When the gate opens, that’s a symbol to him, the posh gate of a very well-to-do family, and then it closes because you are protected and safe, but you’re not. That’s what I like about what he’s saying. So much of the time when we see a film that’s violent it’s explained, so we understand it and we don’t feel guilty because those villains and bad guys deserved it. Well these guys are just very pleasant you chaps that you would let in to your house any day of the week. I think he’s making you feel guilty, for all the films that you’ve bought into before, and cheered on those violent moments.”
So he’s setting his audience up then, is he?
“Every time something would normally be delivered in the movie, he says ‘no’, except for one moment where he breaks the fourth wall and gives it to you, but it’s not really yours.”
Did you know it was a shot-for-shot remake of his earlier film when you went into it?
“Not right away. I did think it was odd, but I also heard what he had to say about that which was that he originally made the film to reach the American audience, and when it didn’t it was a shame. So when he was offered this second opportunity to do it with English speaking actors it wasn’t like he had a new idea. It was the same thing, he wasn’t going to say ‘Hollywood’s throwing money at me I’m going to give them a happy ending,’. The whole point of this is that it is an intellectual exercise, and so why would he suddenly introduce new themes and ideas just to make an audience feel good?”
What practical effect did that have on you as an actor?
“This was particularly difficult because I knew his shots were the same and therefore everything was blocked to work within those shots. So in a way I felt, for lack of a better term, I felt I was gagged and blindfolded and bound up. It was like you didn’t have anything organic about it, I felt as though I was trapped in a way, but it was just another challenge. It was a great discipline. I struggled in the beginning with it, and then I understood what he doing and then I had to say this was Michael’s film, it’s the way he wants to present it and I was going to do my best to make it truthful.”
He seems incredibly precise, is he?
“You have to surrender to it, but it does build tension as well, which is what I think he wants in the film. It’s fun because it’s a new exercise and I think it’s fun working with a director who really knows what they want and even if it is slightly annoying or difficult I really like it when they’re sure. There’s a lot of directors who you work with who want to shoot things 20 different ways, and you say ‘wait a second, what am I doing here?’, so it’s nice to have someone who’s that confident.”
You’ve worked with some great directors in recent times – David Lynch, Peter Jackson, David Cronenberg among them – is it possible to compare and contrast?
“They’re all so different, I feel like the choices I’ve made have been very much revolving the director a lot of the time. I feel like film is a director’s medium a lot of the time and therefore if the director is right you feel safe automatically, and you trust them. And they’re all mad in their own little way, in a genius way. That’s what I love about the ones that I’ve worked with.”
Do you think becoming a mum will change the sort of roles you do?
“I’m not going to suddenly start doing Disney movies but in the years to come I might want to do something to impress him and his friends. But I think I’ll always be interested in the stuff that I do, my taste is my taste, but thing people have asked me about Funny Games is if I’d have felt differently about doing it. The answer is probably yes.”
One of your co-stars describes the action of Tim Roth’s character, George, as cowardly. Do you agree with that view?
“It was hard for Tim, so hard. He had major issues, and I think that’s what was helping him get wound up. We all did, we all had to get ourselves in that horrible place. That’s what was so hard to Tim, being a Dad. His job is to protect his family. But that’s the thing, when Michael wrote it he put himself in that position of ‘what would I do?’. I think we all think ‘I would have done this or that,’ but the truth is you really don’t know.”