Minding Your Vulnerability
Naomi Watts on breast cancer
I n a culture that puts celebrities straight into the ‘charmed’ category of society, it can come as a surprise to hear one of them admit to fears and weaknesses that we might regard as utterly ordinary. When Naomi Watts talks about how a fear of abandonment runs like a vein through her life, and how she takes every rejection like a body blow, every criticism like a curse, it makes you pay attention.
“I’m a pretty fearful person,” the Oscar-nominated English-Australian actress has said. “I feel much braver in my work, in that arena than my own life. I don’t like to talk about myself. I don’t like to be judged. Those are all things that bring up a huge amount of fear. I have a fear of abandonment. I have lots of different fears like anybody has.”
Acting, Watts admits, takes courage, but it brings courage, too, and so she seized upon it as a young girl who knew loss and a lot of different homes, in different countries, growing up. She knows it’s a tough business in which to be fearful, but she knows it’s worth making the effort to fight the fear.
If life has taught Naomi Watts anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted, that good things go wrong and that bad fortune can befall anyone. So you live your life taking charge of what you can, and not just hoping for the best.
It’s that mentality that brought Watts to Breast Health International (BHI), their Fund for Living, and Tommy Hilfiger’s limited-edition handbag, which will raise funds for the campaign. The images on these pages, shot by celebrated photographer Patrick Demarchelier, were a joy to work on, she says.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Patrick many times,” Watts explains, “so it’s a familiar feeling to be on set with him again. He’s very talented and a true icon; I trust him completely.” Tommy Hilfiger, for his part, describes Watts as an “inspiring ambassador”.
But of everything Watts experienced through her involvement with BHI, she says that the most important thing was the realisation of “how important it is to get regular check-ups and stop the ‘it won’t happen to me mentality’.”
There has been plenty in Naomi Watts’s life that she might have wished would happen to someone else. These days, her New York borderline-hipster life is the stuff of yummy-mummy envy, characterised by lots of being papped cycling around the city with her partner Liev Schreiber and their sons Sacha (7) and Sammy (5), but it hasn’t all been plain sailing to this bliss.
Born in Kent in 1968, Watts’s early childhood was peripatetic, thanks to her father, Peter’s, job as a roadie and sound engineer for Pink Floyd. Her father’s manic laugh, it is often mentioned, features on their seminal album, Dark Side of the Moon. Peter Watts and his Welsh-born wife, Myfanwy, travelled a lot with Naomi and her brother, Ben when they were small. And while to adult ears, this sounds beautifully Bohemian, it can sound like nothing more than unsettling upheaval to a child.
When the two children were very small, the couple divorced, but reunited when Naomi Watts was five. A year later, her father died suddenly, apparently of a heroin overdose. After that, she and her mother and brother moved to Wales, where they lived with her maternal grandparents. When Watts was 12, they moved to Australia with Myfanwy’s new husband.
“There was quite a lot of sadness in my childhood, but no lack of love,” Watts has said. She has come to terms with her upbringing, she has said, and says that motherhood has helped her to take the focus off herself and her fears, but her choice of life partner is interesting, given her history.
Schreiber also had parents who were unconventional and unstable, in many ways. His mother kidnapped him from his father as a small child, and he was partly raised in a commune. His mother’s endeavours were designed to “promote fearlessness”, the Ray Donovan actor has explained since, and the older he gets and since becoming a parent, the more he understands and appreciates her.
Resettled in Australia, the adolescent Naomi Watts decided that she wanted to be an actor after watching the film Fame. Myfanwy had found work in the television industry and her young, photogenic actress daughter attended acting classes and began modelling and appearing in advertisements. It was in the adolescent-ad world that Naomi Watts first met Nicole Kidman, who remains her close friend to this day.
Naomi Watts was a household name in Australia from a young age, but she didn’t make it big internationally until her early 30s. Her Australian youth was spent doing various dramas, including Home and Away, and her first big film was the cult-classic coming-of-age Australian film, Flirting, in which she appeared with Kidman and Thandie Newton.
Kidman left for the US and broke Hollywood — not to mention married Tom Cruise — long before Watts mustered the courage to take her chances there, and it was her old friend who facilitated all her first introductions to the industry.
“At first, everything was fantastic and doors were opened to me,” Watts has said. “But some people who I met through Nicole, who had been all over me, had difficulty remembering my name when we next met. There were a lot of promises, but nothing actually came off. I ran out of money and became quite lonely, but Nic gave me company and encouragement to carry on.”
Naomi Watts has been very frank about how badly she took the early rejections ‘I feel much braver in my work than my own life. I don’t like to talk about myself. I don’t like to be judged’ and bad reviews of her Hollywood career. She is honest about her thin skin and poor handling of criticism and it is that, perhaps, that makes her so compelling in roles that require raw emotion or frailty, such as those she played in 21 Grams or
The Impossible. She was nominated for Oscars in both roles, leading to rumours of jealousy on the part of her old friend, Kidman.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was the film that really won Watts her first international attention, as she played an
ingenue, optimistic actress trying to make her way in Hollywood. She went on to the Japanese-inspired horror series, The Ring, as well as Peter Jackson’s King Kong,
21 Grams, The Impossible and last year’s flop film. The last, it should be said, is an unexpected blot on her copybook and a much googled abrupt departure from an interview with Simon Mayo on BBC radio speaks, perhaps, of how on edge she was made by the experience of a failure.
In interviews, always, Watts is a person of light and shade. Before she met Schreiber in 2005, her great high-profile love affair was with the late Heath Ledger, and while she admits they “both knew that there wasn’t a forever plan”, she was gutted by his death in 2008.
As a realist, Watts also understands the fickle nature of her chosen business and is always adamant that she wants to be a character actress with longevity, rather than a leading lady. Paparazzi snaps speak of someone who is dedicatedly fit, but she’s honest about physical insecurity. Hers is a business that “self-consciousness just pervades,” Watts has said. “There are days when I feel victorious that I have, you know, gotten this far [without plastic surgery]. But there are a million days when I look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”
Working with BHI’s Fund for Living, and on Hilfiger’s fund-raising bag has been an eye-opener for Watts, she says. Fund for Living supports breast-cancer patients with coping with the demands of everyday life as they endure the extraordinary demands of coping with treatment. The everyday stuff can be hard enough to manage when you’re in full health, Watts points out, never mind doing it all with cancer as well.
“Between balancing my work and two children, I know how busy life can be,” she says, “but we cannot let that get in the way of taking care of ourselves. We’re the guardians of our own health, and nobody else is going to do it for us. A selfexamination only takes a few minutes and it could save your life.”
Her past has made Naomi Watts the grateful realist she is today, but she is shaped by her present, too. As the only female in a house of males, you can’t afford to be prissy or weak or too much of a princess. “I use the expression, ‘Mummy is a delicate flower’,” she has explained with a laugh, adding that she stole it from a friend who is also the mother of boys, and that it gets her out of all sorts of wrestling and rough play.
It’s not entirely true, Watts has explained, but there are times when she needs to be the delicate flower, and times when she can be tough. If life demands, or more accurately, as she knows well, when life demands.
‘We’re the guardians of our own health’ — Naomi models the Hilfiger fund-raising bag
‘He’s very talented and a true icon’ — Watts with BHI’s Fund for Living campaign photographer Patrick Demarchelier
‘I know how busy life can be’ — Watts with partner Liev Schreiber and sons in NY last November