In David Cronenberg's crime thriller Eastern Promises, Naomi Watts takes on the role of Anna, a deceptively timid hospital midwife who, while trying to deal with her own personal tragedy, finds herself swept dangerously close to a sinister, unseen world of Russian gangsters and teenage sex slavery in London when a pregnant 14-year-old prostitute dies during her shift. Anna uses the girl's devastating diary to attempt to trace the surviving infant's relatives back to Russia, but finds the trail leading straight to Viggo Mortensen's enigmatic, heavily tattooed “driver,” Nikolai, and the ruthless gangsters he serves, kingpin Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his unruly son Kirill (Vincent Cassel).
The 39-year-old actress found out she was pregnant three weeks into the shoot with partner Liev Schreiber's baby, with the couple since having a son. Only six weeks after Alexander Pete's arrival, Watts sits down with Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival to talk Eastern Promises, violence in movies, and how motherhood will affect her career.
Now that you've had a chance to see the film, did you find yourself shocked by any of the violence?
It's intense, definitely. It always read as a tough movie. And, yeah, some of the scenes — that I obviously was nowhere near on the filming schedule — surprised me. But David always makes it truthful.
Do you find the violence in a David Cronenberg film different from violence in other movies you've made?
I haven't really done a lot of movies with violence. I'm always interested in darker stuff, definitely, but it's usually about emotional darkness.
How would you compare the violence in Eastern Promises, then, to other violent movies you've seen?
What was most ironic was I made this film just before I did Eastern Promises called Funny Games, which is the American version of the Austrian film. [Funny Games director] Michael Haneke is really addressing violence in quite a specific way, and he's trying to speak to the audience, and he's really poo-pooing violence and any movie that glorifies it or makes it look cool or funny or sexy. So I've got two movies that are contradicting each other in a way. But I think David's violence is connecting with the truth. He makes it very textured and real so it doesn't feel gratuitous, although there's an abundance of it.
Apparently David Cronenberg gives you a lot of freedom on set, in terms of not telling you exactly what to do in a scene.
The great thing about David is that he's done it for a long time now, and he just exudes confidence on the set. He doesn't really say much at all to begin with. He says, “Let's just try it” and then, often, “Okay, let's go again.” And I thought, “Well, okay, he just knows what he's doing and what he's looking for and if it's there, it's there.” Obviously the body of work before him shows that he has got immense style, and if he's seeing what he likes, then he doesn't need to thrash it around and say, “Let's try it seven different other ways.” I liked that. It kept the energy consistent.
How did you find working with Viggo Mortensen?
Viggo blew me away on a daily basis. He's spent time in Russia and learned the language, and every day he would come to set with something interesting, a piece of writing or a Russian chocolate or he'd show me this photo album — he was so well versed in everything about the Russian culture, and, really, I think he stayed in character pretty much the whole time. And that's great. I mean, it helps you.
Learning Russian changed the way his face moved apparently.
Yes, very dedicated, very committed to it, and I think it helps him, and it helps others. I saw Viggo in the lobby last night, and it was like a whole different person. I almost didn't recognise him. It was inspiring working with him.
Did you find yourself swapping Peter Jackson stories with each other?
We did actually! Well, let's face it, it was a large slice of our lives that we spent — him more than me — but we both love Peter and his wife Fran, and so we were happy to walk down memory lane of their world and Wellington, where we shot.
You found out you were pregnant three weeks into the shoot. Did that feed into your performance at all?
Yeah, it certainly created greater meaning for me, you know, holding the baby, and all the things I read on midwifery, and the research I did, like going to the hospital and watching some births. I saw a C-section…
Did that scare you?
Yes! I didn't know I was pregnant at that time, though. But I do remember thinking, “Whoa, that's intense.” It's quite a brutal surgery.
You were here in Toronto three years ago with 21 Grams, and you spoke then about what a long, hard slog it was to get your career going and how you desperately wanted to keep the momentum going once you had it. How do you feel now?
I'm much less attached now to my career, and that came probably not just with the baby, but with meeting Liev. That was the point where it changed. Not because of him, but I just feel like, “I'm gonna slow down a little bit.” I think because I'd taken 10 years to get to Mulholland Drive, and I was on such a mission to hold onto that and keep the momentum, and then I realised I can pull back a bit and relax and enjoy other things, too. And now having a baby, I think it'll definitely put a new perspective on it. I'll probably just want to work once a year or something.
What's the most difficult role you've ever prepared for?
21 Grams. I wonder actually playing that role now — now that I am a mother, because I wasn't a mum then and playing a character where you lose two children… I mean, obviously your imagination can work very hard and the research I did in that was sitting in rooms full of people who had lost their children. It was just really hard, and you felt very invasive. You know, I'm just an actor playing this role, and here I am watching these people grieve.
So beyond wanting to work less, does becoming a mother change your outlook on your career? Are you looking at taking different roles now?
Well, I'm still new at being a mother; I'm six weeks into it. But obviously it's going to change things from a scheduling point of view, like, “How long is this shooting? Where is it shooting? When is Liev shooting and how do we make that work?” But in terms of the content of the films I'm doing, I don't think so. I mean, maybe I'll want to do a kid's movie for my son to impress his friends down the line, but right now, what interested me before is still interesting to me now.