English Australian actress Naomi Watts has had a steady stream of noteworthy films from Mulholland Drive to The Ring to 21 Grams to King Kong to Eastern Promises to The International to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Now the 42 year-old is about to fill the shoes of Valerie Plame in the new political thriller Fair Game, which tells the outed CIA agent’s story for the first time on film.
In the film, Joseph Wilson inadvertently causes his wife Plame to become a target of then-Vice-President Dick Cheney and have her secret CIA agent occupation be revealed to the media after an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times raised doubts about the rationale for the Bush Administration’s controversial invasion of Iraq. Playing Wilson is Sean Penn and Watts was asked how she enjoyed working with at-times-controversial actor.
“Brilliant, as always,” Naomi says, “We’ve done it a few times. He’s also one of the best actors in the world, living or dead.”
Naomi talked about the challenge of playing someone who has now become a historical figure in American politics that is still living.
“I think when you play someone who is a true, living person it definitely ups the ante and the pressure is tenfold,” she believes, “Everyone in America is familiar with this story, so I felt an extra amount of pressure that I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I could. And the fact that Valerie was not only alive but very involved closely, she was acting as one of our CIA consultants, she was on the set frequently as the BS 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 so I was nervous. It felt like a big undertaking, and because of her injustice, because of that level of betrayal, it was deeply important for me to somehow serve her story in the best possible way.”
“Our relationship was formed in a very quick and small amount of time,” Watts continues, “Basically, I had a baby on December 13, I read the script on December 28, and we were filming in February. We did like a little mini shoot to catch the end of winter in February. So it was so little time, and so many facts. Obviously, we knew the story, but it was told through the media in a fragmented way. It was about piecemealing 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, her family function; how did her lifestyle change; who did she become? It would be so easy to assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or come undone, and she did neither. And then with Sean, he actually went to Santa Fe and stayed with them for a couple of days. I couldn’t do that; I was nursing a child.”
Watts was asked whether her just becoming a mother for a second time created conflict at all with playing Valerie Plame.
“Yeah, [director] Doug [Liman] sent me off,” Naomi acknowledges, “He was like, ‘No, you’re too soft and maternal. You’re going to boot camp.’ I did some paramilitary training for three days. That was intense. I was allowed to have my baby every few hours to feed him while I was armed with a weapon.”
“Yeah, and as [Doug] walked out they sort of kicked me in the shins and threw me to the ground and I went, ‘Ow!’ and he said, “OK. Don’t say ow again unless you need to go to the hospital,’” she continues, “I was like, ‘OK.’ So it was intense and I did incredible things that I’ll never get to do, or wish to do actually for that matter, again, like setting of explosives, ramming cars without a seatbelt or a helmet.”
Naomi talks about how she learned of how Valerie Plame managed to maintain her dignity and stay strong through reliving her ordeal.
“Well, I think the thing about Valerie is that if you meet her you learn very quickly that she’s not someone who wears her heart on her sleeve,” she believes, “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 and she’s not easy to read.”
“Yes, 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,” Watts adds, “But that’s who she is, that’s who she is through and through and she talks about it in the movie. Nothing ever broke her. She’s 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 in her own way.”
Watts also talks about how she related to Plame as someone who divides her time between a very demanding career and being a mother.
“Yeah, I had the utmost respect for her because of that and how she managed with twins and traveling all kinds of places all over the world and outrageous hours week in and week out,” she says, “My job can be like that but then there are also incredible breaks. So I talked to her a lot about that, how she managed to be a professional and a mother and be really good at it. In fact, that was one of the things I learned about her just recently because I’d never really got to see her with her kids, but obviously I heard her talk about them endlessly.”
“But when she came into my hotel in Cannes and how she related to my children, it was very clear in an instant that she is a natural mother, because my kids don’t really pay attention to people unless they’re holding some great, fantastic toy or something,” Naomi says, “So that balance was interesting to me, how she managed that, and definitely something that I can relate to.”
Naomi was asked about how she and her husband Liev Schrieber both prepared to play CIA figures at the same time, with Schrieber playing a CIA supervisor in the Angelina Jolie thriller Salt.
“It was very funny and very strange to have first of all, two of us shooting at the same time, that’s the first time it ever happened with us, and second of all, that we were both playing spies,” Watts says of it, “But they couldn’t really have been more different; one was the classic spy story and one was based in truth and facts.”
“So we were laughing about it,” she adds, “There were a lot of moments where we shared our research and watched documentaries on the CIA and compared notes, and I was talking about NOC. It was quite funny and unusual and good timing in a way, because he helped me and I helped him.
Watts was asked how familiar she was with Plame’s story before reading the script and how she reacted to it after reading the script for Fair Game.
“Like I said before, I was familiar with the story and was not following it as avidly as I wished I had at the time had I known this was going to be going on,” she says, “But I was interested in it, and then it sort of just went away after the Libby trial. The next thing was getting that email from Jez 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,’ and he went, ‘Well, this is about Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe and their story. 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,” Naomi continues, “It all came back to me but there was obviously a lot more information that I discovered, and again, didn’t know quite the level of responsibility in her position. Then I read her book, which the script is based on, and went into more research, and then meeting her. So I learned a lot kind of on the job, basically. But I did know the story before I got closer.”
Naomi recalled the first experience of meeting the former CIA agent.
“Well, meeting her it took a while, because as I said, I’d just had the baby,” she recalls, “We worked out that Santa Fe and New York door-to-door travel was 12 hours and it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. I would have liked to be able to do what Sean did and just show up and hang out for a couple of days. Be inside their home and see how things functioned, but it just didn’t happen. But what was funny, and when I realized I’m really talking to a spy was she said ‘Well, okay. How about we meet halfway? Let’s meet at Chicago airport.’ And I’m I like, ‘Who meets at an airport? Oh, a spy does.’ But even that became hard to do, and eventually she came to New York and we had dinner.”
“And again, like I said before, you don’t get her all at once, so it takes time, and I’m kind of like that too,” Watts continues, “I like to read a person before I give myself away or something; I don’t know. She’s obviously someone who that’s her training. So we just were careful and easy with each other and we slowly went into it, and then finally it was like crunch time and I just presented her with a list of very confronting and personal questions. All the facts were available but really what I wanted to get into was her mindset and her psyche and how she dealt with this. And yeah, how she was almost kind of just unbelievably consistent and strong. I wanted to learn about who that person was and how she managed to function in every part of her life.”
Watts was asked whether or not Plame spoke about how she had to live a double life as both a mother and a CIA agent.
“Well yeah,” Naomi replies, “This is what the film is about. I think it’s very strange how her life evolved. She never expected to be in the position of exposing her life story and having it turn up into a film. She loved her job, she loved what she did, and would have that back in a second if she could.”
“Obviously deeply involved with a number of different families, assets, whatever, that she was emotionally attached to,” she continues, “So it was really hard for her. This is why it felt like such a huge betrayal, and going into her job as a covert agent she expected, or there’s risk of being exposed by another government, but to have it done to you by your own is such an injustice.”
Finally, Naomi was asked if her children understood the double life she herself and her husband Liev Schrieber live as both actors and parents.
“Oh, they don’t really understand it yet,” Watts answers, “There have been times when they see a photo or a flash of us on tv or something and they’ll go ‘Oh! Mommy!’ or ‘Daddy!’ And then we try to explain Daddy’s got to go to work or Mommy’s got to go to work now. ‘But I want to come!’ They can come to the set and they see you. They think our work is in a trailer, that’s our office.”
“And then, actually, I’m shooting a film right now called The Impossible which is another true story that we all know of based on the tsunami,” she adds, “This one was quite difficult then coming to work for the first time because they saw Mommy in quite a bad condition. So I had to explain that these owies were just pretend, and it took a little while. We prepped it days in advance and then showed them how you can put a little bit of blood on and then you can rub it off, and now they like it too.”