Naomi Watts: 'I'm not just going to play the girlfriend anymore'

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Elaine Lipworth

Naomi Watts poses for her photographer brother, Ben, for Sportscraft’s spring campaign.

Naomi Watts poses for her photographer brother, Ben, for Sportscraft’s spring campaign. Photo: Jodie McBride

It's a misty morning on the beach, serene apart from the cries of seagulls. Joggers and surfers are limbering up on the sand. When a slim, blonde figure in jeans and a grey tank top hops out of her car, there is not even a ripple of recognition, although the woman in question is one of Australia's – and Hollywood's – most celebrated actors, Naomi Watts.

Watts' understated features mean she has a delicate beauty that can be made up to stunning effect on the red carpet. But she can also disappear into the background with surprising ease. The lack of attention is a blessing, says Watts. "It's an absolute plus, I want to be able to move around in the same way that I always have.

"I'm surprised when I do get recognised. Mostly when I do, it's because of Liev [Schreiber, her partner of 10 years, with whom she has two sons]. He's unmistakeable, so tall, there's no one else like him. But I think I always look different. Of course there are moments when it [fame] works in your favour, getting restaurant reservations," she says, laughing.

Best run of her life: Naomi Watts.

Best run of her life: Naomi Watts. Photo: Mark Abrahams/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media

"If I call ahead it's easier. Often if I haven't made a reservation and I walk in, people don't recognise me."

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Watts, 46, has arrived for a seaside photo shoot for the 101-year-old Australian fashion brand Sportscraft, as its new ambassador. "Obviously I've known the brand for many years and always thought of it as classic," she says. "Simple lines, not too edgy, very modern and made for the chic woman. So when I got the invitation, I said, 'Wow, let's discuss!' "

We're chatting in the hair and make-up trailer, where Watts is sipping espresso. There is no entourage; she is just here with the photographer for the shoot who happens to be her older brother, Ben Watts. "Naomi is good at what she does," Ben tells me, "and she keeps it real."

“She keeps it real,” says Watts' brother Ben.

“She keeps it real,” says Watts' brother Ben. Photo: Jodie McBride

It's unusual that a star of Watts' magnitude – two Oscar nods, for 21 Grams (2003) and the tsunami drama The Impossible (2012), plus a slew of other awards – manages to fly under the radar in public so successfully. "I think it's because I don't have any extreme features," she says, a fact which works to her advantage on screen.

"My lips, nose and eyes can be changed because there's nothing so dramatic that means they can't be shaped with make-up. I guess I am a bit of a blank canvas."

Dramatic screen transformations range from her portrayal of the late Princess of Wales in the 2013 biopic Diana to her role as a pregnant Russian stripper opposite Bill Murray in last year's St. Vincent. "Of course I had to do the interior work, and the voice. But the reason I think my face looked so different in that film is that I had very severe eyebrows. I was too scared to lose my own, so the make-up artist used wax to seal them off ... and then she drew a thin pencil line over the wax."

The blank canvas hides a rich interior life, and an ability to fully inhabit characters – a combination that has made her a director's favourite. In fact, at an age when other female actors are seeing roles dry up, Watts is having the best run of her life. She recently explored comedy in Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, with Ben Stiller, earning critical praise.

"I never did a comedy before, because I never found the right one," Watts says. "I'm not drawn to the classic, formulaic rom-coms and if you say 'no' too many times, people start thinking you're just not interested.

Then they stop calling you or they don't think you're funny ... I got lucky, finding good material, but I had to put the word out, letting people know that's what I wanted to do."

She scored yet another career coup by starring in last year's acclaimed Birdman. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, (who had previously cast her in 21 Grams) described her as "one of the best actresses ... there are moments with her where you can see that line between fiction and reality just disappear."

She has also veered into blockbuster territory, as Evelyn in Insurgent, the second in the hugely popular Divergent series. Her career, she says modestly, "reflects where I am in life. Getting older, you've had time for powerful life experiences, whether it's being married, divorced, having children, someone's died in the family. I'm not just going to play the girlfriend anymore."

Softly spoken, Watts' Australian accent remains, despite years in the US. She has a reputation for being unaffected. Jake Gyllenhaal, her co-star in the upcoming film Demolition, says: "Naomi is constantly professional, a real actor who connects with you.

All the trappings, the vanity, anything you would expect from someone in her position are non-existent."

Watts may be solidly grounded with a stable family life but clues to her dramatic depth are found in her unconventional childhood.

Born in Kent in England, the daughter of Myfanwy (Miv), a Welsh antiques dealer, and Peter, an English sound engineer and road manager for Pink Floyd, Watts and her brother had a peripatetic childhood. When she was four, her parents divorced. Her father died of a suspected heroin overdose when she was seven. "It happened when I was so young that it's all I ever knew," she says. "My father was on the road a lot; I don't have a lot of memories of him. But of course it's in me. How could it not be?

"There's certainly a sense of loss that will always be there. When I think of my own children [Alexander, 8, and Samuel, 6], if they lost a parent now at the ages we were ... it's absolutely horrific to think of that." She glances outside where Ben Watts is setting up his camera on the beach. "My brother looks exactly like him [their father]. I'm sure we've got lots of his traits, even without having known him that well."

Their mother, Miv, now divides her time between Australia and France. Watts and her brother remain "very close. He means the world", the actress says. "Having a sibling is like having a witness to your life. We've shared everything, we've been through the same things and it's funny how our paths merge, no matter what."

Acting was a family tradition. Watts recalls watching her mother perform with a local theatre group. "I remember vividly seeing my mum in Pygmalion, aged four or five. I was in the front row waving at her and she wouldn't wave back, obviously, but I was persistent. She finally had to acknowledge me with a little wink or hand gesture. I thought, 'This looks like a fascinating world of play and pretend, it's a world I'd like to be a part of.' I ended up being in that same theatre group."

The Watts siblings were raised single-handedly by their "incredibly creative" mother, who was still in her teens when she had her children. "I've grown up feeling very impressed by my mum. She's a powerful woman with great strength. My mum was raising kids as a teenager and got on with it. She took us everywhere she went. After my father died, we travelled from county to county through England. My mum would buy and sell antiques and do flea markets; she also worked at a department store in London for a while, decorating the windows."

Watts admits there were challenges. "We went to different schools around England, then lived in Wales for a while and couldn't understand a word of the assembly every morning because it was in Welsh, and we had to learn to speak the language – or at least understand it. We both needed to learn how to adjust easily and fit in." Aged 14 when the family moved to Australia, "we already knew how to do that fairly well. But it was still tough."

Given her upbringing, Watts takes nothing for granted and resists spoiling her children. "Liev and I are both very careful about that. Kids want phones, they want electronics, and they're not allowed them. The longer you can keep them innocent, the better their childhood, I think."

Liev is "a very hands-on father", she smiles. "He provides all the fun." Both parents read to the boys and constantly make up imaginative stories. They do their best to give their children the stability Watts never had.

Watts puts her calm disposition down to a daily mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation practice. "Anything that keeps you centred is good because it is a pretty wild world out there," she says.

Hair and make-up done, Watts is camera-ready. Twirling on the beach in a striped maxi dress – "I love a long dress with a side slit" – followed by a series of summery outfits, she is transformed yet again.

Just before the interview ends, I ask whether she has any dreams. "To keep my children happy and healthy – confident people. My dreams are all for them. Do I have dreams for myself? I'd really like to do theatre soon," she smiles, before floating off along the shore in a waft of white cotton, hair blowing, imagination, one suspects, running wild.