(Photo by Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Getty Images)
For most of the run time of Goodnight Mommy – an English language remake of the 2014 Austrian film of the same name – Naomi Watts is unrecognizable, as her head is completely swathed in a bandage-like covering that resembles a stark white ski mask. It’s unsettling and off-putting… and that’s the point.
In the film, Watts plays simply “Mother,” a woman living alone in an isolated house that has all of the warmth and charm of a mausoleum. After her estranged husband drops off their twin sons (played by Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti, who also appeared as siblings on the HBO series Big Little Lies), things start off awkward and only build from there until it all gets almost unbearably tense and disturbing. The mask allows Watts to flex some serious acting muscles, as she has to convey so much through Mother’s body language, voice, and eyes, flitting from concerned to angry to… well, the less you know going in, the better.
Goodnight Mommy proved something to Watts that she has long felt – that darker material just clicks with her in ways that lighter fare does not. But consistent with a career that has encompassed comedy, drama, horror, and grand spectacle, Watts’ taste in movies runs the gamut as well. Here are some of her all-time (and more recent) favorite movies:
Terms of Endearment (1983)
This is one of my all time favorites. So much love and humor and wackiness and just real life in that movie. I used to want to play Deborah Winger’s role. I think I’m getting closer to the mom role now.
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Carnal Knowledge is another favorite of mine. An examination of relationships, and just a great character-driven movie. I had always wanted to work with that director [the late Mike Nichols], too.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Harold and Maude I love for its strangeness, and it’s funny as well. Haunting, too.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
What woman doesn’t want to get lost in that movie? Those two fantastic actresses [Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis] in such supreme roles. I suppose, at times, we all have that fantasy of running away and changing our lives drastically.
Parasite was one of my favorite more recent films. Quiet, and it stays with you.
Eric Alt for Rotten Tomatoes: Were you familiar at all with the original Goodnight Mommy, or did you purposefully avoid it?
Naomi Watts: No, I had heard of it. I hadn’t seen it. But first, I read the script and I was definitely drawn in. I thought it was really well written. And then I spoke with the director [Matt Sobel], and I was struck immediately by his intelligence and thoughtfulness – just a wonderful man. And then I went and watched the original, which I thought was a brilliantly executed film. So then that sort of set me off in a path of like, “Well, do we really need to remake the movie? Let me speak to Matt again.” He definitely gave me the bullet points as to why he wanted to do a remake the first time we spoke, but this second time we spoke about it, he told me how important it was to get to the root of my character’s emotions, that she wasn’t just a hardcore villain in a monstrous way. She was someone who had vulnerabilities, and it was important for him to get that across. And he really wanted to double down on the psychological aspect of it and move away from the gory horror side a bit. Not to say that it doesn’t have its scary and jump scary moments too…
RT: Not to give too much away, but watching the movie you’re often unsure if Mother is the monster, the victim, or neither. Did that come across at all on paper when you read it?
Watts: Yes, it did, and he spoke about that. I think with so much storytelling these days we’re overfed and things are over-explained. There’s nothing for us to do as audience members. And so it was important to him to really create that negative space so that your mind can participate and you can come up with your own theories of what this is about and hopefully run wild with that. I think that’s a really smart move, and it’s a discipline, and hopefully people enjoy it enough that they’ll come back and watch it again.
(Photo by Amazon Studios)
RT: Your head is completely covered for most of the movie. Was that oddly freeing in a way?
Watts: Yes, it’s both freeing and limiting. But once you know what the rules are – and you have to operate within those limitations – that can be freeing. You have to understand what you’ve lost and double down on what you have. And obviously the eyes are the most powerful tool. Also the voice. In a wide shot, you get to use your physicality down to the fingertips. Every little bit that you have, everything you can use to tell the story of what’s going on with her emotions, becomes really important. It reminded me of my days back in acting school where we did some mask work. Yeah, I went right back there in my mind.
RT: During the course of their visit, the twin boys begin to suspect their mother is not who she says she is, and there’s a scene when Mother physically assaults one of the boys in a bathtub. Is it safe to say that was a particularly rough day on set?
Watts: Definitely. You picked it. That was the most difficult scene to shoot, and I was really glad that the kids came with a lot of on-screen experience already. And I spoke to their mom a lot, before almost every scene. As an actor, you’re doing that anyway, no matter what the role or material is, but especially when it’s emotionally draining and/or scary. Even though the boys were saying they were fine and they understood things, I was obsessively checking in with them, doing whatever I could to short circuit the thoughts, to make sure that they weren’t going to run away with anything that was too intense. I would play a silly game or crack a silly joke or something, just to break tension wherever possible.
RT: Are you able to shake off roles like this at the end of the day?
Watts: Do I take it home with me? No, not so much anymore. You should probably ask the members of my household, though. They might give you a more honest answer. But I try. Literally when I put the key in the door, I try to just be there for my kids, and that means clocking off as much as you can. But, just to contradict myself [laughs], you do find there is a change, even physically, when you are at the end of a job. You can’t wait to get rid of those clothes and the hairstyle, the voice. You might even get sick because you’ve been so caught up with whoever this person is and it feels like you’re fighting something all the time. Yeah, it is a marked change.
(Photo by Amazon Studios)
RT: Do you find yourself avoiding silk bathrobes?
Watts: Yes! I was definitely happy to let go of that sort of “floating down the hallways” feeling.
RT: Another striking scene involves Mother in front of a full length mirror, looking at herself while one of her sons spies on her. You mentioned making the audience have to work a little bit – the scene seems to ask us to consider what is going through Mother’s mind and the boy’s mind at the same time. How did you approach the shooting of that?
Watts: Who we are in the world versus who we are in a private moment – it can be vastly different, even with your own children. Particularly with this woman, what she was going through, she didn’t want to thrust her emotional turmoil onto them, but at the same time, she couldn’t really conceal it, and she also wanted to show up for them. It was a really difficult time and there was a real lack of communication going on. And so when she finds herself in front of the mirror, it’s like she wants to be free, but she’s also quite disgusted with herself at that point in time. There’s so much loneliness and self-loathing. She’s still trying to connect with herself, but at the same time she’s repulsed… but also kind of enjoying it. It’s just a lot of things going on, and so Matt just had me be as free as I wanted to be in that moment and I wanted it to be strange.
RT: Given this most recent role, as well as several others on your resume, do you just gravitate towards dark material?
Watts: I’m definitely no stranger to it! People are like, “Why, why, why?” And I don’t know. I think Mulholland Drive really planted me there. The phone was ringing a lot for characters that are going through some kind of turmoil. I certainly got offered a bunch of comedies and lighter fare in the beginning, but they didn’t draw me in in the same way. And I think they’re much harder to get right. It just wasn’t as interesting to me. And one thing led to another to the point where the phone stopped ringing for the cute girl roles, but that’s okay. I think there’s a lot to grab onto in this world of darkness.
Goodnight Mommy debuts on Amazon Prime Video on September 16, 2022.
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