Watts initially reluctant about tsunami film
TORONTO - When Naomi Watts was first approached to star in a movie about the 2004 tsunami that killed some 200,000 people, her instinct was to take a pass.
"It was so tragic and hurt so many people and took the lives of so many, and to make a film that could end up being another disaster film ... making it look spectacular in any way would be so wrong," the "King Kong" star said during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.
But those doubts began to dissipate when Watts learned that "The Impossible" was to be helmed by Juan Antonio Bayona, a Spanish director whose previous work ("The Orphanage") she had admired.
"I thought: 'Well he's a proper filmmaker," recalled the 44-year-old British-Australian actress.
"He knows drama. It sounds like it could be interesting. And then I read the script and right away from the first five pages I knew I was going to do it."
Her decision paid off. Watts has been heaped with critical praise for her portrayal of Maria Belon — a real-life Spanish doctor whose family was caught in the Boxing Day tsunami. So far, she's been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
"The Impossible" — which opens in Toronto on Friday — begins on an ominous note as Maria, her husband (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons enjoy a blissful Christmas at a Thai resort.
While relaxing by the pool the next day, the picture-perfect scene is erased in an instant as the tsunami strikes with swift and devastating force, levelling the resort and separating the family.
"The Impossible" re-enacts the natural disaster in chilling detail.
Instead of relying heavily on CGI, Bayona built an outdoor water tank on the coast of Spain to recreate the enormous wave, a move which created some frightening moments for the actors.
"There was a technical problem at one point which happened when we were shooting the underwater stuff and I got trapped in my chair and I couldn't get out of it," recalled Watts, who received an Oscar nomination for 2003's "21 Grams."
Still, the actress is quick to point out that her experience was nothing compared to the ordeal suffered by Belon, whom she met before "The Impossible" shoot began.
"I was very nervous about that meeting. I felt: 'Oh God how do I begin this? I've got 20,000 questions on the tip of my tongue but I don't want her to relive any pain or suffering. It feels wrong to probe or pry.'"
At the same time, Watts was determined to get into Belon's mindset.
"I think she had a little bit of nerves herself (before our meeting) and she actually started to well up and I did too and then we just had this big hug and a big release and the next thing you know, we're not drawing breath we're just talking and talking and talking," recalled Watts, who said a planned 30-minute meeting turned into a 3.5 hour chat.
Even when Belon wasn't on set in Thailand (where the film was also shot), she wasn't far from Watts' thoughts.
"Her presence was always felt because she'd write to me ... she had no fear about going there and reliving it," said Watts, who is set to play Princess Diana in an upcoming movie. "I think she probably felt it healing and cathartic."
In the film, Maria and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) become separated from her husband and the two younger boys.
The mother-son journey forms the spine of the film, and Holland (who played the title role in "Billy Elliot" onstage in London) is also receiving kudos for his performance.
"Juan Antonio put us together ... in the rehearsal. We did all these exercises," recalled Watts. "We were there for about a month getting to know each other... It was about a creating a space for us to trust each other and feel safe enough to do anything."
Watts says her young co-star "blew her away" day after day.
"I love that boy. I'll forever be involved in his life because we went through so much together and his family is just great, his little brothers all played with my kids and we all hung out together," she said of the experience on set. "So yeah, we're forever connected."
"The Impossible" opens Friday in Toronto and goes wider in January.
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