It’s hard to imagine it today, but in the ’90s Naomi Watts was a struggling actress, who had been on several television series in Australia and in Hollywood. But that all changed when she met the director David Lynch, and landed a role in the 2001 film Mulholland Drive. It’s a part that completely changed her career. “I went from being someone that was begging for a meeting or an audition to someone whose phone was running off the hook,” Watts says. “It was massive change.”
Now, the English actress is reuniting with the director–as well as her “bestie” and fellow Lynch muse Laura Dern–for the revival of Twin Peaks. Here, Watts opens up landing that fateful role in Mulholland Drive, what she knows about Twin Peaks, and why Australians are so good at American accents.
Let’s talk about David Lynch. When Mulholland Drive was first invented it was supposed to be a TV show. How did you first hear about it?
I was in New York and Joanna Ray, a fabulous casting director, called my agent and said, “Um, you have a meeting with David Lynch.” And it wasn’t for an audition per say—it was just to meet with him. I happened to be in New York at the time and I didn’t want to go; I didn’t believe in traveling or breaking plans for auditions because I had done that many times before at my own expense and things had gone badly. So, I just had a rule that if I was in another place then too bad, I miss the audition. If they couldn’t wait till I got back, too bad. Because most of the time I wasn’t getting things anyway. But this was David Lynch and it’s not every day that you get that call.
So you flew out to L.A
I flew out to L.A. and went straight from the airport. I had no real information. I said, “How should I dress?” because I was always on these auditions and you had to be sexy or funny or a business woman or a doctor, but I didn’t have anything. I had no information, so they just said go as yourself. And myself is pretty much jeans and t-shirt and no makeup. I just went straight from the plane into Joanna Ray’s office and she said, “This is David.”
Did you care that this was for TV show?
No, I didn’t care. Listen, I was auditioning for soap operas. There was no snobbery and Twin Peaks, that was such a phenomenon. So I left that meeting and then I got the call that he really liked me and I thought, “Oh wow, this sounds good.” And then they said, “He’d like to meet you again but could you dress up this time? And could you put some makeup on and could you, you know, maybe be a bit more glamorous or sexy?” And I was like, “Oh no. I’m never going to get this.” I thought he liked me, but now he wants a model-looking type of actor. And that’s just not me. I thought, “He thinks I’m ugly or not sexy enough.” And I had heard it millions of times before and just thought, “Okay, well that’s too bad.” But then they said, “No, no. He does want to see you again, so give it your best shot. Go get your hair blown out and put on a tight dress.” And I did.
Did you dress retro, because his work is a little period?
I didn’t do retro, but I did put on a very tight dress. He’s into that sort of retro, period pastel thing, but he’s also into bodies. So I thought plain and simple, with just straight up tight dress and high heels. And I went and got a blowout. So we had another good 45 minutes together with Joanna and her Jack Russell, who started humping my leg at one point. We were making jokes about that, so I though that was a good sign.
It was fate… When did it become a movie, rather than a TV show?
Just my luck, we had this fantastic experience and shot the pilot and ABC rejected it, saying, “No, too weird. Too off the wall.” He was pissed off, and we were all pissed off, because we basically shot the script. Like, how could you suddenly say this is too weird? Of course it’s weird. It was weird on the page and it’s still weird.
And David went into one of his fantastic meditations, probably more than once, and the ideas just came bubbling up. It took two years though. I mean not the ideas. I’m sure the ideas came quite quickly but it was a two-year gap. Then I got this call from David saying he had come up with a way to end it and he wanted to make a film and would I be interested. And I was like, of course I’m f**king interested David. Like this has been haunting me. I thought I was just the most unlucky person in the world. Like finally I get a decent project and it’s shelved.
The thing about David Lynch’s world is that it’s a very sort of sexual world. I don’t think I had seen a lesbian character in a movie before you were in Mulholland Drive. And I think you masturbate in one scene, don’t you?
Were the more sexual scenes challenging?
No, not really. I mean the masturbation scene, yes, that’s an awkward moment, but [David Lynch] did this thing–he kind of built a box around me because it was awkward to be there in front of the crew. I felt a little bit objectified. It wasn’t, sort of, a sensual thing, it was an angry thing and I wasn’t able to achieve orgasm. I was trying to connect with this woman that was rejecting me and it was very emotional. I think I was very nervous that day, I remember. This is a secret but I remember having really bad stomach cramps that day and I was actually spending a lot of time in between takes running to the bathroom.
What was it like when you went to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time with the film?
Cannes was a game changer for me. I’ll never, never forget that experience of arriving. It was hard for me back then. Nobody knew who I was. I certainly didn’t have a stylist or any semblance of an entourage. I was just going to a screening and I couldn’t even get a dress to wear, but I did somehow have a contact with Jean Paul Gaultier but this dress was sort of ill-fitting and who was I to be asking tailoring. You couldn’t possibly cut a Jean Paul Gaultier dress. I think I had whoever the sponsors were that year do my hair and makeup, and it was all puffy and not very interesting, but anyway I arrived. And I was in the car with Justin Theroux. You know, the cars pull up and then there’s music and there’s that gigantic red carpet and steps and everything. And the song that played as I was pulling up was a very special song to me, which is Cat Stevens, Morning Has Broken. And this song happened to be played at my father’s funeral. I was like, “Oh my god. What’s happening?” And Justin looked over to me and he said, “Is everything okay.” I said, “Oh my god, this song. Oh my god. Oh my god. My makeup is running.” So I started crying and I knew I had seconds to get out and repair this situation and he sort of just grabbed my hand and said, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. We’ve got this. Let’s just do it.” It was a life-changing moment.
What was it like after that?
It was very different. I had the most incredible review by Todd McCarthy in Variety, which just felt like a love letter. I mean my mother couldn’t have written something that generous. And that was it. Phone calls started happening. Every single agent wanted to meet me. I was filming some movie of the week in Australia like out in a field three hours out of any major city, and suddenly someone was walking up with a huge bunch of flowers and they were like, “These are for you.” I’m like, “Who? Who? What? Who are they from?” And they were like, “From an agent saying we’d really like to me you.” And so I went from being someone that was begging for a meeting or an audition to someone whose phone was running off the hook. It was massive change.
Did David Lynch give you any words of wisdom to guide you through this experience?
Um, no not really. He’s just always happy for you, and just feels, you know that everyone deserves it. I mean I definitely rang him when I had trouble making decisions on work stuff later on. Actually I called him about King Kong. I wasn’t sure, you know, first of all I had Mulholland Drive and then I had this critical acclaim and then I got offered The Ring. Gore Verbinski who is the director was so great and the script was great and it was a great idea, but I was wondering is this selling out. And then King Kong came along and I thought, “Oh god another one.” So I call David and I’ll never forget what he said, “Naomi. Anyone who sits in the hand of King Kong will be a movie star for life.” That’s what he said. So I said okay.
You have an American accent in so many films. I am curious, why is it that Australians are so good at doing an American accent and yet the other way around is pathetic.
Because Australians grow up on American TV. American’s aren’t watching Australian TV. It still takes work. It’s really hard and I actually find it gets harder as you get older I don’t know why. I had this conversation with Nicole [Kidman] the other day. I really wish I didn’t have to speak in an American accent. It’s so much work. And you have to almost think of every single word that you are about to say, but I don’t know I think it’s growing up on with you know everyone sings in American accent. And film and TV, there’s so much of it.
Now with Twin Peaks. I know you can’t talk very much about it, but how did it come about? Did David Lynch call you out of the blue?
Pretty much. Laura Dern are great friends. We had been trying to get him going with a TV idea and, you know, the way to do that is just be in his proximity. So we would go up and have some coffee at his house and say, “What about this idea. What about that idea. We just want to do something together. Sisters. Rivals. Whatever you want to make us.” And he’d sit there, “I like that.” And then he would sort of spin off an idea. None the less we made sure that we were in his mind. We planted ourselves. About six months later called and said, “Come and do this, I’ve got a little part for you.” I was in L.A. at the time and, yep, I went up and did my reading at the house–only the pages I’m in. And that continued when I ended up doing the show. I still was not able to read anything else. In fact even scenes that I’m in other people’s dialogue is blacked out, so you have no sense of what’s going on but that’s okay. You’re just in good hands with David. He knows exactly what he wants. And you just trust him.
David Lynch’s Heroines Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before
From left: Chrysta Bell wears Tiffany & Co. necklace. Hailey Gates wears Bulgari necklace. Laura Dern. Naomi Watts wears Robert Lee Morris SoHo earrings; Lagos necklace. Patricia Arquette wears Tiffany & Co. necklace.
Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Inland Empire, and Twin Peaks (2017) “I hadn’t read the script, but I knew the film was Blue Velvet. I was sitting on the floor, waiting to audition, and David walked out. I was startled by every aspect of him. He looked at me, and I was waiting for some magical words. He said, ‘I have to pee,’ and disappeared. When he came back, we talked about life and high school and meditation, and I was ready to audition—but that never happened. He said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and I left. Soon after, I got a call saying he wanted to meet me at Bob’s Big Boy to see if Kyle MacLachlan and I could get along. We ordered malts and french fries, and David was doodling on napkins while Kyle was doodling with a knife in his ketchup. A girl either thinks, These are bizarre men, or, I am in love with both these people and want to spend the rest of my life with them. Needless to say, I fell in love.”
Dern wears a Cartier necklace.
Naomi Watts wears Bottega Veneta dress; Robert Lee Morris SoHo earrings; Lagos necklace.
Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks (2017) “I was in New York and my agent called and said, ‘You have a meeting with David Lynch.’ I didn’t believe in traveling or breaking plans for auditions, but this was David Lynch, and it’s not every day that you get that call. So I flew to Los Angeles and went straight from the plane to meet him. David had that intense ear-to-ear grin, and he was smoking up a storm. He said, ‘How’s your day? Tell me everything!’ I was at a point where I’d been auditioning for 10 years and people would barely make eye contact, but David was genuinely interested in me. I was there for 40 minutes. When I left that room, I thought, No matter what happens, I had a great meeting with a legend.”
Watts wears a Bottega Veneta dress; Robert Lee Morris SoHo earrings; Lagos necklace.
Lost Highway “During Lost Highway, I would ask David, ‘Am I playing two different people? Is one of them a ghost? A hallucination? Are they both real? What am I playing here?’ And he’d reply, ‘I don’t know, Patricia. What do you think?’ So I had to come up with a whole concept of what I thought Lost Highway was about. I decided to model these two characters after Salome and Jezebel, in the Bible. At some point, I told David that one should have dark hair and blunt-cut bangs like Bettie Page. David said, ‘Who is that?’ I turned him on to the famous nude pinup. David was like, ‘Wow. Bettie Page. She’s the bee’s knees.’ ”
Arquette wears a Tiffany & Co. necklace.
Twin Peaks (2017) “When he works, David Lynch uses a megaphone. Even if there are only three people in the room. I really like that kind of commitment. He’ll have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and he’ll say, through the megaphone, something like, ‘I need a little more danger in her face.’ At one point, he felt the table in front of me wasn’t quite dirty enough. He was on the megaphone: ‘Can I get some Bisquick?’ Someone came right over with the Bisquick, and David started rubbing a paste of gunk over the table. The cig was still hanging out of his mouth. That was one of my favorite moments.”
Gates wears Theodora Warre earrings; Bulgari necklace.
Twin Peaks (2017) “For a long time, I felt like I was swimming in a different lake than everybody else. I would look around me and think, Hmm, maybe I’m not from this land; maybe I should try and venture into some other dimension. I think that is one of the reasons that David and I get along. He functions in all these juicy, mystical, esoteric dimensions. When David asks me to be a part of things, it’s always a bit mysterious. Twin Peaks was no exception: He approached it with a little twinkle in his eye. I couldn’t do anything but say yes excitedly.”
Bell wears a Balmain dress.
From left: Patricia Arquette wears an Akris jacket and skirt; Tiffany & Co. necklace. Hailey Gates wears a Norma Kamali swim dress and skirt; Theodora Warre earrings; Bulgari necklace; Michael Kors Collection belt; Manolo Blahnik shoes. Chrysta Bell wears a Balmain dress; Tiffany & Co. necklace; Rochas shoes. Laura Dern wears a Monse dress; Cartier necklace; Manolo Blahnik shoes; her own ring. Naomi Watts wears a Bottega Veneta dress; Lagos necklace; Paul Andrew shoes.
Do you have a crush or is there a particular character in another David Lynch?
Laura [Dern] in Wild at Heart. I want to see it again now actually since I’ve become besties with Laura.
How did you become friends? Did you do something a project together?
Yeah we did. We did a movie called We Don’t Live Here Anymore. A very tiny movie. She was amazing. Of course we knew we had the David Lynch connection and we have a lot of things in common. Actually, that movie was the forging of many friendships between Mark [Ruffalo, who was in the film] and his wife Sunrise, who I also have a girl crush on, myself and Laura. We became really, really close friends.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Jack Nicolson, I would say, was one of the great favorites growing up. Chinatown or Cuckoo’s Nest but not really crush worthy. But just talent crush.
What movie makes you cry?
Terms of Endearment. That scene when Debra Winger is saying goodbye to her sons. I mean that’s just ridiculous. That’s just way too heavy. I just love that movie all around. Not one bit of it bores me. And it stands up I just think it’s fantastic.
What was your favorite birthday?
Oh 40. I was fully pregnant with my second, and so I was stone cold sober and watching everyone in a very different condition, which was funny and then it kind of got a little boring. I wanted to go to bed and go to sleep, but Liev [Schreiber] designed the whole thing, made this fantastic film and it was epic. It was really just a special, special thing I still have it. They basically took all the films that I was in and then they shot the other side like took out the other character. So I would be having my Mulholland Drive dialogue with somebody else or Eastern Promises or whatever the film was that they used. Painted Vail. In fact, I was in bed in that scene that I was supposed to be in bed with Laura Herring with my best friend’s husband.
Where was your first kiss?
In a barn. I was about nine. It was my brother’s friend, so he was older than me and he talked about this crush that he had on me for a long time and there was a lot of buildup and finally we were – I think we were making fireworks or something in the barn and my brother left for a minute and he just planted one on me, and it was really sweet and romantic but not like open mouth or anything. It was just like a sweet thing. And there were chickens running around.
Well that’s a good story. I like the barn.
Yeah it’s nice. Don’t ask me where I first had sex, that’s not nice.
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