Naomi Watts: Watts Cooking

After a decade of trying to get noticed, Naomi Watts is receiving attention for two reasons--filling Tom Cruise's shoes by taking best friend Nicole Kidman out on the town and wowing critics with her daring performance in David Lynch's bizarre noir Mulholland Drive.

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The surprise isn't that Naomi Watts is popping up everywhere--she's been appearing on red carpets as Nicole Kidman's escort in place of Tom Cruise, and she's starring in David Lynch's latest strange offering, Mulholland Drive. No, the real surprise is that this girl has flown under the radar in Hollywood for nearly 10 years, appearing in small roles in films as varied as the sci-fi adventure Tank Girl and the lusty courtesan drama Dangerous Beauty.

The 31-year-old Watts, however, isn't surprised at all. She seems perfectly sure that if fame or stardom had come her way earlier, it would have been a disaster.

"Truthfully," she says, pushing her blonde hair behind her ear, "it's all got to do with timing. My twenties just floated by... I'm not sure if it was unawareness or arrogance. But in the past couple of years, I've become aware of who I am. Does that sound too corny? I've come alive as an actor and as a person. I've gained a lot of confidence. This town [Los Angeles] is so difficult, and there's so much competition. You go into these meetings, and because nobody knows you, you get your five-minutes-past-one time slot. And you realize that you don't have a chance in hell of getting that part. I'm one of these people who knows that if I'm up against too much, I retreat. I suck at auditions. Absolutely suck. If I walk into a party and I don't know anyone, I freak. I'm really shy. But that's changing, too." She pauses for a breath and flashes an adorable, heartbreaking smile.

After watching what fame has done to her pal Nicole Kidman, isn't Watts a little leery of it? She thinks about it for a minute. "You take what you get," she says. "Really, Nicole handles fame with such grace that I don't find it that frightening. When it's based on my work, that makes me happy. But when it's based on the hype, and people start blowing smoke up my ass, I'm very careful. I have a great bullshit detector, and I can tell the difference."

Watts was born in England to "a hippie mom who was really young" and a dad who was away most of the time because he was a sound man for Pink Floyd. Her parents divorced when she was four, and her dad died when she was 10, "the day after we had a horrid fight and he kicked me in the ass and I turned to him and said, 'I hate you. I really do.'" Watts moved to Australia when she was 14, and began studying acting. Her first casting call was for a commercial. "There were three of us girls," she remembers with a giggle, "who had to sit around all day in our swimsuits, waiting for the advertisers to decide which of us they wanted." One of those other girls was Nicole Kidman, and the two formed a bond that lasts to this day. "It's always been about strong women in my family," Watts says. "My mom has three sisters, and they really run their families. I'm very close to my girlfriends, very loyal, and I'm drawn to strong-willed women. I've had boyfriends who, honestly, couldn't handle it."

David Lynch originally conceived Mulholland Drive as a television series for ABC, no doubt hoping to have the same happy experience he had with the cult hit "Twin Peaks." After the network balked at the pilot, he decided to turn it into a feature. When Mulholland Drive screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where Lynch shared the award for best director with The Man Who Wasn't There helmer Joel Coen, the movie, a noir-tinged drama about the unusual friendship between an amnesiac car-crash survivor (Laura Elena Harring) and an aspiring actress (Watts), picked up an American distributor. Watts was completely shocked that she was even called in for an audition.

"It's not that I walked into our first meeting and really shined," she says. "They didn't send me a script, I was just told the character was a young actress in Hollywood, trying to make it. I went in with jeans and a T-shirt, no makeup. When I met David, we started talking--nothing about work, only about my life. I got nervous that I was boring him, but he kept encouraging me to go on. It lasted maybe half an hour, and then he said, 'Hey, Naomi, great to meet you' and he hugged me. They called again and asked if I could come back the next day, but maybe looking more glamorous. I went to the hairdresser, put on a form-fitting dress and dabbed on some makeup. When I walked in, David said, 'Oh, Naomi, you're a babe!' I walked out and prayed, please, please, let me get this part.. .am I rambling now?" she asks. But just like Lynch, I could listen to this girl for hours.

Now living with director Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space, Under Suspicion), Watts is enjoying her L.A. life more than ever. "I'm madly in love," she admits. "He's funny and sexy and incredibly gorgeous. He's the first really handsome man I've ever been with. I don't know why. I've never been attracted to super-good-looking men. There's something about vanity in men that's not appealing to me. You can accept it in women, but it doesn't look good on men."

Speaking of attraction, Watts and Harring have an incredibly hot lesbian love scene in Mulholland Drive. When asked about it, she makes the whole thing sound as if it was as easy as pie to do. "We rehearsed the movement of it, but without kissing, until we rolled the film. And then we kissed, and it felt completely natural. Laura is very free in her sexuality. I think I am, too, but usually only with; someone I'm very intimate with. But by the time we did it, we had known each other for two years. Seeing that scene--how beautiful and loving it appears to be--makes me realize that when they say the camera doesn't lie, they're wrong. Because as soon as they would yell 'Cut,' we would fall off the bed, laughing."

Despite herself, Watts gets hysterical all over again.

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Check out more on Martha Frankel here.



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