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'Fair' Fight: Sean Penn v. Liman v. Naomi Watts?

Sean Penn and Doug Liman
Getty Images

"I've always had a belligerent sort of personality," Fair Game director Doug Liman tells Anne Thompson. When I gave Liman his first national coverage, 5,000 words in Rolling Stone in the '80s, I thought he was a peaceable college kid going places. Guess I was half right. Thompson says he so pissed off Sean Penn on the set, Penn boycotted promoting the film, which particularly needs buzz to counteract the impression that betrayed patriots Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson (played by Naomi Watts and Penn) are, as Karl Rove's attorney has said, "a little past their sell-by date." Thompson also speculates that Penn calculated its Oscar odds are low.

So Naomi Watts, the only one who's got an Oscar prayer for Fair Game, despite Penn's glowing reviews, is sharing campaign duties with Liman. She fields my call, getting up early in Thailand on the set of her second Summit Entertainment picture in a row featuring an irresistible force of nature, the tsunami movie The Impossible. "On set they got on absolutely fine," says Watts. "Sean and I had three weeks together -- there were no spats on the set then. But yes, we were all very passionate about the film."

What did happen was Watts' titanic artistic struggle with Liman, who told Thompson, "I've heard about how uncontrollable I was as an infant" and that, as director of Fair Game, "I would've been terrified of me."

"Doug and I got on very well," says Watts. "You expect to go through a few wrestling matches." Theirs was about how to play Plame, a personality so guarded she makes Steve Martin look like an oversharer. "She does have this otherworldly strength. She's such a hard character to play because she's hard to read, quite stoic. Not a hard person at all, just careful, dignified. As an actor, you want more drama, juicy meat. She was a person who didn't freak out, didn't get hysterical." Not getting to get hysterical can make an actress hysterical -- not that Watts did, but she felt she had to fight to convey Plame's inner trauma as the highest powers in the U.S. for which she risked her own and others' lives turned against her.

"As Woody Allen says, I believe there's a higher power watching over us -- unfortunately, it's the government," I tell Watts. "Did Woody Allen say that?" she says.

Watts talked to Plame. "I said, 'Cmon you must've broken at times.' In the film, she says, 'You can't break me, I'm unbreakable.' Of course there were moments where she felt the earth would eat her alive. Doug felt that she was made of steel." Inspired, he gave Plame's characteristics to Piper Perabo on his USA TV show Covert Operative, just as he'd populated The Bourne Identity with characters from his father Arthur Liman's investigation of the real-life Iran/Contra conspiracy.

Watts kept trying to crack through the character's carapace to the heart inside. "That's my job as an actor. I fought with Doug about that and most of the time he won. Finally I got some moment of victory, the moment in the bathroom where she's burshing her teeth and we were leaving [the location]." She demanded one take where she got to lose it a little. "I said, 'You don't have to use it, but shoot it!'

Watts likes the high-stress Liman process. "On most movies you're constantly waiting and trying to keep your energy at a certain level. He likes to move with great veracity -- I mean velocity." Both, no doubt. And if anybody gets an Oscar nom out of Fair Game, veracity and velocity will be the twin reasons.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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