SAG Awards: Naomi Watts Braved Snakes and High Water for 'The Impossible'

Naomi Watts shooting a scene for "The Impossible"

The nominee created one of her most honored roles as a tsunami survivor -- and reveals how a tech snafu left her without air: "I was furious, just wild and angry."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Sometimes a movie set fools you into believing you’re safe,” says Naomi Watts. But she felt anything but safe playing Maria Belon during the 2011 shoot of The Impossible, Juan Antonio Bayona’s epic about a vacationing family in Thailand swept away by the 2004 tsunami, which claimed more than 230,000 lives. Watts’ career-capstone performance in a role inspired by tsunami survivor Belon (who has story credit) has gotten Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG and Critics’ Choice nominations for best actress.

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Watts certainly earned those honors for the film’s grueling 25-week shoot in Thailand and Spain. “There was talk about how the film was cursed,” says Ewan McGregor, who plays Watts’ husband, a man celebrating Christmas with his wife and children -- one of whom is played by newcomer Tom Holland, 16, whose breakout performance earned a Critics’ Choice nomination -- until the big wave strikes with an astounding realism even more ambitious than the tsunami scene in Clint Eastwood’s 2010 Hereafter. During the film’s preproduction in 2010 and 2011, Thailand’s first near-civil war erupted, shutting down the airport and trapping crewmembers.

More destructive to the film was the nearly unprecedented series of storms that stretched the monsoon season from October to December, making it nearly impossible to shoot scenes calling for constant sunshine. Also sometimes stormy was the creative process of director Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, whose sole previous feature was their $4 million horror film The Orphanage, Spain’s 2008 foreign-language Oscar entry. Each week they wrestled with the challenges of their $40 million tsunami film, with Sanchez nearly quitting several times -- one nigh-deal-breaker was Sanchez’s desire to include a poignant but not plot-advancing scene where Geraldine Chaplin’s character explains the meaning of starlight to Holland’s character.

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“Everything on set was discussed in the ‘Spanish manner,’ ” says McGregor -- meaning there might have been a bit of shouting -- and then everybody felt the need to blow off steam dancing until the wee hours at a beachfront bar called Memories, named by its owner in honor of seven family members he lost to the tsunami. Everyone felt the pressure of respecting those touched by the tragedy, but no one felt more pressure than Watts, whose ordeal was both physical and psychological. In Thailand, Bayona and production designer Eugenio Caballero re-created a tsunami-ravaged flood zone the size of a dozen football fields, which eventually was invaded by real reptiles whose bites can kill. “I didn’t know they’d hired ‘snake frighteners’ to shoo them away,” says Watts. “They had these baskets for shoes outside our hotel room, and one morning a snake was nicely coiled up in my shoe. The housekeeper screamed, ‘That’s poisonous! Get inside!’ and locked the door -- which wouldn’t have helped.”

Watts had a scarier moment in Alicante, Spain, where effects wizards Pau Costa and Felix Berges re-created the big wave in a 393-foot-long seaside tank with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. “We couldn’t afford CGI, so we did it for real,” jokes Bayona, who actually did touch up the innovative, actor-buffeting live footage with 600 digital-effects shots in postproduction. For close-ups, Watts sat in a swivel chair attached to the tank’s bottom. “You’re breathing oxygen underwater, and just before the cameras roll, you let the oxygen tube go and unleash yourself. And of course you want to push yourself so the shot is lasting as long as possible. But just as I was about to release myself, I couldn’t get out. They couldn’t turn it off. It turned out it was a bit of a technical difficulty, but I thought it was the director saying, ‘Oh, let’s get this extra little panic.’ I was furious, just wild and angry, and when I came to the surface, I was shouting, ‘WHOAAAA!’ ”

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That terror proved useful in a later scene where Maria clutches a tree as the flood batters her with debris, which caused actual bruises that had to be duplicated later with makeup. “Juan Antonio had me screaming primally,” says Watts. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t I just be gasping for air?’ He said: ‘No! Animal! Animal! Wild!’ I didn’t quite understand, until I thought about how I’d felt running out of breath underwater. Maria told me she felt angry to be alive when she didn’t yet know her family had survived.”

Watts conveyed Belon’s complex feelings under tough conditions and with very few words. "The action stuff was hard on the body, but the acting was harder. I have like 12 lines!” she says, exaggerating a bit. “We were supposed to have more dialogue but quickly learned you cannot utter a word without swallowing a gallon of water.”

If The Impossible merely was an action film, it would have been difficult -- and Watts would have refused to star, finding it immoral to exploit the tsunami victims. But it also is a plunge into Maria Belon’s heart and mind as she braves the flood, treks cross-country and sinks into a near-death state. The rains made this tricky acting job nearly … well, impossible. “We got screwed by weather,” says Watts. “Juan Antonio was just so insistent that we have blue skies for the shots.” But weirdly persistent monsoons confined shooting to a couple of hours a day. “Just before he said ‘action,’ it would rain,” says McGregor. “First patch of blue, we’d jump out to do a shot as quickly as we could. We had to do it piecemeal.” Adds Watts: “When the emotions are there, they’re ready to come. It’s hard to get them back. It’s not an on-and-off switch. But they’d say, ‘Cloud! We can’t shoot.’ It’s hard to keep a rhythm. The weatherman was thanked in the credits. We called him 7,000 times.”

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Watts had a flood of input from Belon, who gave pages of notes and visited the set. Watts’ toughest scene was a wordless one in which Thai women dress and comfort Maria, whose defenses crack. Maddened by the piecemeal shooting, Watts nearly lost it, grabbing Bayona by the neck. “I said: ‘Help me! Can you ask Maria to come here?’ I held her hand, and her presence just brought me back, helped me forget the film process. This was her story, this was the woman who went through that. She saved me.”