When she's not nestled in the palm of a giant gorilla or staving off waterlogged demons, Naomi Watts shines with the reflected light of others. ''I rarely get recognized,'' the actress says matter-of-factly. Yes, she was tailed by paparazzi through the streets of London earlier today but to hear her tell it, the photographers happened upon her purely by accident.
''I went to my Pilates studio, and Madonna was there,'' Watts recounts while lounging on the couch in her West London rental, still clad in her workout clothes. ''One just happened to see me, and they all started flashing away. Then they followed me home, which is a bummer.''
Despite her leading role in Peter Jackson's King Kong remake, a memorable stint in the horror hits The Ring and The Ring Two, and an Oscar nod for 2003's 21 Grams, Watts is best known for the camera-friendly company she keeps. The occasional run-in with Madonna aside, there are the years she spent cooling in the shadow of Nicole Kidman, 39, her best friend of more than 15 years, and, since May 2005, the many outings with her boyfriend, the actor-director Liev Schreiber, 39. ''He's 6'3'', so people recognize him right away not me,'' Watts says. The two met just before making the romantic period drama The Painted Veil (Dec. 20). She plays Edward Norton's unfaithful wife; Schreiber, her clandestine lover.
Veil marks Watts' first onscreen appearance in a year. ''It feels natural to be back here with my independent directors,'' she says of John Curran (Veil); her current boss, David Cronenberg, with whom she's in London filming Eastern Promises; and David Lynch (she has a cameo in his latest, Inland Empire). ''I missed the intimacy of a small film set, which you just don't get on a project like Kong.'' Though Kong helped the actress break into blockbuster territory, ''I'm certainly not on the lookout for a ginormous studio vehicle. Kong was more of a detour for me.''
Small in budget, Veil nonetheless gives her a role rich with subtle emotional shifts, as her character transforms from selfish socialite to saintly caregiver. But while intense parts are clearly Watts' bread and butter (see her emotional turns in 21 Grams and 2001's Mulholland Drive), she doesn't want to be known only as maudlin. ''People think of me as the go-to girl for the nervous breakdown,'' she says. ''I keep trying to steer towards a lighter thing. But I'm not interested in romantic comedy, and frankly, I don't think I'd be very good at one.''
Besides, from now on she intends to stick to one or two small films a year. That way she can focus on other things like having babies? ''I'm a woman, I certainly think about that all the time,'' she reveals, curling uncomfortably into the corner of her sofa. ''I'm very aware of my age and of my timing,'' says the 38-year-old, who then reaches over to scratch the belly of Bob, her Yorkie.
Born in Kent, England, Watts moved around quite a bit; her parents separated when she was 4, and her father died when she was 7. At 14, she emigrated to Australia with her mother and older brother, Ben, and met Kidman the following year on her very first casting call for a bikini commercial. The actresses later starred together in the Aussie film Flirting, becoming fast friends, and two years after that, she followed Kidman to L.A.
Once there, ''I had a director fall asleep on me [at an audition],'' she recalls bitterly. ''I remember reading the scene and halfway through I looked up and the guy was nodding off. I just broke.'' Experiences like that led to aimless drives during which she would play Radiohead's ''Creep'' over and over. ''I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo...'' she sings, explaining: ''There was that feeling of 'I don't belong here.' Total self-loathing, but funny, because who doesn't have moments like that? Maybe I had a few too many.''
After a series of close calls, including many callbacks for the girlfriend role in 2000's Meet the Parents that eventually went to Teri Polo (''They told me they didn't think I was sexy enough,'' Watts remembers), Lynch gave her the break she needed. Her portrayal of Mulholland's Betty Elms and Diane Selwyn a double-take look at the two sides of a struggling actress earned her a rep for remarkable range and, with 21 Grams, put her on the short list of must-work-with talent. ''It would be hard to argue that Naomi isn't one of the strongest actors in our peer group,'' says Norton, who spent four years (due to timing) trying to get Watts to star with him in Veil. ''She's beautiful, but at her core, her work is not the work of a cover girl. She's absolutely a character actor first and foremost.''
So much so that she was willing to do the unthinkable as actors go and conceal her face in a bizarre, costumed cameo in Lynch's new film. ''Sometimes when we're in debt to people we end up doing strange things,'' she says, smirking as she discloses her unheralded role in Inland Empire: ''I'm in a bunny suit.''
Naomi Watts' Must List
The following have recently lit up Watts' life.
Sacha Baron Cohen ''His humor is absolutely the type I tap into. I think he is the best comedian alive.''
'We Are All the Same,' Jim Wooten 2004 This book, about a mother and her AIDS-stricken child, is ''a very amazing true story.''
''Regarding the Pain of Others,'' Susan Sontag 2003 ''We have become overly fascinated [with] and desensitized by violence.''
Thom Yorke ''I've seen him live and I find it so emotional,'' she says of the Radiohead frontman, who has a new solo CD.
Ben Harper ''I love him even more since I've gotten to know him through [his wife] Laura [Dern]. His voice is really soulful.''