ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. "The Impossible" is the title of a new feature film about a family swept away by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. It's based on the true story of a Spanish family. In the movie, they're British: a couple and their three young sons on vacation in Thailand. It looks like paradise, then the earth trembles and the ocean roars in.
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BLOCK: The mother is played by Naomi Watts, who joins me to talk about the role. Ms. Watts, welcome to the program.
NAOMI WATTS: Thanks for having me. Hi.
BLOCK: Hi. The tsunami hits very early in the film, and it goes on and on and on. It feels really relentless. And at one moment, the camera zooms out and we see you, you've survived and you're hanging on to a tree and screaming.
BLOCK: How terrifying was that scene, that whole sequence to film?
WATTS: Oh, I mean, we spent four weeks in that tank, which became the wave and the current. And it was not only terrifying but unbelievably exhausting, you know, every single day in there. Everyone knows that working with water is a very difficult thing. Well, it certainly lived up to its reputation and then some.
BLOCK: I read this, Naomi, that you have a real fear of water. Is this true? You nearly drowned when you were a child?
WATTS: Yeah. When I was about 14, my family emigrated from England to Australia, and we decided to stop in Bali on the way through. And having grown up in England, we were not great swimmers and knew nothing about riptides. Anyway, we got caught in a riptide, and I didn't know what to do other than swim against it and got to the point of exhaustion and then just about gave up. But then my mother somehow miraculously found sand beneath her feet and just managed to pull me in. And so as a result of that experience, I've always been afraid of the waves and strong currents. And so it's, yeah, quite interesting that I ended up doing this.
BLOCK: Well, yeah. It's not obvious that that would be a movie you would say yes to.
WATTS: Well, no. I suppose not. But then, in some ways, yes. I think we always end up doing the work we're supposed to do. It's our - it's why we do it. And it will make sense in the end, I think.
BLOCK: When you first saw the script for "The Impossible" and realized, you know, you're going to be swept away by a tsunami, you know, battered and ripped to shreds and separated from your children, death all around you, what appealed in that? Why did you say yes to that?
WATTS: Well, it wasn't a straightaway yes. I found out about the idea that - it came to me through my agent, and he said: There's a movie about the tsunami. And right away, I thought: Oh, my gosh. That doesn't sound right. You know, is it going to be a disaster movie and become something, you know, spectacular and cool? You know, that would be so wrong, given the amount of lives lost. And this is obviously a very delicate thing that affected so many people.
And, anyway, then they told me the filmmaker - and I loved his previous film, "The Orphanage" - and knew that he was a proper filmmaker. So I read the script, it was sent to me, and right away from the first few pages, I knew I had to do it. I just loved the relationships, particularly between mother and son, and how that transformed and actually reversed roles in terms of the - him feeling responsible for me, which is something you'd never want for your child. Yeah.
BLOCK: We should mention that - in the movie - that you are very, very badly injured and you rely on this son Lucas to really help you survive, to carry you through.
WATTS: Yeah. Just an awful thing to have to put your child in that position and - but it was OK. I mean, Maria was always the fighter.
BLOCK: You're talking about the Spanish woman whom you portray, Maria Belon.
WATTS: Yes. Belon, yeah. I mean, when she spoke to me - and we spoke at great length before the movie, during the movie - there was a open dialogue. And she spoke in very articulate ways about how she felt connected to her center more than ever before and decision-making became really quick and easy. And you couldn't think about the future. You just had to know what to do in that exact moment.
BLOCK: Could you put yourself in her head to understand what that would be like?
WATTS: I had to get into her mindset to play that role and know what it was that she was feeling - every beat, every moment. And she was incredibly helpful. I mean, every time you play a live character, a real-life character, you - it comes with a certain kind of pressure. And in this case, it was - the pressure is getting it right and be as exact or accurate as possible because given the level of suffering that she went through and then on top of that, the responsibility of telling the story right for all those that lost loved ones or those who lost their lives. And that's a big responsibility.
BLOCK: There were hundreds of thousands of people who were killed in this tsunami in lots of countries - in Thailand and India and Indonesia - but this story focuses on wealthy, white European tourists. And I wonder if you had concerns about that because the Thai people in the movie are really just bit parts. They're relegated to the background. Did you wonder whether this was the right story to tell about this disaster or maybe just the wrong focus?
WATTS: I mean, a huge portion of those people that died were tourists. But, yes, I, you know, a lot of them were Thai as well. The thing is this is not - we couldn't possibly fit all these characters in. And it was really about the family and their experience of it.
BLOCK: Did it give you any qualms knowing that it would no doubt come in for criticism that this is a very white ethnocentric view of what happened?
WATTS: No, I didn't. I didn't. Actually, I felt - all those years back when I was watching the news play out, I - as pulled in as I was and affected by it, I don't think I understood it. And I think making the film helped me understand it in a much broader scale and including all the others as well.
BLOCK: I'm talking with Naomi Watts about her new movie "The Impossible." I'm wondering how much this notion of family loss and disappearance echoes with your own memories from childhood. I've read that you didn't have much contact with your father, and he died when you were very young. Did that carry through, do you think, in this performance?
WATTS: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a - there must a thread in everything I choose to take on. And I can't say it's a calculated thread, but, you know, I think you end up doing the work that's resonating with you. And, yeah, that's probably what this was about. There's certainly a sense of loss in me that will always be there. And I think the work is something that helps you get closer to understanding it.
BLOCK: Mm. It sounds like it could be a wrenching part of the process for you.
WATTS: Yeah. But I think it's good to explore it. I don't feel bad about that. I enjoy - I mean, I think everyone has a sense of - has a dark side, has a - carry some sort of pain with them. And I find it fun to crack it open and go there.
BLOCK: Naomi Watts stars in the new film "The Impossible." Naomi, thanks so much.
WATTS: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.