TAKES ON KONG
by Brad Balfour
For Australian-raised Naomi Watts, taking on the challenge of playing Ann Darrow – the role made famous by Fay Wray in the original King Kong – was both daunting and a career move as well. Having been known as industrious actress willing to do anything from the sexually provocative Mullholland Dr. to the artful 21 Grams (for which she got an Oscar nom), she been expanding her résumé to include comedies, horror, and now a blockbuster tentpole flick such as the Peter Jackson directed King Kong. This may be her biggest role yet, not just in the length of the film but in scope as well, having to make a shift from terrified victim to horrified friend – not an easy transition when your co-star is a 25 foot computer-generated ape.
Aside from keeping your dress clean, what other challenges did you face in making this Kong Kong?
I didn’t wear the white dress in the jungle, though. I wore a slip and that got shredded.
Did you get any injuries?
Well, not major. But it felt like every day there was a new pain or bump. I did have a near major accident which was I fell down a hole backwards. It was a five or six foot drop. I was a little terrified because I was in this hole, ditch kind of thing and my legs were in the air. It was only about this deep [raising her hand to illustrate] and I was physically jammed. I couldn’t move right away and I instantly thought, “Oh dear, I’m paralyzed or something really bad.” And all I could see is everyone looking down at me going, “Oh my God is she okay, is she okay?” And I was going, “Ohhh, ohhh.” And the medic came over and was telling me not to move, and all I wanted to do was move. He was being careful to make sure I hadn’t broken anything. But mostly what I could think about was my underwear is on display and everyone up there is looking at it. So I knew once I had that thought I must be okay. When you’re doing that much physical work it’s like you’re an athlete, and they have accidents, they injure themselves. All the action stuff in the movie took about half the time shooting in the movie. And it had to happen in the consecutive stretch so it made it very debilitating for me. It’s the hardest thing, definitely, I’ve ever done in film. At times you felt really defeated by it, because you want to be able to do everything, but your body’s not up for it. It frustrated because my will was stronger than my physical ability. We stopped shooting for that day and then I was fine. I attribute it to doing yoga. I’m very flexible and my body literally went up into a very strange shape.
Did you ever have a stunt double?
I have a great stunt woman who helps me out, but I tried to do as much as possible and they were happy for me to do a lot of jumps and the dangling from ladders. I did a lot of those vaudevillian moves on the cliff top too. I did a lot of throwing myself around – two days of that. That was one of the days I had a particularly hard time – and Epson salts weren’t enough. My body was covered in bruises.
Ann is the damsel in distress and every man wants to save you; ultimately Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) gets to rescue you from the big boy Kong (played by Andy Serkis who had sensors all over his face and body to later digitally be used to program the Kong CGI).
Yes, Kong was my big boy. He’s the ultimate man. He has everything you need. As someone said the other day, the combination of those two men, if they were [fused] into one, that would definitely make the perfect man. Adrien is the wordsmith, he has all the words. And Kong has all the soul and power as well. You just have to go with it. And the chemistry – Andy and I tapped into each other right away and we knew what we had to do, the work that had to be done to suspend disbelief, and we just both went there. There were times when we’d fall down laughing, “What are we doing?” And we’d let that run through us and get back to it. We’d have to set ourselves up again. I gave Andy a Barbie. You know he was always up in this big tractor thing [acting out Kong]. That was my sight line and it created the scale. I couldn’t fit in his hand when he was doing motion capture so I gave him Barbies and he dressed them up [in my place].
How was it reacting to Kong?
I love a good old Hitchcock movie. Fear is a great emotion to play. You can never imagine how furious these beasts are, but you don’t want to rely on a bag of tricks. I think most of my performance is to be credited to Andy I have to say. I’m reacting to his strength. He made me go there. He made me believe.
You broke a glass in a hotel with your scream?
That’s true, but there’s one part you may not have heard about. Basically, I was asked to scream on a live TV show and we were in a hotel on the balcony. And they had a hot light on the window that was going through to me on the balcony. So I think the combination of my scream and the heat from that lamp just created some weird vibration and it literally cracked from the floor to the ceiling. I could not believe it. We were all like “How did that happen?” I’ve done it many times since and it’s never worked again.
Can you scream now?
I’m literally on voice rest. I’ve done it on a few TV shows this week. I could, but I just don’t want to lose my voice in the middle of a press junket.
It must have been hard changing the dynamics from someone that was terrified to someone who absolutely loved this beast. What was the turning point?
You have two desperate beings. He’s desperately lonely and hasn’t had companionship for who knows how many years. And she suffers from the same thing, only in a different way. They come together. He’s a savage, evil beast, and whatever through the experiences she’s had in New York, she’s able to be tough and find a way to negotiate her way so as not to be killed or pulled to pieces. I’ve loved that idea, that they introduced the vaudevillian thing, and she finds out that all he needs is to be entertained. And why is that? Because he’s lonely. He’s desperate for connection. And so he starts pushing her around and tries to get her to do this song and dance just to make him laugh and it becomes very humorous. And then he just wants more and more and it’s not enough and then he has an outburst of rage, but he’s not going to squash her, because he realizes she’s fun. So he has this outburst and then he’s embarrassed. He goes through this huge gamut of emotions and has to run away and hide, because he can’t face her. And she understands him in that moment, and she sees who he is. She’s been an isolate creation and maybe see just identifies with him. There were things we did in between that moment that got lost. Not lost, but we didn’t need them. They got cut. I guess that was the defining moment of the beginning of their relationship.
Your character Ann Darrow has a fatalistic approach to life in the beginning of the movie. She says, “Good things in life never last.” And, “Yeah, we’re doomed.” Do you identify with Ann?
Yeah, I identify with her struggle. I mean, times are tough for Ann. She’s at an absolute low point. She’s resorted to stealing food. She doesn’t know where her next paycheck is coming from. It’s absolute rock bottom for her. And living in the years of the Depression as well. I can identify with her struggle, but not to that degree. Yeah, I know what it is to struggle, but the thing I love about her is that she is a survivor. Even though she feels love is doomed, that good things never last, she likes to make people laugh. That’s what she does and what she enjoys, she’s not a victim.
Were there times in your real life when you were rescued or felt the need to be?
I feel I’ve been rescued before, but I’ve also been raised by a woman that’s a complete survivor. And she sort of taught us, my brother and I, to do it ourselves. But sometimes the survival mechanism works so hard, to let yourself out of that and just be, you just find yourself going into that for no reason at all. There’s also been times where I’ve gone, “Yeah, I got people looking out for me.” I’ve felt I landed on my feet and not just on my own. Someone helped me out there and saved me.
King Kong is an iconic film and this is one of the most revered roles; did that concern you at all?
It was on my mind, definitely, before I started filming. It did concern me and I really played that out. It such an iconic part and so much to live up to. But I felt, with any role you take on you weigh the pros and cons and it helps you to think it all the way through. At the end of the day after meeting with [director] Peter [Jackson], [screenwriters] Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] and hearing them talk about the script, how they were going to do it, and what new ideas they were going to introduce, I thought, ‘Well, I want to do this.” All that stuff kind of went pale. It’s so different from anything I’ve done before and that became the biggest reason, among many others to [do this part]. But once I was on the set, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. It was my role. Except that there were a couple of homages that went straight to Fay–the one of the ship and another one that didn’t make it into the movie.
You got to meet with Fay Wray.
Meeting Fay was wonderful. We had a fantastic night in New York. A gentleman by the name of Rick McKay hosted a small dinner, and Peter clearly had been in love with this woman since he had been about nine years old, his first big crush. He talked to her and told her he was doing this film and how much it meant to her, and it drove him to being a filmmaker. She was very attentive and I think he was very moved by the experience of being in the same room with her. In fact, I think I saw a tear well up. It was a very tender moment. And then he introduced me as being the new Ann Darrow. And she looked up at me [IN A LOUD VOICE] “You’re not Ann Darrow. I AM.” I thought, “Oh great, she’s 96 and she was still right there.” I had a moment of “Oh God, what if she doesn’t like me? What if she doesn’t think I’m good enough?” And all that typical stuff. We chatted, had a nice dinner and at the end of the night, we dropped her at her house and she got out of the car. And we all kissed and hugged and she whispered in my ear, “Ann Darrow is in good hands.” That was great and special, the parting words and the kiss. I felt like she was giving me permission and I was given the baton.
Did you ask her about being remembered for this one role?
No. We didn’t talk about that. You didn’t want to overwhelm her with too many questions. I was hoping that night would be the first of more. It was for Peter and Fran, but sadly she passed a few months later and I wasn’t in the country to meet her again. It was bad timing, her death.
Are there any old actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Era you particularly admire?
Yeah, a bunch of them. Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner, [and so on that are a little later than from that time]. They are all legends. I loved all those movies, but it’s also fascinating how it’s changed over time, the style, but how that it still stands up and inspires me.
You had to work hard to get on the Hollywood radar. Do you remember where you thought, I can do what I want to do? What about that moment, where you realized you were a player and on the radar?
It’s great to be able to work with people you admire and that you’re inspired by. I feel so much gratitude, being given these opportunities. I love what I do. It means something to me and brought me a great deal of happiness. That’s the thrill in it for me. It’s not like I go, “Wow, I’m on the radar, I made it.” [But then] there’s always another struggle.
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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 11, 2005.