‘Fair Game’ actress, director had eyes opened by dealings with real-life spy
BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – When Naomi Watts first took on the role of real-life spy Valerie Plame in “Fair Game,” she’d just given birth to a son and admits that she was “a bit too soft and maternal” to be playing a covert Central Intelligence Agency operative.
So director Doug Liman and the film’s producers decided to ship the petite, blond actress off to CIA boot camp to toughen her up and school her in the arcane ways of spy craft.
“No offense, but when Naomi and I first started working on this I said, ‘You know what, you’re a little soft, to be totally honest,’” said Liman during a press conference presented by Summit Entertainment at the Four Seasons Hotel. “And then I called the producers and said we need to do something. And (the producers), who are amazingly connected, they know everybody in Washington, D.C., made some calls. I think I said that on a Saturday and by Monday morning we were at this secret facility dropping Naomi off.
“I went with Naomi just at the beginning, to bring her there,” said the director, whose previous films include spy-centered works “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” “It was a real CIA training facility, and the other people there, their identities were classified, and so when those people came through they would make us turn towards the wall.
“They let me stay for the first hour,” he said. “And just to give me a little taste of what (Naomi) was going to experience, they handcuffed me behind my back and put me in a simulated car trunk, and you had to get out. Then they made us leave. They said, ‘she can’t have any friends here. She can’t have any comfort here. She can’t have anybody she knows.’”
“I was allowed to have my baby every few hours to feed him,” Watts injected brightly.
“But it was clear they were going to be mean to her,” said Liman.
“And as Doug walked out (the instructor) sort of kicked me in the shins and threw me to the ground, and I went ‘oww!’” Watts related. “And he said, ‘OK, don’t say oww again unless you need to go to the hospital.’ So it was intense, and I did things, incredible things that I’ll never get to do or wish to do again, like setting off explosives, ramming cars without a seatbelt or a helmet.”
“And it really did work,” Liman added. “This wasn’t like doing this for show. She came back from it, and it was like night and day. I mean it really did work in terms of adjusting her performance.”
“Fair Game” devotes considerable attention to the real-life Plame’s globe-hopping, anti-proliferation duties with the CIA as it tells the fact-based story of dirty politics and the White House press leak that blew her covert cover in the rancorous machinations leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Watts, English born and Australian raised, is a spitting image for the real Plame, who served as a close consultant on the film. Sean Penn co-stars as Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger, who blew the whistle on White House manipulation of data and drew the wrath of certain hawkish administration officials.
Watts, who said she came to know and admire Plame greatly, acknowledged an extra degree of pressure in portraying a real-life character on screen.
“I think when you play someone who is a true living person it definitely ups the ante, and the pressure is ten-fold,” she said. “Add the fact that Valerie was acting as one of our CIA consultants, she was on the set frequently being our BS barometer and saying how this scene would work or we wouldn’t have those signs there and you wouldn’t address someone like that. She was very hands-on. So, yeah, it’s not every day as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who is truly impressive to meet, so I was nervous.
“Our relationship was formed very quickly and in a small amount of time,” Watts said. “Basically, I had a baby on December 13th and I read the script on December 28th and we were filming at the end of February. So there was so little time and so many facts. Obviously we knew the story, but it was told through the media in a fragmented way. It was about piecemealing it together and then letting go of the facts and concentrating on the character and really learning her story – who was the woman and how did she deal with this betrayal, how did her marriage and family function, how did her lifestyle change? It would be so easy to assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or become undone. But they did neither.”
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