BEVERLY HILLS — After nearly two hours of watching her made up as a muddied, bloodied, bruised and broken woman struggling to survive the aftermath of a horrific tsunami, it's almost startling to see how nicely Naomi Watts cleans up in the morning.
The blond actress was as radiant as the California sun filtering through the Four Seasons Hotel room window when she walked in wearing a beige jacket, matching pants and black stiletto heels to greet a roundtable of reporters ready to quiz her about her role in “The Impossible,” in which she plays a real-life mother of three who lived through the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people on Dec. 26, 2004.
“I remember after I finished ‘King Kong' I made a promise to myself never to do an action movie of any kind again,” Watts said in her British/Australian accent as she recalled being soaked and pummeled for weeks on end during filming. “Yeah, famous last words. It's like childbirth isn't it. You forget. And there you are again, going through the same experience.”
The experience Watts helped to recreate was actually that of a Spanish family, the Alvarez Belons, who were Christmas vacationing at a resort on the western coast of Thailand when an earthquake caused the Indian Ocean to rise up and inflict the worst natural disaster ever to strike the country. The tidal waves that came in 10-minute intervals killed more than 5,000 people in Thailand alone.
Spanish director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (collaborators on “The Orphanage”) based the film on a story by Maria Belon herself, and chose to make the family British in the film, representing “citizens of the world,” since the tsunami inflicted damage and death in 14 countries — Indonesia the hardest-hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.
The first half of the film follows the trials of Maria (Watts) and her eldest son Lucas (14-year-old Tom Holland) as they're separated from the father of the family (Ewan McGregor) and the two younger boys (Oaklee Pendergast, Simon Joslin) by the hellish inundation.
Holland, a lauded veteran of London's West End theater hit “Billy Elliot,” plays the role of the young son who must become his mother's protector after the storm, and he was up for the rigors of filming the scenes in which the family is swept away, while Watts, 44, admits the sequences shot in water tanks in Spain were pretty rough on her.
“I did train a bit on the lead-up because I wanted to be fit,” she said. “It requires stamina and cardio fitness to be in that situation. Tom, it was easy for him, but he is a trained athlete and like a proper acrobat, and he did that ‘Billy Elliott' for two years every night. And he's also 14, you know?”
She laughed about that.
“Thrashing with the underwater tank, that was five or six weeks, and it was incredibly strenuous, and I had a horrific cough that I couldn't get rid of,” she said. “You know, if you're in the water, you're not going to get rid of a cough, and that went on and on and on, with all kinds of medications and, yes, it was tough.
“There was one day that went particularly bad with a technical issue, and I couldn't get out of the chair and I'd already reached my limit with holding my breath, and it just gives you a tiny, tiny glimpse of how panicked you can get. But (Maria) was beyond panic. She was in a place where it was like, ‘OK, done.' I mean, she became full of the need to survive when she got above water. But, I mean, she was under, she was under so long ...
“I would say that the physical stuff is harder,” Watts said. “I think I find the emotional stuff quite fun.”
For psychological preparedness, Watts recalled: “You know, it just, I got pulled in emotionally. When I first heard about the idea of making a movie about the tsunami, it didn't sound right. You know, how do you do that, without it becoming spectacular, which is so wrong.
“So many lives lost and everything. But then I heard it was Juan Antonio directing it, and I thought, ‘Well, this is a proper filmmaker. I saw “The Orphanage,” and I've got to read the script.' You know, what's he going to be doing with this? The minute I read the script, it just felt rooted in truth. It just felt necessary in a way, because it was, I don't know, like an intimate piece of storytelling about this family, as well as addressing this tsunami.”
Watts said she spent many hours with the real Maria Belon, getting to know the woman she was portraying.
“Oh, she's an impressive woman, and I said a few times, if I met her without knowing that she'd gone through the tsunami, like at a dinner party or something, I would probably find her intimidating, because of the way she speaks about life, and her view on life, and her sense of positivity and fearlessness is not something that I relate to.”
Watts laughed, adding, “I'm full of cynicism. ... She's just full of courage, and she is so centered and collected. She said, and the one thing she kept speaking about, was that she felt she was sure of every move and decision that she made. And I just don't know how to do that.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Summit Entertainment.