In what looks set to be the most controversial film of the year, actress Naomi Watts tells us what it’s like to portray Diana, Princess of Wales
Words: Lyndsey Gilmour Photography: Ben Watts and Rex Features
I am yet to meet an actor who genuinely likes the promotional side of film-making, but two weeks ago, Naomi Watts found herself in the toughest of positions when her audience turned against her. What should have been a routine 30-minute chat about her new film Diana was marred by rumblings of discontent about the controversial role she’d taken on. BBC Radio 2’s Simon Mayo tweeted that an interview had gone badly and she’d walked out (a claim she later refuted). And I was up next.
Facing hours of guilt-loaded questions about how Princes William and Harry might feel about a film depicting their deceased mother had obviously taken its toll, and by the time we sat down to talk, tensions were high to say the least.
Impersonation can be the hardest form of acting and, indeed, it can be a risky business tackling icons whose legacies have spanned our lifetime. The cinema-going audience feels it knows the subject inside out. Done well, the rewards can be fruitful; just ask Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren, who have bagged Oscars for their representations of Margaret Thatcher and the Queen respectively. But the prospect of a hyper-critical audience didn’t discourage the respected Watts, because the lure of studying such a complex character was hugely appealing. The controversy surrounding Diana’s life and death, and her enduring popularity, would have put many off, but Watts dared to go there and, in doing so, she has caused a stir unlike any other actor this year.
It’s an admirably brave move for a woman who had nothing to prove. With a slew of critically acclaimed movies under her belt, including Oscar nominations for 21 Grams (2003) and the Boxing Day tsunami-based thriller The Impossible (2012), we know Watts has talent, but her latest work has faced a barrage of criticism.
Naomi Watts at the UK premiere of Diana
One reviewer likened the Oliver Hirschbiegel-directed biopic, based on Kate Snell’s biography Diana: Her Last Love, to a Mills & Boon novel. Accused of serving up just one version of the People’s Princess, it focuses mainly on her affair with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, played by Lost’s Naveen Andrews, towards the end of her life and fails to touch upon her well-documented struggles with bulimia and self-harm. Khan has rubbished its legitimacy as “cruel lies” and vowed to never give his approval. Doubtless a warts-and-all biopic will surface at some point in the future, but for now – exactly 16 years since that fateful car crash in Paris – it’s debatable whether an audience so sensitive to the feelings of Princes William and Harry is ready for anything grittier.
Watts didn’t bank on a backlash and looking back over my notes later I realise she didn’t utter the word ‘Diana’ once, referring to the princess only as ‘she’ or ‘her’. Ironically, while it was never her intention to cash in on the sensationalism by immortalising the one-time ‘most photographed woman in the world’, she’s made herself a similar target. For someone who values her privacy, she’s had to adjust to being stalked by the paparazzi during bike rides at home in New York and trips to the seaside with her husband, actor Liev Schrieber, and young sons Sasha and Sammy. The resulting pictures, incidentally, ended up on gossip sites all over the world.
It’s likely the interest will subside but, when I met her, the nervous atmosphere inside the suite at Claridge’s was palpable. With Hirschbiegel sitting beside her for moral support, Watts took a deep breath and prepared to discuss her decision to play a role that could redefine her career.
You’ve certainly found yourself in uncharted waters playing Diana. Did you expect to feel as much pressure and responsibility?
Yeah, I did, and that’s why I wrestled with the decision early on. It wasn’t an easy decision because although I was fascinated and compelled by playing her and exploring her, I was also afraid of people’s comments and objections. Having said that, the reasons I felt afraid became the reasons I wanted to do it.
So what made you sign up in the end?
Like any role I say yes to, there has to be movement, someone who is going through a journey of some kind and gets transformed by the end. During this period she really came into her own, not just in her work but as an individual and as a person. The love story had a lot to do with that, it gave her back her confidence.
Are you worried about William and Harry seeing it?
I don’t know if they will choose to see the film or not. Personally, if there was a film being made that was in some way connected to my life – about my late father – I know I would be curious to see it. But I hope the whole film is something they would feel OK about. I don’t think we have done anything other than recognise her great achievements in her line of service. And show that she was able to come out of her marriage and the Royal Family in a dignified way and that she did experience happiness again, and I hope it brings up some fond memories of her.
Is it more important for this film to be liked than any other film you’ve done?
I think it’s as important, but there is a very big responsibility knowing that the princes are there and, you know, I hope they like it if they see it.
Are you intrigued by what the die-hard Diana fans are saying on Facebook and Twitter?
I don’t do those things. But [with YouTube trailers] it’s kind of a vicious circle. The people who post those comments are usually there just to say negative things.
I imagine Helen Mirren would know how you’re feeling right now – have you spoken to her about it all?
No I haven’t, but that’s a good idea, I should ring her up! [Laughs] Obviously I saw her performance and it was brilliant and a great film, but perhaps I should read some of her articles or at least ring her up and see what she says. I am sure she handled it well.
Did any of Diana’s friends, such as Elton John, George Michael or Bryan Adams, give you any advice or wish you luck?
I have had conversations with people who did know her but I am not going to reveal that.
You must have done a thorough research job; can you describe Diana in three words?
Oh god – only three? I think she was intelligent, empathetic and bold. I’d like to take more than that because she is more than that, which is why I found her fascinating. As I approach any character, I’m looking for more than one colour. Having said that, I didn’t know this love story – it was well hidden, and that intrigued me.
There are scenes in the film that suggest Diana had to travel in the boot of a car to avoid the paparazzi and on another occasion, she met Hasnat at Chicken Cottage. Were these details true?
Yeah, Oliver actually put me in the boot of a car that was travelling at 80mph. I was being flung around; it gave me a sense of what that lifestyle must have been like. It would have been impossible to contend with on a daily basis. Having to calculate everything to within an inch of its life – it just explains and shows us how difficult that would have been. I mean, I take measures here and there but not to that scale. I can identify with the frustrations of having the paparazzi on your tail, but it’s not every day for me, it’s only now and again.
Oliver: It’s all true. She had many ways to escape from the palace; she used a wig, there was something adventurous about it and she kind of liked it. She finally got away and could drive around the city being free on her own.
When I saw the film, I was surprised by the suggestion that Diana was in cahoots with the paparazzi when she got together with Dodi Al Fayed. That would be self-destructive.
Well, that’s your version. You can’t say that that was what ended her life.
That’s true. It was nothing but a tragic accident – that’s what the inquests ruled. But the conspiracy theories refuse to go away. Do you think there is any truth to them?
We have heard it all and seen it all. We stuck to what was discussed at the public inquest. I understand why people need to keep rehashing it because I think her life was cut too short and we are not comfortable with that, so we need to understand why this happened, and that’s why this story keeps living on. But there seem to be too many things – like the fact they weren’t wearing seatbelts – that lead you to think it was nothing more than a horrific accident.
Where were you on that day in August 1997 when you heard that Diana had been killed in a car accident?
I was in Canada filming and a group of us were at dinner and someone came over and told us the accident had taken place and that Dodi was dead.
I heard you were with Rob Lowe…
I was actually, how did you know that?
It came up in my research…
We weren’t working together but we were staying at the same hotel. He was with his wife and kids. Anyway, we went back to their hotel room and watched it play out on the news. Once they revealed her death I remember making a guttural sound because it was a big thing, and being told to be quiet because the kids were asleep.
You lived in the UK when Diana married Charles back in 1981 – do you remember the street parties and people getting the bunting out to celebrate?
I remember it well; I remember watching it on the telly. My brother was there, my mum, some friends. I didn’t do any of the parties.
Were there any royalists in your household?
No, but having said that, when we were here filming last year, we went and watched the Diamond Jubilee and we were absolutely involved in the celebrations, it felt really good to be British. My kids loved all the stuff about the Queen and the planes [the Red Arrows].
Your good friend Nicole Kidman is making a film about Princess Grace of Monaco – have you exchanged stories about playing popular icons?
Not really. It is odd timing and we had a laugh about it but it just shows that we are fascinated by these kinds of figures and they are worth exploring as pieces of history. We have so many other things to talk about – like the kids. We haven’t seen each other in a really long time but we will have an hour-long conversation and cover everything.
If someone was to make a film of your life, who would play you?
I’d cast Mia Wasikowska. She is a brilliant actress and an interesting girl.
Which two years of your life would make the most interesting period?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. Hopefully they are yet to come.
See Naomi in Diana in cinemas nationwide now. Let us know what you think – tweet us @StylistMagazine
Will you go and see Diana at the cinema?
No, says columnist Lucy Mangan
“We’ve had closure – let’s leave it there”
I cried and cried the day Princess Diana died. And again at the funeral. I have a lot of sympathy and a high threshold of tolerance for that whole national-outpouring-of-grief thing. I don’t think it was inauthentic. After all, we did all know her. A bit. Not much, not in the usual or deeply meaningful sense but more than we know the hundreds of people we pass in the street, more than the people we talk to over the phone at BT or the bank or our energy supplier, more than the people we never see, meet or talk to at all. So when she died, we all lost an infinitesimally tiny fragment of something, and onto that was battened, individually and collectively, everything else that was wrong with our lives.
This public loss tipped people with unexpressed, unresolved issues and emotions over the edge. It gave them an excuse to lose unshed tears for other losses, other sorrows, other feelings too complex to be easily given names – and that’s been one of the functions of royalty and celebrity since time began. But enough already. It’s over. To create a biopic about Diana betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what that carpet of flowers, that tide of sentiment was about. It was about – to use that excruciating but infuriatingly useful word – closure. We got ours, regarding Diana, and regarding a whole sprawling mass of other griefs and grievances. We got her, in a sense, out of our systems.
I suspect the strongest emotion that now exists between the public and her memory is one of guilt – a residue of the questioning and (histrionic at the time but not at root unfounded or unvaluable) flagellating that went on in the wake of events about how much our hunger for pictures and information about her contributed to her hounding, her desperation and her death. The only people still truly loving and missing her are her friends and family. To my mind, that makes a film about her life not only commercially misguided but morally questionable too. They cannot possibly want it. They cannot want another interpretation of her life, another layer of untruth added to the pile that threatens to bury again the woman, sister, daughter, mother they knew. Enough already.
Yes, says writer Anna Hart
“I’ll choose freedom over politeness, thanks”
I quite liked Diana. And her sons, William and Harry, seem like decent sorts. But I don’t like Diana enough to make me forget that I live in a liberal democracy. Losing their mum was a tough blow for the young princes, but I don’t feel sufficiently sympathetic to demand Soviet-grade censorship of the arts in order to spare their feelings. To all the people shouting about how Diana shouldn’t have been allowed and how insensitive it is to her family: do you know what you’re asking for? I am grateful every day for the freedoms we have in the Western world: freedom of the press, freedom of expression for writers, artists and filmmakers. Many nations don’t have this. Let’s not talk as if we’d sell this freedom cheaply; that it’s less important to us than being polite.
We don’t grant ‘untouchable: no opinions or renditions allowed’ status to other public figures, alive or dead. There was little fuss when Meryl Streep portrayed Margaret Thatcher (then living) in The Iron Lady. Is this because Thatcher was less popular than Diana? Or is it because Mark and Carol are less popular than Wills and Harry? Idris Elba’s performance as Nelson Mandela in the forthcoming biopic, simply titled Mandela, has been widely praised; is this because Mandela is regarded as a triumphant, not tragic, figure? Because the film is about his achievements, rather than a relationship? Thankfully, our rights to self-expression are not affected by the popularity of a public figure, nor the circumstances of their life and death, nor how reverential we intend to be.
I am not cold-hearted: I can see how strange it will be for Diana’s friends and family to see an actor pretending to be her. But reasonable people understand that celebrities have always been grist to the cultural mill; if we burnt all the books, films, paintings and music that feature a real person, our libraries, cinemas and galleries would be stripped bare. And people are smart enough to understand that we can still have our say on Diana. We don’t need films to be banned; we will vote at the box office. If you prefer to remember the real Diana rather than Naomi Watts playing her, and if you think it’s a bit insensitive, that’s fine, but be grateful that this film is allowed to exist.