Dissecting Diana: Naomi Watts on playing the people's princess
Diana star Naomi Watts is feeling the pressure like never before – even for a two-time Oscar nominee, the intensity of the response to the movie is something new. “There is a huge amount of responsibility,” she says. “I am a little bit scared by it”
You wouldn’t blame Naomi Watts for feeling the pressure. Presenting yourself to the British public as Princess Diana must be a little like meeting the stroppy teenage children of the widower to whom you’ve just become engaged. Whatever you say or do is bound to be wrong. Those who thought the Princess a flake will accuse you of hagiography. Those who loved her will suggest that jigs are being danced on her grave.
Earlier this morning, Watts may – or may not – have made an early exit from an interview with (the usually emollient) Simon Mayo for BBC Radio 5 Live. The recording allows the possibility that she may have felt somebody was trying to wind up the interview. It’s all a bit messy. But it certainly sounded as if she was in a tense place.
A few hours later, having ensured that Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of the much-chewed-over Diana, sits in quietly on our interview, Watts seems confident, good-humoured and largely free of shellshock.
True, she has been in and around showbusiness all her life. Born in Kent, raised in England and Wales until her parents left for Australia when she was a teenager, Naomi Watts is the daughter of Myfanwy Edwards, a costume designer, and Peter Watts, a road manager and engineer for Pink Floyd. (That’s him laughing crazily on Dark Side of the Moon, trivia fans.) But she can never have been under this sort of pressure.
“Yes. That’s fair. It’s a lot,” she says impressively calmly. “Yeah. I’m looking forward to next month. It’s a lot of pressure. Fifteen, 16 years on and we’re still obsessed by her – both royalists and anti-monarchists. She commanded attention. And maybe her death added to that. It added to that love people felt for her. Her life was way too short and we’re not comfortable with that. We don’t understand it.”
Whatever you felt about Diana, you couldn’t deny that – like the weather – she was a constant, unavoidable presence for nearly 20 years. Or maybe that was different for Watts. It’s a funny thing. We think of her as being every bit as Australian as her great pal Nicole Kidman (who was born in Hawaii, come to think of it). But Watts was half grown-up when she left the UK.
“I can tell you exactly where I was for the two big events in her life: her wedding and her death,” she muses. “The events in between are trickier. I left England when I was 14. I wasn’t reading the newspapers. But I was obviously aware of her. In Australia, she was definitely in the news, but not enough for me to obsessively follow her day-to-day movements. My opinion of her was that she was definitely a fascinating woman. She generated a lot of intrigue for a reason.”
Hirschbiegel’s film focuses on a relationship between the Princess and Hasnat Khan, a heart surgeon, which is alleged to have begun two years before her death in 1997. Watts doesn’t deliver an exact copy of the woman we remember from every news bulletin. Taking on the structure of a romantic comedy, the movie allows Diana to pine, stalk and flirt like a relatively normal society girl. One wonders to what extent Watts set out to create a character and to what extent she was fenced in by the legend.