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Naomi Watts

A role filled with rage and anguish reveals the fearless side of an actress who respects the power of emotion

TORONTO -- Naomi Watts didn't ease her way into the role of a desperate, grieving mother in "21 Grams." Day one on the set, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had her take on one of the most intense scenes in a screenplay riddled with them. It's the moment in a hospital waiting room when a seemingly peaceful suburban woman gets the news that tears her life to pieces.

New to the movie's Memphis location, Watts wanted to get right to it, her director says. "She says to me, `I want to experience the alienation, that I arrive to a world I don't know and just feel fragile and vulnerable and scared.' "

The actress clapped on her personal CD player, Bjork pouring through the headphones. She focused, took the headphones off, and marched onto the set.

On the first take, Gonzalez got the roar of anguish that marks an unforgettable turning point in "21 Grams," which opens Wednesday. He shot a few more takes, but when he looked back at the footage, the first was the keeper. He wasn't surprised. "I could see it in her eyes," he says.

After years of obscurity, Watts, 35, vaulted onto Hollywood's A-list thanks to another scene -- the famed "audition" in David Lynch's 2001 "Mulholland Drive."

Since her mesmerizing turn as Betty Elms, a new girl in town caught in a weird Lynchian version of Hollywood, Watts has had one box-office smash (the horror movie "The Ring") and one prestige flop (this year's Merchant Ivory snooze "Le Divorce.")

But "21 Grams," in which she acts opposite Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, is something of a revelation. Just as "Monster's Ball" showed an unafraid Halle Berry, so, too, does "21 Grams" reveal Watts's fearlessness.

It's all the more striking to meet her, then, hugging her Yorkshire terrier Bob while sitting at a hotel patio here, after the film's Toronto International Film Festival premiere.

A tiny diamond peace sign rests at the base of her delicate neck. (It belongs to the actress, and her character, Cristina, wears it in the movie.) Wary at first, she is surprisingly willing to open up -- a trait, she says, that's part of what she likes about acting itself.

Take the places the screenplay asks Cristina to go: from wife and mother to drug addict bent on revenge.

"I may seem masochistic or something, but I don't see emotion as a negative thing," Watts says. "I think it's great to purge, it's great to express. And if it's anger or pain, that doesn't matter. Emotion is a very powerful, wonderful thing, and it can be liberating. It doesn't mean that's who I am or all I am."

From the start, Gonzalez wanted Watts as the female lead in "21 Grams," his English-language debut. He was captivated by her performance in "Mulholland Drive." But what sealed his interest was watching her in an Australian short called "Ellie Parker," which played the Sundance Film Festival a few years back.

"Her ability to be like an innocent, a tender little fragile woman and then so full of rage, that is not easy," he explains.

She wasn't yet a star when she became attached to the project. "She feels very hungry, and that's something that's great in an actor," Gonzalez says.

The director approached Watts while she was shooting "The Ring." She agreed immediately, even without reading a script, based on her admiration for his first film, "Amores Perros," which was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar in 2001.

Like that film, "21 Grams" jumps back and forth in time as it follows Cristina's interactions with a gravely ill math professor, played by Penn, and a born-again laborer, played by Del Toro. The movie comes together in slivers; for Watts this was a return to the ways of Lynch, whose "Mulholland Drive" evolved into a Mobius strip of a story as it went along.

The challenge for Watts was conveying Cristina's struggle to maintain her equilibrium -- before and after the tragedy that gives the film its dramatic motor.

Wilderness survival

The part resonated with Watts, who was born in England and moved to Australia at 14. Professionally, the actress endured a wilderness of her own, enjoying a taste of Hollywood success with a high-profile part in the comic book adaptation "Tank Girl," in 1995, only to follow that up with very little. Personally, Watts says she understands how afraid Cristina is of losing the life she has struggled to piece together.

"I lost my father when I was 7," she says. "And it was interesting to me because I read up a lot about what loss is like. I read a book called `Motherless Daughters,' since I was playing a character who had lost her mother, although it's dealt with only briefly in the script. And I thought, `This is interesting, because the story is very parallel to my own.' These people talking about experiences -- and even though it wasn't my mother I had lost, I realized that there is a lot of grief that I hadn't explored."

The din of the hotel patio seems to drain away as Watts continues. "I always grew up thinking that I would die the year -- the age -- that my father died. He was 31," Watts says. How did he die? "I don't really like to talk about it."

She returns to her point. "I thought I was crazy in thinking that, but everyone else that I read about, that was a very common thing for people dealing with loss."

Suddenly the actress turns the topic back to her career. "I had that 10 years -- that repetition of mistakes or giving too much power up to people who didn't deserve it. . . . I don't know, I don't know where I'm going with that."

The Aussie posse

Learning when not to answer a question may be Watts's next challenge as her career heads into high gear. (Her next roles, besides a "Ring" sequel, include "I Heart Huckabee's," with Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law, and "Stay," with Ewan McGregor.) In the last few years, her romance with fellow Australian actor Heath Ledger has become magazine fodder (the latest word -- it's on again). And her longtime friendship with Nicole Kidman, which goes back to their costarring roles in 1991's "Flirting," makes her a player in an Aussie posse that seems to be getting two out of three good movie parts these days.

In fact she and Kidman -- not to mention fellow Australian Cate Blanchett -- could be facing off in the Academy Award derby not too long from now, if Kidman's role in "Cold Mountain" is as rich on-screen as in the novel on which it's based.

For Watts, it would be the culmination of a long trip to the top.

"Once I'd been given the `21 Grams' script, I took it with me everywhere, it was on my person wherever I went," she recalls, eyes glowing. At the same time, Kidman was marveling at her "Cold Mountain" part. "We went to my house, and we were sitting on the couch reading our favorite scenes to each other. And we were like, `Can you believe, we've got two fantastic roles, and how exciting.' "

In one of those scenes, a heartbreaker, Cristina fixates, inexplicably, on the color of her daughter's shoelaces.

"You get excited about that kind of writing," Watts says. "And the fact that you can share it with a fellow actor who has achieved so much -- it doesn't feel like I'm gloating."

Scott Heller can be reached at sheller@globe.com.

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