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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

Not your everyday 'scream queen'

For actress Naomi Watts, fame was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. A cliche, yes, but it, uh, rings true here. After garnering critical acclaim for her unforgettable performance in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," "The Ring" sees her in a hit that's topping the box-office in the United States.

News photo
Naomi Watts at a Oct. 28 news conference for the Japan premiere of "The Ring"

"People have used the expression 'overnight success.' If that's what it is, it's been a long night!" noted the actress wryly, at a news conference to promote the Japan premiere of "The Ring" Monday night at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

"It's definitely been a journey," said the 34-year-old actress, whose screen debut was in the 1986 Australian film "For Love Alone." "Everything that's happened is as a result of whatever mistakes I made and lessons I learned in that 10-year period when I was just an actor for hire. Now I feel more equipped to make the right decisions. Whereas if it had happened in my early 20s, I might have got pushed and pulled in the wrong directions."

Watts' interest in "The Ring" stemmed from reading the script, which had "such a powerful concept, but quite a simple one, therefore leaving enough space for a good character and her own personal journey, which was deeply psychological," explained Watts. When she finally tracked down a copy of the original film, she watched it once, and only once.

"That was enough," said Watts. "It's dangerous when you're playing a role [in a remake]. You don't want to get too attached to how the movie plays in the original version, so I tried to just see it, get excited by it and then block it out of my mind."

Between "The Ring," "Mulholland Drive" and the equally creepy "The Elevator," some might say that Watts is becoming a bit of a "scream queen." Yet her performances are consistently deeper than the norm for such roles.

"A lot of genre films, it's all about reacting, and yes, there's a lot about this part that's reactive," said Watts. "But [my character's] emotions go in many different directions, vacillating between self-doubt and believing. But once she commits to believing in what is going on, she's in absolute survival mode, she has to face her fears head on, in a very combative, gutsy way, and that's what drew me to this character.

"And also, that she starts off in such a way that she's very flawed. She's not the best mother. She thinks the best way to survive as a single parent is to just work hard. And that's risky, playing a flawed woman, because if the audience doesn't like her, how can they invest in the story? So those challenges were the things that excited me."

Accompanying Watts on her Tokyo trip are the film's producers, Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald of Dreamworks SKG, who've been involved with many of the studio's most interesting films of late, movies such as "AI," "Minority Report" and "Road to Perdition."

Parkes described how they decided to do a remake: "We first discovered 'The Ring' in the best possible way, by means of a very badly, dubbed videotape. A colleague of ours at Dreamworks called us at home, very agitated, having just seen what he described as 'a very bizarre Japanese horror movie.' And he rushed over to our house and insisted we cancel our meetings and watch it that very day. We put it into the video player about 4 in the afternoon, and by 7 in the evening we had purchased the U.S. rights for a remake."

The choice of Gore Verbinski as the director for the project may seem surprising to those who associate him with the far lighter films "Mouse Hunt" and "The Mexican," but not to Parkes, who describes Verbinski as a master of atmosphere and the use of digital effects.

The director had worked with Dreamworks from the start, but a photographic study he did for a fashion magazine earned him the job. "[The images] were very reminiscent of the Salvador Dali visuals that were created for the Alfred Hitchcock film 'Spellbound.' Very surreal, but very clean, very stylish," Parkes said. "So it was a combination of having worked with him in the past and seeing this more serious, almost severe aesthetic suggested by these photographs, that made us feel that Gore would be absolutely the best choice."

Certainly Dali's aesthetic is evident in the film's killer-video, which was shown at the news conference. Perhaps anyone who pans the film will die mysteriously next Monday at 3 p.m. This critic, at least, will live to see another day -- and maybe even a sequel to this surprise hit, which seems likely given the franchise's long run in Japan.

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