LOS ANGELES -- Naomi Watts has played roles based on real people in films -- such as in "J. Edgar" and "Fair Game" -- but none of those parts caused her as much concern as her most recent work based on the true story of Maria Belon and her family as depicted in "The Impossible."
Watts plays the mother of three children who, with her husband played by Ewan McGregor, are at a resort in Thailand in 2004 when a tsunami hits.
Watts' initial concerns were how the story would be handled because it was such a devastating event. Those concerns went away when she saw the script by Sergio G. Sánchez that was based on the recounting of the disaster by Belon. Several meetings with Belon also helped Watts better understand the role.
There were moments when Watts was talking with Belon that she felt like there was something perverse about trying to get into the head of someone who had lived through something so unimaginable. It helped when Belon told Watts that this was not just the recounting of one family, but a story of so many people -- one that everyone needs to understand.
"There's no question that woman has left a massive, profound impact on my life. And she's inspired me. The power of what she went through is so big, and her piece of story is just a tiny piece of this massive, epic story, so it had a pressure of its own kind, which was to tell it with as much truth as possible. There's a responsibility there for the people who suffered and lost lives," Watts says.
One thing Watts learned from Belon is that she doesn't waste time trying to come up with an explanation of why this happened to her family.
"There's no reason why we survived and other moms, other dads, other kids didn't. We don't feel guilt. It's pain, just pain," Belon says. "We just ask 'What for?' not 'Why?' If you ask, ask why you can go down to a really dark spot. We want to go up."
The role was so strong that Watts broke a promise she made to herself after making "King Kong" in 2005. She said that she would never be in another action movie.
"Saying I wouldn't do another action film was famous last words. It's like child birth. You forget and there you are again going through the same experiences," Watts says. "But I got pulled in emotionally to the story."
Watts felt prepared to handle the emotional aspects of the role -- especially the maternal aspects because of her own children -- but she spent months training to be able to handle the physical hardships that included being tossed around in raging waters for six weeks. Even with the preparation, the water scenes were so demanding that Watts became sick early in the shooting schedule.
During one day of water shoots, Watts was underwater past the time she could hold her breath. It was only an instant, but she got a tiny glimpse of what Belon had gone through as she was tossed around by the massive wave.
"The Impossible" is an emotionally draining story, but Watts found the physical parts of the role much harder.
"I actually find the emotional stuff quite fun," Watts says.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.