Gwyneth Paltrow might have been the one to cough up hair balls. Jennifer Connelly almost gushed blood from her nose. Kate Beckinsale could have caused the horse to commit suicide. Instead, the box office phenomenon of the moment, the supernatural thriller ”The Ring,” is being carried by a little-known Australian actress whose greatest claim to fame was a starring role in David Lynch’s 2001 art-house noir, ”Mulholland Drive.” The choice seems to have paid off, but banking on Naomi Watts to carry ”The Ring” was enough to cause the filmmakers some initial chills of their own.
Director Gore Verbinski’s remake of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japanese smash ”Ringu” — the first film in a successful trilogy — showcases Watts as Rachel Keller, a cynical reporter and single mom who watches a videotape that causes its viewers to die seven days later. In January 2001, DreamWorks production chiefs Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald watched a copy of ”Ringu,” on videotape, and within three hours the husband-and-wife team agreed to pony up more than $1 million for the remake rights. (By comparison, ”Ringu”’s entire budget was just $1.2 million.) Verbinski, who had directed DreamWorks’ ”Mouse Hunt” and ”The Mexican” for the pair, signed on soon after, along with screenwriter Ehren Kruger (”Scream 3”). All agreed that the script could remain fairly faithful to the Japanese film for the first hour (”Ringu”’s second half, which emphasized a psychic character, would need rejiggering). But what they couldn’t agree on was a lead actress.
”These movies work best without a marquee star,” insists Verbinski, who as casting began in summer 2001 was still smarting from critics’ drubbing of ”The Mexican,” which starred marquee names Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. ”But there is a knee-jerk response from a studio, because [they’re] spending money, to go out and get somebody.” Paltrow was considered, as was Connelly (who hadn’t yet made a splash with ”A Beautiful Mind”). But when Connelly expressed concerns about ”The Ring”’s moral ambiguities — in particular, the depiction of Rachel as an inattentive mother — and requested script changes, the producers became increasingly antsy. They began to consider both Beckinsale (”Pearl Harbor”) and Watts, whose performance in the then-unreleased ”Mulholland Drive” was said to be strong. Parkes and MacDonald secured a screening of ”Mulholland Drive,” Verbinski flew to London to meet Watts, and the deal was sealed. ”People were like, ‘You’re going to get pigeonholed with psychological thrillers,”’ says Watts. ”But I just thought the character was really good. She’s a reasonably flawed woman, a little bit self-obsessed, and not the greatest mother on the planet.”