Naomi Watts has been preparing for her latest role since she was a kid — she just didn’t know it at the time.
“I find an identity crisis a fascinating subject,” Watts, who’s played notable wandering souls in Ellie Parker, I Heart Huckabees, and Mulholland Drive in the past, tells EW of her attraction to Gypsy, a slow-burning, psychosexual thriller. Written by creator (and Hollywood newcomer) Lisa Rubin, the series offers a deep dive into the underexplored world of female desire. “I grew up in a world where I was moving around a lot as a kid. When you physically move into a new environment, you have to reshape your identity in order to feel comfortable, so I think I understand that exploration of one’s identity. I always wanted, as a kid, to be someone else, anyone but myself… That’s a hard thing to admit to, but that’s how I grew up.”
Across the freshman drama’s 10-episode first season, Watts, a two-time Oscar nominee (here venturing into episodic TV for the first time since fronting the short-lived NBC mystery Sleepwalkers in 1997), stars as Jean Holloway, an established New York City therapist who, on paper, has the perfect life: a notable career, a spacious home in the Connecticut suburbs, a successful lawyer husband (Billy Crudup), and a bright young child. What she lacks, however, is restraint. Jean’s insatiable curiosity ultimately sees her skirting ethical lines and blurring the borders of professional reality and personal fantasy, piecing together the fragments of her patients’ admissions while stealthily forging forbidden relationships — some more physical than others — with the people in their lives.
“Before she knows it, she’s creating another identity, and it feels like a cautionary tale. We can all live with our fantasies, but she’s acting on them… that’s a hard thing to live with when the lies get bigger and deeper,” Watts explains. “I’m doing all the work for you. You can watch at home in your bed, in the safety and comfort of your normal life, and I’m living out this fantasy we’ve all possibly tapped into at one point or another, which is like, yeah, let me have this secret life.”
For Rubin, who serves as showrunner, Gypsy was the first pilot she’d ever written, inspired by what she says are unfair moral standards society holds female characters to.
“It’s interesting to write a character who has some of the darker impulses we usually see male characters have, but also the relatable things we see in women,” Rubin says, noting she anticipates Jean’s questionable behavior to rub some the wrong way. “I believe all the people have the capacity for good and for bad. Even when I pitched the show, I remember people debating over her… weirdly, it says more about the person than it does about Jean. We’ve seen so many male characters, from Walter White to Tony Soprano to Don Draper, do things that are amoral, and we allow that. Why shouldn’t we allow that from a woman?”
Her quest to charter a new course for women on the small screen didn’t stop on the page. Rubin also got to work changing the status quo behind the scenes, as six of season 1’s episodes were directed by women (Fifty Shades of Grey helmer Sam Taylor-Johnson, Yelling to the Sky filmmaker Victoria Mahoney, and Penny Dreadful‘s Coky Giedroyc), with three women (Rubin, Jessica Mecklenburg, and Sneha Koorse) penning the scripts.
Still, there’s a delectably seedy element brewing under the surface, one that makes the whole thing not only an exercise in feminist tones but an enjoyable thrill ride, too.
“It’s a little bit of a roller coaster… it gets very twisted, very dark, and it’s very sexy. You think you’re with this character, and as things progress, the rug is pulled out, and it starts to move like a train. … That’s part of the fun of it, to realize how psychologically twisted the show might be,” Rubin teases. “You’re having fun with a character who, at times, you’re going to be totally on board with, and at times completely appalled by.”
Gypsy premieres this summer on Netflix. Read on for more first look photos and EW’s full Q&A with Watts.
You haven’t done episodic TV since Sleepwalkers! Why jump back in with Gypsy?
It came to me through Sam Taylor-Johnson. It’s not like I was actively looking for a TV show. I knew there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in TV. Don’t forget Mulholland Drive was going to be a TV show, too! That’s what I signed on to; it just took a different turn. Because I knew Sam and I respect her as an artist, I was curious instantly. [My former partner] Liev [Schreiber], he’d done Ray Donovan, and I thought it could be interesting. I read the pilot, and it’s a fascinating story with this great character: a complicated woman dealing with really human, real stuff.
There are hints that she’s going to unravel, too. She’s entering dangerous territory with her patients.
She’s a woman who lives with desire and has a lust for power. Those things, with a female protagonist, are considered somewhat ugly or crazy. It’s possible that she’s walking a fine line [laughs] in dealing with her sanity. She’s got some demons in her past, and they’ve stayed with her. Maybe she’s kept them in check to a point because on paper it looks like her life is perfect. She lives in the ‘burbs in a beautiful house in Connecticut, has a great family, a sexy lawyer husband, and a great kid. She checks all those boxes, but there’s something she obviously feels she’s missing out on. Maybe it’s her old life she closed the doors on. Her intentions start out from a pure place, but before she knows it, curiosity gets the better of her and she’s going off on a journey she didn’t plan for.
It’s almost like the thrill of these questionable relationships are a high for her. Her transformation is a rebellion against normality in a way.
Exactly. She’s sick of living her life according to what she thinks she’s supposed to do. … She’s reached a point where I think she’s sort of claustrophobic and needs to branch out a bit. Before she knows it, she’s creating another identity, and it feels like a cautionary tale; we can all live with our fantasies, but she’s acting on them… that’s a hard thing to live with when the lies get bigger and deeper. … I’m doing all the work for you. You can watch at home in your bed, in the safety and comfort of your normal life, and I’m living out this fantasy we’ve all possibly tapped into at one point or another, which is like, yeah, let me have this secret life.
That’s consistent across your characters. You often play people who are lost, in one way or another, and ultimately find themselves in a performative way, like Jean.
I find an identity crisis a fascinating subject. [A role] has to have great meaning for your life as a person. It has to grow you as an artist or as a human. It has to mean something for you in order to mean anything to everybody else. I grew up in a world where I was moving around a lot as a kid. When you physically move into a new environment, you have to reshape your identity in order to feel comfortable, so I think I understand that exploration of one’s identity. I always wanted, as a kid, to be someone else, anyone but myself. … That’s a hard thing to admit to, but that’s how I grew up.
So that’s predisposed you to parts like this?
It’s in my DNA. It’s in my pathology!
Was there something about Lisa Rubin’s take on this material that also attracted you?
The fact that this character was created by a woman, there’s an instant trust there, and she’s a great lover of women who doesn’t see all the dark sides of Jean as being ugly. I didn’t get to read the entire 10 episodes [when filming the pilot]; there was just a bible where I read all about where she was planning to go, but I thought [Lisa] had the goods. At the time, she was 29 years old, and I liked that she’s created such an incredible character for a woman. This kind of character is usually a man!
Do you see that gender evolution happening more on TV than in film?
Particularly in TV, it feels like there’s more opportunity. Film was in a place where there wasn’t a lot of room for dramas. All the money being spent is very much happening in event movies or comedies. In neither of those worlds have I been particularly prolific. I’m more the go-to girl for nervous breakdowns [laughs].
But, I do feel like there’s a visible change as of late; women out there have made it clear that we need more. … It was 100 percent necessary that we worked with female directors and female writers, so it was great to see that change take place [on our set].
You’re also working on another TV project: Twin Peaks! What can you tease?
I’ve been sworn to secrecy! I can tell you that I just did a photo shoot with Kyle MacLachlan, so I’m definitely in Twin Peaks. I’m thrilled that I got another experience on set with David Lynch. It’s not like I’m holding secrets here; I don’t have a huge amount of information to tell you because, even on set, we were working with just pages, and sometimes on those pages, other people’s lines were blacked out. Like, if you entered a scene and people were talking before you, those lines were blacked out. I worked for about three weeks. Whether or not he put that all in one episode or spread it out over time, I have no idea!