The Oscar-nominated actress tells EW about filming the claustrophobic thriller set against the backdrop of the Summer of Sam murders in 1977 New York City.
Naomi Watts huffs, puffs, and blows it out of the water in her upcoming thriller The Wolf Hour. But for all of the dramatic snarling and animalistic tension she channels as an agoraphobic author, June Leigh, mercilessly hunted by a stalker while the blistering heat of summer in 1977 New York pushes her to a psychotic boiling point, the film is a remarkably human (yet twisted) thriller about internal passion and creative sacrifice.
In EW’s exclusive trailer for the Alistair Banks Griffin-directed film (above), Watts is a force of rage sweating and seething under a damp mop of brunette hair, nailing the physicality of a shut-in woman wasting away under the pressures of a world that, amid the women’s liberation movement, is still unsure of how to handle a maverick countercultural critic with divisive views on patriarchal control (as written into her best-selling — yet controversial — novel, which may or may not be inspired by grim secrets from her past). What ensues is an intense, Hitchcockian slow burn that sees June observing the chaotic world that cast her away as she peers out from the fourth-story window of her Bronx apartment, watching as racial tensions and police brutality play out against the backdrop of a city in the grip of terror as the Summer of Sam murders rip through New York. It all comes to a head after an unknown force rings her buzzer in the middle of the night, inspiring her to return to her craft once again as she contemplates rejoining the civilization she’s long sequestered herself from.
Shortly before news broke that HBO wasn’t moving forward with Watts’ Game of Thrones prequel, EW spoke with the producer-star, who opened up about the joys of delving into the grit and grime of a woman on the edge, her appreciation for the project’s wig department, and the joys of finding such a rare, character-driven script that recalls classic, claustrophobic thrillers of old Hollywood.
The Wolf Hour hits theaters on Dec. 6. Watch EW’s exclusive preview above, and read on for our full Q&A with Watts.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I can’t miss an opportunity to talk about the many great wig moments you’ve had this year.
NAOMI WATTS: Oh God [Laughs].
I loved your Gretchen Carlson wig from The Loudest Voice. And I think you have three brunette wigs in The Wolf Hour, right?
There’s the short one at the end, and the one when June was younger and her hair was longer. You’re probably right, with the flashbacks!
Is that strange to you that some people are obsessed with actresses’ wigs?
Yes! It’s definitely not something that people lead with, generally [Laughs]. But I’m glad you did, because they should get a shout-out — those wigmakers! It’s an incredibly laborious job and hard for the hairdressers to apply them in the correct way, so I appreciate it on behalf of them. They put solid work into it. It’s hard to get a hairstyle or a character’s look and appearance right, and a lot of thinking goes into it.
The wig is essential to the dirtier, grittier look of June, and I enjoyed seeing you get a little grimy here. Was that refreshing?
I love the grit and the grime! I love to go deep into the depths of one’s psyche. If that means exposing the gritty, grimy side, then so be it. I love it, warts and all!
It’s fitting because this is set in the ridiculously hot summer of 1977 New York, right before the infamous blackout. Did Banks keep it method and turn the set’s heat up?
It wasn’t really heated, but there were some bright lights that created heat, and it was pretty much all in one location in June’s apartment. So that lighting setup was constant, and the heat would escalate throughout the day…. I was also constantly being slathered in oil to create the sweaty look!
June is a reclusive countercultural author hiding away from the world. Did you look to any real-life writers from this period for inspiration?
I looked at Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. They’re very much different people than June, but just to get into that world. I also looked up imagery. Banks was fantastic about his vision and created an extensive lookbook ahead of time. [But unlike those women], June is hiding in her apartment because of what’s going on in her mind, so it’s not such a broad spectrum. It’s so much about what’s going on in her head, and that feeling of being stuck, trapped, and filled with self-loathing. We used certain people of that era to tap into the voice of someone who’s educated, someone who has a sense of self-worth and value, but because of her psychosis, her life has been disrupted by this paranoia.
You don’t see smaller, claustrophobic character studies like this anymore, right?
Yeah! It’s a character study of another time, when people would take their time with films and it wasn’t quick, fast edits or massive, impressive location changes. We tried to stick to what’s going on in this woman’s head. I thought it would be something harrowing to go through shooting, but it was a world I wanted to examine.
Did Banks come to you with an offer to star and produce or just to star at first?
I told him I’d love to do it together with the producing team. It wasn’t something I developed from the ground up. He wrote the script well before I met him, but this meant having a powerful voice in the mix and being a part of many of the decisions that had to be made [like hiring] the other cast members, certain crew members, and putting the team together. I’m definitely enjoying that side of things as I move forward and keep growing. It’s interesting being involved in every kind of conversation along the way.
The film can be read as an allegory for our times: Boiling heat, social unrest, paranoia… As a producer, why do you think an allegory for our times is best dressed as an ominous thriller?
This woman is spiraling out of control, and so many things are driving that — most of all her own lies, but also the destruction and hatred in this society. That reflects where we are today. People are full of so much hate and negativity, and she’s at a vulnerable place and has taken it all on board, so she thinks the only safe place is to be in her own environment.
Well, as a countercultural figure, she wrote a novel that took on the patriarchy at a time when that was far less popular than it is now, and she was dragged through the mud in the media. Did that speak to you as well?
There’s so much media coverage on everything now, and so much exposure. It’s scary. It spoke to me. I definitely have days I want to crawl in a hole and hide. That’s very much human nature. We’re never always at the top of our game, are we?
The film brilliantly echoes that feeling in the confining space of June’s apartment. It reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in that it’s largely you, by yourself, acting opposite your own emotions. Was that an extra challenge?
Everything was a private moment, and who we are in private moments is very different to how we are in the world. We have personas, many of them! I’m not just saying that as a famous person — everyone has that. Children have that! Who do we have to be in the eyes of our teachers, parents, or friends? It’s human nature from early on, and it escalates further as we get older. June is someone who’s in the public eye, but not anymore. Whatever she’s experienced in a good way that made her feel valuable has been ripped away from her, so in the apartment, she’s completely free, but she also feels trapped. Nobody’s watching, but it’s the right place for her to be at that point. It was just a two-bedroom apartment. And every single nook and cranny of that set was filled. It was an extraordinary set, the production design did an incredible job. Banks wanted it to feel [like a] suffocating environment as she’s closed in by her piles of books and tchotchkes.
As stifling as it is, I loved her method for removing trash by lowering it down the side of the building by a string. I’m stealing that.
On a rainy day, yeah?
Or any day I don’t feel like getting out of bed.
I think that’s it: Maybe it’s okay to give in to it a little bit here and there. I’m not recommending that way of life for anyone, but, it’s okay to give yourself a break and not always be a type-A achiever. That’s what I’m feeling more and more these days: just be you!