Watts tells EW she pushed herself to bruised and "broken" places in the physically demanding film premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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Naomi Watts pushed herself to bruised and broken places — both physically and emotionally— while rushing to save her son from a school shooter in the breakneck-paced thriller Lakewood. And she tells EW the scrapes and scratches were worth it.

"I didn't want to stop, despite everyone saying, 'Are you okay?'" Watts explains out of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, where she earned solid reviews for her performance as a desperate mother hurtling towards danger, through the woods, entirely on foot, with nothing but an iPhone and adrenaline fueling her maternal rage. "You might have a grip fall over... He'd stop and fall into the bush and I'd keep going, and as long as nothing was in the background, we could! It all added to the exasperation and physical exhaustion. Out of that comes stress and some kind of beautiful accident that added to the chaos of it all."

The Oscar nominee says she ran the equivalent of "at least a couple marathons," and she's not exaggerating — director Phillip Noyce filmed most of the film's extended running sequences in long takes, sometimes in excess of 10 full pages from the script in one go, with Watts keeping up the entire time.

"Sometimes things would go wrong, we'd go for such long stretches that we'd lose signal, and we were in a forest, so sometimes I had to improvise," she recalls. "There were one or two moments where I felt like I was truly broken, and we'd take a break, but for the most part [Noyce] was pushing me and encouraging me, and I felt in safe hands… He'll push you to the edge, but softly over the line, and get you to a place where you both feel good about it."

Watch EW's full interview with Watts above, and keep reading for a breakdown of the discussion. Stay up to date with our ongoing TIFF coverage here.

Lakewood
Naomi Watts races to save her son from a school shooting in 'Lakewood.'
| Credit: Sabrina Lantos

This is such a thrilling film. It shot during the pandemic, but it found a really unique and clever way around that because the movie is mostly just you running through the woods. Tell me about preparation for that — how much physical training did you do beforehand, and how much running did you do, total, while filming?

Yeah, a lot, on both sides! I have a running background. I used to do it a lot, I started at school! I did track and ran in my twenties wherever I was. If I was shooting in weird parts of the world, I'd always go for a run. I hadn't been doing that for several years because I have a recurring back issue. Any impact is not great for me. But this movie came along and just a few weeks before, when it's finally up and running — pardon the pun — I thought I'd better get back to some hardcore training. I wasn't exactly sure on how Phil planned to shoot it…. Luckily, I did that training and got myself prepared. It's amazing, the memory of a muscle, how quickly it can bounce back. We learned very quickly that the way to shoot it was incredibly long shots that went on for 12 or 15 pages, which meant sometimes running fast, sometimes falling, getting up and running again, sometimes a steady run, and multiple takes! The woman on the set helping me, a physical therapist, she's a marathon runner, and she said I did the equivalent to at least a couple marathons.

I imagine some of that rage and frustration the character feels in the film was real for you.

You are absolutely, 100 percent spot-on. And that's why I didn't want to stop, despite everyone saying, "Are you okay?" You might have a grip fall over who's holding a light, and I could've stopped, but I wanted to keep going! He'd stop and fall into the bush and I'd keep going, and as long as nothing was in the background, we could! It all added to the exasperation and physical exhaustion. Out of that comes stress and some kind of beautiful accident that added to the chaos of it all.

So, you got a lot of bumps and bruises filming this?

Major bruises, major bumps, major pulled muscles, but it was good to know that the body still works, at least for a chunk of time… I'm known as a determined lass, so if you set a goal, I want to achieve it!

You're the queen of unorthodox scene partners. You had a giant ape in King Kong, you had a magpie do its business on your head in Penguin Bloom, and now you're acting almost entirely against an iPhone here. How do you prepare to act opposite an inanimate object? Is that a strange dynamic?

It is! It would've been a lot stranger if there was nobody at the end of the line. It was a working phone, and we had two actors playing all the parts, one male and one female. If I didn't have them, it would've been a bananas way to shoot, we would've had to prerecord just to hear the lines and that would've dictated my rhythm and performance. They could totally feel my energy, where I was getting exhausted, where they might need to take care of me, where they need to be stronger and force it along. So, I'd say my performance wasn't entirely solo. It was reliant on those two people, and they did a marvelous job.

Lakewood
Naomi Watts ran the course of 'a couple marathons' in 'Lakewood.'
| Credit: TIFF

They were voice actors hired specifically for this?

Yeah! Sometimes things would go wrong, we'd go for such long stretches that we'd lose signal, and we were in a forest, so, sometimes I had to improvise, sometimes we went four pages farther than we said we'd go because it seemed to be working and we had enough road, but I didn't quite know those lines, so they'd help me along there. They were "in the room" with me!

You had a cheat sheet in your ear!

Yes! Well, I knew the scenes, I just didn't expect to shoot that long. They'd help me along, which is how actors work: Together, always, supporting each other, it's a relay team of acting and reacting.

Is there a difference in the way Phillip had to direct you, being physically alone on location? Is there a specific nuance to that?

I think of Phillip as a gentle giant. He's strong and knows what he wants, and he'll keep going until he's got it…. there were times where I was like, "I can't do it again, please!" but he was like, "Are you sure?" He tapped into my psyche because he knew I wanted to do it again if he felt he had a pure vision in his mind and he believed I could achieve it. I hated that I was going to let him or myself down, so I just kept going. There were one or two moments where I felt like I was truly broken, and we'd take a break, but for the most part he was pushing me and encouraging me, and I felt in safe hands…. He'll push you to the edge, but softly over the line, and get you to a place where you both feel good about it.

I think it was probably extra important to feel safe given the weight of the film's themes. It's thrilling, but there's a message — its plot revolves around a school shooting at a time when that's a real, prominent issue. How do you think this film finds a unique way into commenting on it, and why was it so appealing to you to get into the world both a star and as a producer?

I felt the story was meaningful and compelling, and one that reaches us all the time when we wake up and read the newspapers and see yet another horrific story play out. We live with that dread, it's haunting. The ripple effect it has created after that day something so horrific takes place, it can upset the community from then on. Our kids do drills all the time, our kids go to school and their parents look at them a little extra, too long as they walk through those gates. It's things like that, we shouldn't have to be feeling or fearing… I'm not trying to use this as a soapbox to stand up and say this is how things should be, it's not prescriptive, but it's hopefully something that can get into the hearts and minds of everyone and open a conversation that's important and needs addressing.

It's a unique way into the material. One last question: I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you what we can expect from The Watcher. How have you been preparing for that role? Will this series scare the hell out of us just like the article did?

Yeah, that article is so freaky. That's what got me in! And of course Ryan Murphy. I'm only just now getting into prep, we're going to start shooting soon. It's exciting, I can't say much more. I love Bobby Cannavale, I'm thrilled to be working with Ryan [Murphy], he seems to have the Midas touch. It's a genre that you know I love, so…

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