Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor :: Navigating ’The Impossible’
Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona made a splash with his debut film "The Orphanage" two years ago, an unusually evocative horror film which won him a Goya Award (Spain's Oscar) for Best New Director. His latest, the English-language "The Impossible," is not a horror film, but it tells a horrific tale of a vacationing family in Thailand that gets separated in the 2004 tsunami. The film's first half focuses on Maria (Naomi Watts) and her son Lucas (Tom Holland) who are swept away in the tumult. Then, halfway through, the film turns to Henry (Ewan McGregor) who searches for Maria and Lucas while caring for the couple's other two sons.
The film is based on the true story of Maria and Henry Belon, a Spanish family that had come to Thailand on a holiday. Watts is playing Maria, but not an exact version of her. The Maria in the movie is not Spanish, and Watts did not dye her hair to match Belon's brunette. What was important was to capture Belon's spirit.
"In Maria's case, I just felt I had this responsibility for her, but she feels she has the responsibility for everyone else that suffered or lost lives," Watts explained at a recent press junket for the film. "Every day we were being reminded of that. Each day we met a new extra or new person on the crew, just so many people would tell us a new version of their story. That was really weighing on me, which is a lot of pressure. But it was very helpful to have all of her information. She wrote endless letters to me throughout (the filming). Each time we changed location and went to a new scene she would write very expressive letters."
For Watts, meeting Belon was a cathartic part of the process. "Working with Maria was just wonderful," Watts continued. "I felt completely connected to her from even before I met her; and then when I met her it was like, ’how do we begin this journey?’ This is a different part of her journey, but it was new for me. We were both felt like, ’what should we say and where do we begin?’ Particularly as an actor I felt like I wanted to syphon things out of her. But (when we met) I just waited for her to speak. She didn’t speak for a while and then we were just looking at each other. Her tears came and my tears came, and then we just gave each other a big hug. I just said, ’I’m so sorry what you went through.’"
What she went through was horrifying: when the tsunami hits, Maria and her son Lucas are thrown underwater - a heart-stopping sequence in the film. When they reach land, Lucas is unhurt, but Maria’s leg is badly hurt. They are rescued by local villagers, but are soon immersed in a different kind of chaos at a local hospital. Still the Belons were among the lucky ones in the tsunami, making it out with their entire family intact. As the movie shows, everybody worked together to help each other.
But given the extremes of Maria’s experiences, Watts was, at first, doubting if she was capable of capturing her tenacious spirit in her performance. At first she thought couldn’t relate to Maria. "She was another type of human being," she said. "But having gone through this experience with her, I know what she went through. You want to hold onto everything she feels and says because you know how close she came (to death)."
Connecting to others
Stories like Belon’s are why Watts is an actor, she says. Having also recently played J. Edgar Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy, and outed CIA spy Valerie Plame Wilson, "The Impossible" continues Watts’ efforts to play real-life characters.
"[I want to] be connected to myself and others," she said. "I don’t know how to explain it, really. Understand myself in the hope to understand others? I don’t know. It’s a gut-driven thing. It’s hard to put into a sentence, but I really enjoy what I do. I feel it’s a privilege to take on important stories of people, human beings. Hopefully that’s what you get out of the experience of being in the theater is to take it home with you and learn something about yourself. And in this case, you definitely are going to ask, ’What would I do? Who would I be and how would I move through this?’"
Regardless of the tsunami, "The Impossible" represents Watts worst fear as a parent of something happening to her children.
"I have fears about getting separated from my children, just like on the subway," Watts said. "I know that’s something you laugh at, but that has gone through my head. ’What would I do?’" It’s happened on an elevator before and I’m like, ’will my children know where to get off?’ Luckily it’s only ever happened in our building so it’s okay. And I’ve taught them to know it is the fifth floor. But if it’s a subway, and you haven’t had a conversation about it... I’ve actually tried to have that conversation, but it’s just too confusing for them."
Understanding the tsunami
McGregor had less contact with Henry Belon, his real-life counterpart. "Although I didn’t get a chance to meet him before we started shooting, I spoke to him on the phone," the actor explained. "But the writer and the director (Sergio G. Sanchez and Juan Antonio Bayona) knew him very well, and they answered what questions I may have had. Then in terms of understanding the tsunami, there was a great documentary that we used called, ’Tsunami Caught on Camera’ that was produced by Channel Four in Britain. It was made from holidaymakers’ hand footage from their cameras - only using their imagery that was captured by the people who were there. Then interviews with people that were very useful, but it was very difficult to watch. They were brutal and honest. Then we had a great deal of research, material and photographs that were taken there, many photographs from the hospitals in that area, beaches, hotels, temples where they took the bodies."
In preparing for the role, McGregor also spoke with someone he knew lived through the tsunami. Her story was not as fortunate as the Belons’ and reminded him of the losses suffered in this natural disaster.
"There’s a woman I met in London who’s a friend of a friend of mine, who sat with me for three hours or so and told me her whole story, which was very similar to my character in the film’s story, really," McGregor said. "She lost her husband, sadly. They have three children and her husband was separated from her and her two kids with her eldest daughter, much the same as I am separated from Naomi in this film. There was some kind of parallels between her story and the character I was playing in this except that her story ended in a much more terrible way. "
Gaining this additional perspective gave McGregor insight into how survivors process disasters in the moment. "There’s something that’s very interesting about her," he continued. "She couldn’t remember any time frame. There was no sense of time and/or distance, or whether things happened at night or during the day. She couldn’t tell you. It’s melded. She managed to find a place to leave her children, her two daughters, while she went to look for her husband and her other daughter. It was like a clinic or something where there were Thai women looking after people’s children that had been separated from their parents, I suppose. But then she talked about where she eventually discovered her husband’s body, which she remembered as being very, very far away and maybe taking hours and hours to walk there. In fact, when she went back, and she’s been back several times, she realized it was very close by."
One part of McGregor’s friend’s experience that is represented in the film is the support from the local community. "She spoke very fondly about the Thai people and how quickly the Thai people mobilized and organized things and how instrumental they were in looking after people, saving people’s lives, getting people to hospitals, which I hope we’ve kind of touched in the film. I hope that’s the flavor in our movie, that that’s the case. Naomi’s saved by a Thai man who drags her from the tree, and the villagers that dress her, and the guys that take her to the hospital, and then the staff in the hospital. It was a very important part. She talked about that."
"It was very rarely that we would hear of negatives," he continued. But there were complications. "Some people talked about not dealing with situations well, or they were regretful about [something they did.] For instance, a female survivor told me that individual’s nationalities became quite important. All the governments set up help, but for their nationals. In this person’s case, she was married to someone who wasn’t the same nationality as her, and her children had adopted the nationality of her husband. Anyway, they (the authorities representing her nation) wouldn’t help her children but they would help her. And she recalls losing it.
"People were regretful about their own behavior, if you like, in situations like that. We touch on it a little bit in the scene where we put the kids on the back of the truck with the guy who won’t let me use his phone. But mainly we heard stories of great selflessness. People would put themselves out of their way to help other people."
"The Impossible" is now playing in select cities.
Watch the trailer to "The Impossible":