Acting and producing the love story.
The new film, The Painted Veil, is not your typical love story. Sure, there's a romance - actually several - but the main characters, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, have a kind of reverse relationship.
Set in England in the 1920's, the two meet at a dinner party; very soon after, they get married. And also very quickly for both, the relationship turns south; one reason could have been because Naomi just wasn't ready.
She was too young to experience a real love at the time; she has an affair with another man, played by Liev Schreiber. When Edward finds out, he forces her to move to China with him as he studies the cholera disease. It's then that their relationship goes through the proper cycle.
Edward and Naomi are also producers on the film, a seven year process, helping The Painted Veil get to theaters. "Anybody who loves movies, you cannot help, as an actor, but think how fun it must be to have one of those kinds of experiences, and what a challenge it must be to make films with that kind of scope," Ed said. "I don't think many of those films get made, and I think, a lot of times, when they get made, they don't get sent to me; so when I saw one that I thought had that potential in it, it was very hard to stop ruminating on it. And, on a specific level, I thought, as an actor, it was complicated; I thought it was the kind of romance that touched me. It was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way, and I found that very touching because it's challenging. It's a challenge to say, 'Am I capable of that' or 'Have I done that? Have I been forgiving myself, have I had the courage to forgive somebody ever?' When you have that kind of response to a piece of material, to me, it's a good place to start because you already see what you can offer through it and what it might give back to people watching it."
Naomi also felt that adoration before, during and after the process of making it. "This was a long journey and it took us a long time to find its feet; there were many obstacles along the way, and getting on board as a producer really just shows my passions for it. Quite often, you're attached to something, and if it doesn't get up and go, it can loose its shine and become a little bit lackluster if nobody else is jumping on board. This never lost its shine and Edward and I championed it and we found John (Curran); I knew he could handle this material brilliantly because of his ability to understand the relationship and the conflict within that without judgment - even putting humor in the most awkward of places. Sometimes when you fight for what you believe is right, for your character, you don't want to come across as just seemingly coming across as an actor trying to buy more screen time; you want to have the voice from a point of view that is thinking of the whole film. It was important that the back story was there, that she was running away from something, that we didn't just get straight into the love story; and there were temptations to get the story moving at times and really slim down that beginning part of the story - I really felt that was important.
Edward had to dig deep for the character he plays; being such a genuinely good person, he portrays a really nasty guy. "I don't think there's any of us who can't relate to the desire to poison our loved ones - no. Any time a character emerges in slices and keeps deepening in revealing levels that were not obvious on initial encounter, that's very compelling. I don't think I use acting as an outlet for things I don't get to express in life, and yet, there's some sort of funny satisfaction in that. Maybe it's a way of venting off things inside you, but I always gravitated myself to Stella Adler, who's one of the really great thinkers about acting. She was always saying that, fundamentally, she considered it an imaginative process, and I kind of agree with that. Other people have completely different attitudes toward it; I'm just saying I enjoy the imaginative part of it."
It wasn't just playing another character for Naomi, it was more desirable person coming out. "From the first moment I read the script, she leapt off the page; she was ahead of her time or at least she thought she was in refusing to conform to conventions. She just got swept up in this frivolous world in who's who and how one should look; she can't stand her family breathing down her neck constantly saying, 'You've got to do something, you've got to married.' She's sort of enjoying this floating and the attention of many rather than just focusing on one person. So, when she gets this proposal, it's a form of escape - 'Just please let me get out of here;' the fact he is going to an exotic place sounds even more exciting. When she has the affair, she's just continuing to be a self-destructive person; when he stops punishing her and she gets to this new place, I just loved her transformation. I felt that it was important to commit to the flaws in her so the transformation is that much greater and her journey is more powerful."
They shot the film in China, which also caused a bit of a problem; the government got involved in the production, just because they don't have the same rules as other countries. But shooting for Edward was amazing. "The experience of all the places we worked was new and fresh to me, and really wonderful to work with Chinese colleagues and initially feel like you're struggling to communicate across the language barrier. And then, in a fairly short time, find that you have much more in common with these people who also do what you do; they're your brothers in filmmaking, and they know the same things you know. You find the little quirks of the way they work that is different from the way you work, but on the whole, I liked it much more than just being a tourist. I liked it much more than just traveling through a place; to work in a place and know the people is much more rewarding."
Naomi had just gotten off shooting King Kong and came straight to location for The Painted Veil, which was a complete culture shock. "I was looking for something that was distinctly Chinese in that mountain region, even though it's only one small part of China; you're not going to find that anywhere else. I went there under the assumption that there was a database of location stills in a room and it doesn't exist; it was a matter of flying via word-of-mouth.
She also got to don a black wig for her role. "Basically we arrived and I always saw Kitty as a brunette; I felt it was somehow more exotic with it and stronger and it felt very authentic to the period. I always have strong ideas; you fight for it and then you're suddenly like, 'Oh g-d, everyone is going to go along with what you've chosen.' I hope it was the right one."
You can see Naomi and Edward in The Painted Veil when it opens in New York and Los Angeles December 20th; it'll be released in more cities in the following weeks.