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The Impossible - Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor interview

The Impossible

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NAOMI Watts and Ewan McGregor talk about some of their experiences of shooting The Impossible, the true story of a family’s experience of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami natural disaster in Thailand.

They also discuss how remaining as emotionally true and authentic as possible was of paramount importance and Naomi also reveals her fear of water and what it was like having to shoot for six weeks in it. They were speaking at a BAFTA event in London.

Q. Naomi, how did you feel about shooting in water?
Naomi Watts: It was pretty much hell [laughs]. It was definitely the most physical thing I’ve ever done or want to do at this point in my life again. But also… and this was nothing in comparison to the tsunami, but I did go through a scary water experience when I was about 14. We were immigrating to Australia and hadn’t spent that much time at the beach, so I wasn’t a very strong swimmer. And my mother, brother and I got caught in a rip-tide and we didn’t know what you’re supposed to do in a rip-tide and so got exhausted and basically got to the point of almost giving up. So, I’ve since had a real fear of the water, or strong forceful waves anyway. So, this was definitely difficult. And like Tom [Holland] has said, going in that big tank every day for five or six weeks… there was no acting involved. We were being pushed, pulled, having things thrown at us and we couldn’t really speak.

Q. Ewan, how did this movie compare to other bigger budget movies you’ve worked on?
Ewan McGregor: Well, they’re all unique really. They each have their own atmosphere. This one was driven by the fact it really happened. So, our focus and concentration was on making sure everything was as truthful and honest as it possibly could be. I remember when I was being told that I was being sent a script about the tsunami I thought: “Why would we make this film? Is that right?” So, I think our hope when making the movie was to tread that line, so we were always aware of that. But then having read the script, I thought it was very valid to tell this one family’s story through this terrible disaster. It told me not only a great deal about the tsunami itself but also about human nature and how, as parents, we might deal with that kind of situation of not knowing where our kids or each other were. Whenever you put a movie camera on someone, it has a tendency to make them look glossy or something, but whenever that happened we would change it to avoid that kind of thing.

Q. Were you able to consult the real family?
Naomi Watts: Yeah, all the time. Maria and I sort of wrote to each other a little bit before the actual meeting and then finally we came together after a great deal of anticipation. I was really nervous about meeting her. As an actor, you want to get inside the mindset of this person but at the same time you don’t want to probe or make them relive something that’s obviously as terrible as it was. So, I remember feeling so nervous as I walked into the room and then we were left alone and told we had half an hour. I remember thinking, ‘where to begin?’ What is the first question? It feels almost perverse to say or ask anything. So, we just sort of sat there in front of each other and she started welling up and I welled up too and the story was all told in one look. And then basically we spent three and a half hours talking.

So, yes, her presence was there as a brilliant reminder, whether she was physically there or not. And we wrote to each other all the time… each time we approached a new scene, wherever we were I’d get endless emails about each tiny detail. Many time when people go through this shock, or grief, or whatever the disaster was, it’s not easy for them to talk about it… it’s something they don’t always want to be identified by, or you want to move away from it. But in this case, Maria can speak so articulately and so expressively about it and it’s a cathartic experience for her and I think she really enjoyed it. It was incredibly helpful. But yes, we were always reminded of the responsibility of telling the story, as Ewan said, in the most truthful way… not just for this family but for everybody.

The Impossible

Q. This isn’t a hero’s story. So, how did you approach the role?
Ewan McGregor: We all did a lot of research and reading. There was a documentary made by Channel 4 called Tsunami: Caught on Camera, which was brutal. It was just using footage from people’s holiday cameras and it was interspersed with some interviews, so that was really helpful because it was very honest and told from the point of view of the people on the beaches. We had a lot of research material available to us and we were surrounded always by people who were there – not only the members of the family we’re playing, but members of our crew… all our Thai crew were affected by the tsunami, all the hotels we were staying in had people who had been affected. Lots of people came and told us very openly and honestly what had happened to them. And that was very key, just to be able to hear those real stories.

Q. Is it true that you’re actually stood in the actual pool that your character was stood in when the tsunami hit?
Ewan McGregor: Yeah.

Q. Naomi, what struck you about the script when you first read it?
Naomi Watts: The thing that first struck me was the relationships in this family, the intimacy. Obviously, the tsunami is the bigger subject but inside of that there’s this family and if these relationships were not believable then the film doesn’t work. All the kids in this were brilliant and Juan Antonio did extensive searches to find them. I think it took months and countless auditions. He probably put them through hell before they got the part. But with little children, it’s always tough to keep the focus and particularly at this high pitched level of emotion. I think Ewan maybe had it tougher with the two younger children, who are so gifted, wonderfully raised little children.

With Tom, although it was his first film, he had already done Billy Elliot, so he had the understanding of the discipline of the craft. But having said that we came together a month before we started filming and Juan Antonio created this wonderful environment that was basically like going back to drama school back in the days when you were just little. He literally made us sit in front of each other and draw each other. I did wonder what this absurd exercise was about at first but it was really just to create this environment of trust and safety. It started there and a week later we were running round the studios throwing balls at each other and doing a whole litany of strange things. Sometimes, we were holding each other and crying in each other’s arms. So, by the time we got to the place where the cameras were rolling we felt completely safe with each other. We were also on the road and our families were all together. Tom’s got three brothers, so our kids were playing together. Tom, in particular, just blossomed in about two weeks and the next thing I knew he was blowing me off the screen! I was so lucky. I think he taught me things.

Read our review of The Impossible

Read our interview with Juan Antonio Bayona and Tom Holland