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Watts endured harrowing work for 'The Impossible'

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

“Fear takes us to so many different places,” Naomi Watts says. “You can't really judge. One person's suffering is going to manifest itself differently than another's.”

The Australian actress is mulling how different people react in the face of catastrophe. Some summon untapped courage, generosity, selflessness. And then there's the guy in “The Impossible,” the film Watts stars in with Ewan McGregor — based on the real-life ordeal of a family that is literally swept away in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — who won't lend out his cellphone. So what if McGregor's character, lost and in shock, needs to let his parents know he is alive?

Set in Thailand, and inspired by the experiences of the Alvarez Belons, a family of five on Christmas vacation at a coastal resort when the tidal waves came crashing in, “The Impossible” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Watts has received best-actress nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes for her portrayal of Maria, who's separated from her husband and two youngest boys and caught in a raging current of water and debris with her oldest son (a remarkable Tom Holland).

The first half of J.A. Bayona's masterful disaster movie follows Maria, who is resolved to find her family, to survive, no matter what. In Thailand, the tsunami resulted in more than 5,000 deaths, with an additional 2,800 missing and unaccounted for.

“If there is any good coming out of these kinds of disasters ... it is that it strips away everything else,” says Watts, speaking in Toronto. “People come together. It's not about class, and it's not about race. It's about: How are we going to get through this? And that's when the space for humanity comes back into it.”

Except for that guy with the cellphone, maybe.

“Well,” Watts adds with a smile, “not always, but maybe the next moment.”

The star of David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive,” of David Cronenberg's “Eastern Promises,” of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's “21 Grams,” Watts says that making “The Impossible” — while it was nothing compared to what her real-life counterpart experienced — was physically harrowing work.

Those scenes of Watts swirling in the waves, with tree limbs and car parts shooting past her — that is not CGI.

“I didn't know it was going to be so difficult,” she says. “They had it all very well prepared — we had allegedly the second-largest water tank in the world, and they had these giant cups that we were anchored into ... so you were just above water level, you could use your head, and you can use your arms so you looked like you were swimming. ... And you're on this track, and then a giant wave was coming toward you ... and then side pumps were shooting more water, and all the garbage and debris. ...

“So, it got increasingly difficult, and then we noticed that we couldn't actually act, or speak. We were lucky if we could get one word out, and that word would be ‘LU-CAS (Holland's character, Maria's son.)!' ”

“It was tough, and then the underwater stuff was even more difficult. That was very scary,” she says. “But it was all marginal compared to what Maria and her family went through.”

Watts, in fact, met with Maria Belon before shooting began.

“I didn't want to pry too much. I didn't want to seem too actor-y. But she had so much to say, so it was perfect,” Watts recalls. “And something that I didn't quite understand at the time was that she said she felt completely sure of her instinct. That nothing got in the way of it. And she'd never had that feeling before. Which made her incredibly heroic, because every decision she makes seemed to be the right one.

“And I think that instinct is in us all, but it's so easy to second-guess, isn't it?

“Not that I want a disaster like this to happen for me to get to that place, it just overcame her, and she never doubted herself. And that's just an admirable strength in anyone, and it got her to that place of purity.”

Steven Rea is a movie critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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