Ahead of the release of one of the year's most hotly-anticipated films, Diana star Naomi Watts has spoken about the pressures of playing the People's Princess.
The UK-born Australian actress revealed what convinced her to take on the 'daunting' role, the lengths she went to in order to get to know her character and what she discovered about Princess Diana in the process.
Read extracts from the press conference below:
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What convinced you to play Diana?
"I think there are many things but ultimately the reason I wanted to say ‘no’ so much became the reason I wanted to do it as well. I was intrigued by the challenge. I mean, in the beginning I thought how do you possibly take on the most famous woman of all time when everybody feels they know her so well? How do you take possession of that character? So that was daunting, to use a word of hers…
Also, the sensitivity of it – how will people feel about this? But I realised this story was bound to be told at some point, and how often do we stumble across such fascinating characters? They're quite hard to find as a woman, and one who embodies so many different things – the fragility, but also the great strength, unbelievable charisma, great beauty, wisdom, compassion and empathy. I thought about it and I thought, well I can't say no to this why not seize the opportunity?"
Was there anything in the script that put you off? Were you relieved it didn't go down a certain root?
"I didn't know anything about this love story. I was living in Australia and then America at the time and wasn't avidly following stories about Princess Diana so this was news to me. I was intrigued by the idea of taking on this massively, globally known woman, but terrified at the same time because people's level of interest is going to be much higher than usual. I feel like I am always looking to take risks and move out of my comfort zone, so this was… that!"
How did your perception of Diana change after the research you did?
"I obviously knew her well - although I didn't see every single front page story, I did see the big, important moments. Once I said 'yes', I had to saturate myself in everything I could find: the books, which I'd not read before, old news articles and the footage that's available. I used the Martin Bashir interview a lot – I can't tell you how many times I listened to it – it was very helpful because it was the most candidly she spoke. Not only the information that she gave us but also the way she spoke, so it helped with mannerisms and of course the dialect as well.
I learned a lot through this research but it was hard to trust what was true – there is so much and it's never completely in alignment. I knew that this script was written with very thorough research that took place over quite a period of time. I did explore it beyond what the screenwriter Stephen Jeffries did as well, and I bounced it off certain people that knew her and they basically endorsed what was said on the page.
The things that meant something to me, that helped me put this character together, were things like her sense of humour. That was a great discovery – she had this cheeky, mischievous sense of humour and would crack ice breaker jokes, things like that. Obviously we knew a lot about her compassion and empathy because that was displayed over and over again – you could see that just from one single image. Her rebellious streak and sense of courage also shone through – doing the Bashir interview took immense courage I think."
Did it feel strange to swear as Diana? We never heard her swear in public…
Naomi: "She was a human being, and I wanted to make her as real and full of contradictions and surprises as possible. It would be silly if we didn't take liberties or use information that was gathered, that felt real or rang true, and just tried to create a full, rounded character that was not just one colour or ‘just a princess’. I think she really fought to have as much normalcy in her life as possible, even going out for her jogs…"
Stephen: "Yeah, she was very fond of telling rude jokes and things like that."
Naomi: "Yeah, I mean you see that in some available footage, I heard that from people who knew her. There's a moment in a documentary where she's with Prince William and he's ordering a meal and he says, 'I'll take the special', and she says, 'Oh you'll get a special slap in a minute!' There's some media training that goes on – it wasn't supposed to end up in anyone's hands I'm sure – and she cracks some quite politically incorrect jokes. But God bless her for that! "
The film is a mixture between very public and very private. What were the most difficult scenes for you to film?
"I think when you play real life characters there's always a extra sense of pressure because of the responsibility to tell the story in the most truthful and accurate way – certainly in the case of Princess Diana, there's no one as well known as her to date, I don't think.
I found it incredibly difficult in the preparation because usually when you're inventing a character you start from the inside, you create the interior life and then work on the outside. The appearance – how they dress, how they wear their hair, how they speak – they come last. But with Diana, I had to work in the opposite direction which took a lot of preparation and lot of close study.
If you want to isolate it to a scene, I would say the re-enactment of the Bashir interview was the most difficult and challenging because I did want to be quite precise about that – not just what she said but how she said it like where she took breaths, when she touched her face and moved her head, because I know how much everybody remember that and I wanted to be as exact as possible. For the rest of it, like inside Kensington Palace, liberties had to be taken and poetic licence, and you know, we have to as actors bring nuance to it because it's not a documentary. I think it's okay to do that as long as we're not being ridiculous and exploiting anything."
You said Diana fought for normalcy but even in the film she has a complicated relationship with the media and fame. Could you characterise more and talk about her relationship with the media?
"I cannot imagine having to live with that level of scrutiny and constant focus. I don't know who could cope on a daily level with that and I can absolutely identify with the need to control that when it has so much power over you. I've had tastes of it, with frustrations of the interference of people following you or obstructing you, or being misunderstood, misquoted or misrepresented by the press. It's irritating and upsetting and hurtful, so I can absolutely understand that at times she did want to exert control. I think there were probably many times that worked for her and many times that backfired. "
How do you compare your experience as an actress with Diana's experience of the media?
"It's nothing near to hers. She's a unique character and I can't think of anybody else who compares that has that level of fame. Even this many years after, her death still consumes front pages in newspapers. I've had a tiny glimpse of what it's like but it's heartbreaking to imagine being under constant scrutiny and what that can do to you. That feeling of being trapped and consequently creating isolation or paranoia, I wouldn't ever wish that on anybody and I'm sure that was a very hard world to exist within."