21 Grams

For Naomi Watts, the unspooling of “21 Grams” for the first time at the Venice Film Festival was more than just a celebratory night. Since then, accolades have been heaped on Watts for her portrayal of a disconsolate widow, but that night there was one reaction she was on pins and needles about: her mother’s.

Watts, after all, had lost her father when she was only 7.

“I totally watched it through her eyes,” says the 35-year-old actress. “She was aware of the grief that I’d gone through and maybe held onto. She didn’t speak for about half an hour, and when she finally did, she acknowledged that. She said, ‘I’m very proud of you for turning it into something meaningful.’ ”

“21 Grams” screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga says watching Watts act the scene in which Cristina hears the news of the accident that kills her family was overwhelming.

“The acting was so powerful,” Arriaga says, his voice trailing off. “Already I have tears in my eyes.” He pauses. “That kind of strange and beautiful experience, you have very few moments (like that) on set. She has a very deep well of emotion.”

Says Watts: “This movie is about people being lonely and finding ways to connect, and that’s why I go to see movies. So you don’t feel alone. You see these stories play out in front of you, and they bring up your own truths.”

For nearly 10 years the England-born, Australia-raised Watts toiled in actor obscurity in America until David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” kicked open the door for her as an acting heavyweight. And potential for an Oscar aside, 2004 is shaping up to be a banner year as well for Watts.

The adultery drama she produced, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” debuts in January at Sundance, and she stars in new films from celebrated directors David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabees”) and Marc Forster (“Stay”). Not only have her struggling days vanished but she’s already moved past getting offered the part of, as she puts it, “the girlfriend of a man who wants to blow up buildings.”

Has catching the film industry’s eye after the age of 30 carried unforeseen benefits? “I’m glad things happened this way,” says Watts, who cherishes a versatile, respected career like Meryl Streep’s. “I don’t know if I would have been ready back then for what’s going on now.”

Coming attractions: “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” “Stay”

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