It was an acting challenge that Naomi Watts couldn’t pass up.
In “Lakewood,” the Oscar-nominated star of such grueling exercises in cinematic heroics as “The Impossible” and “King Kong,” spends the bulk of the movie running through the forest, struggling with spotty cellphone reception while trying to make her way to her teenage son’s school, which is under lockdown with an active shooter. It’s Watts and Watts alone on-screen for much of the film’s 84-minute run time. Not since Tom Hardy had a psychological meltdown via speakerphone in “Locke” has an actor been so isolated and exposed.
“It scared the shit out of me, and that’s always an interesting thing,” Watts tells Variety the morning after “Lakewood” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I feed off other actors. You rely on your cast. As an actor, you don’t want to be out there on your own. You want to be interacting and reacting. Even if you have a well planned out idea, you need someone to jolt you into another rhythm or another place.”
So Watts had one stipulation. When her character calls various people in her life — neighbors, car mechanics, her children and elderly parents — as she struggles to get a read on the disaster unfolding at the school, she needed to be on the phone with other actors, who were performing their dialogue live.
“Those conversations were not pre-recorded, and that was crucial because so many things could happen that were unplanned,” says Watts. “It meant they were able to move and be agile with me. If we just pre-recorded voices, it would have dictated my performance and left me quite cold.”
In “Lakewood,” Watts plays Amy, a grieving mother, whose teenage son is increasingly disaffected after the tragic death of his father in a car crash. In order to clear her head, Amy goes on a long scenic jog, only to have her morning run interrupted with reports that authorities are in pursuit of an active shooter. They even suspect that Amy’s son may somehow be caught in the middle, which raises the tension and the stakes considerably. Capturing that mounting sense of fear and panic required Watts to be constantly in motion.
“Naomi has that can-do attitude where nothing is going to defeat her,” says director Phillip Noyce. “She’s running sometimes two-and-a-half miles in a single take. One day, she put into the sick bay the cinematographer John Brawley, three camera operators and four grips. They all had to be retired while trying to keep up with her, and Naomi was still going.”
Watts says the physical exhaustion she felt helped her capture Amy’s mounting panic.
“I’d get to the point where I felt dizzy and my body was hurting, but it all added to the fuel of the chaos and the sheer terror that Amy was feeling,” says Watts. “I wanted to keep going. You’d get to the point where your mind isn’t working and nor is your body, but you’re just pushing through and things just started happening in ways that felt truthful.”
Given the subject matter, Noyce and Watts were concerned that the film not be exploitative. To get a better sense of the lives that are shattered by mass shootings and gun violence, Watts met with members of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group. The director and the star also made a point of not dramatizing the actual shooting going on at the school, instead focusing their camera on a mother desperate to find out what’s happening with her son. Even though the film tells a deeply personal story, Watts wants it to help spark debate about an issue that remains politically polarizing.
“I hope that it will continue the conversation,” says Watts. “My job, as an actor, is to reach people in their hearts and in their minds. I’m just a conduit. Hopefully it can alter those who think that gun laws are the way they should be. Hopefully it can show the human standpoint of what a parent is going through when one of these horrible shootings happen.”
“Lakewood” was shot with a skeleton cast and crew in 2020 as Hollywood was slowly starting up production after a long COVID-mandated lockdown. Noyce believes that making the movie in that context created a deeper understanding of the need for connection and empathy that forms the core of “Lakewood.”
“The COVID of it all had left us at home with our children in the most intensive six months that we’ve spent,” says Noyce. “So that connection to family that’s at the heart of the movie was front-of-mind for all of us. We knew intimately what the film was about, which is the length that a parent will go to in order to protect their child.”