LOS ANGELES, California
Naomi Watts jumped at the chance to star in Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong," but didn't know if she could live up to the original movie's female lead, actress Fay Wray.
"One of my fears in the beginning of taking on the part was that 'Oh, this is such an iconic movie and iconic part.' How do you survive those comparisons that are naturally going to be drawn?" says the Aussie actress. "But then I also thought, 'Well, I have done quite a bit of work beforehand. Maybe it won't be just this one role that people will think of me as.'"
Watts, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in "21 Grams" and later for "The Ring" horror films, stars as "King Kong's" Ann Darrow, a Depression-era vaudeville performer who dreams of doing serious acting. When she loses her job, she jumps at the chance to star in a movie that adventure filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is shooting overseas.
Although Jackson's remake is inspired by the 1933 classic, Watts admits that she still learned something from the often-disparaged 1976 version starring Jessica Lange.
"(Critics) pooh pooh it I think because of the sexual undertones. But I saw that a long time ago and I was still very moved by her performance. I've always loved Jessica's work," reveals the Aussie actress. "Actually, it reminded me that even when the story falters, that the role is fabulous and if (the film is) done right, if it still works, the role works."
On the mysterious Skull Island, Ann encounters some natives who truss her up, put a spiky lei around her neck and offer her to King Kong, a 25-foot silverback gorilla who carries her off into the jungle. Though the beast has killed all his previous sacrificial offerings, his latest victim is a different story.
"When you see him take her from the altar and trying to find a place to pull her to pieces, you see all those other things, the leis that have been around the other women (and) their bones," says Watts. "Ann makes a great turning point there and manages to get away. There is something about this woman that is so different - it's not her beauty, it's her heart and their connection and his ability to love, which he probably never knew he had."
But how do you get through to a thick-skulled giant ape? Apparently, like music and mathematics, physical humor needs no language. Ann calls on her vaudeville skills - dancing, flipping and falling in a desperate attempt to amuse Kong and therefore prolong her life.
"The first moment I think they make their connection is when instead of making the decision to pull her to pieces, he thinks she's kind of amusing and he pushes her around a bit. Because of her days in vaudeville, she kind of comes on to what he's amused by," says the actress. "All the time she's thinking, 'OK, I'll just do a couple of pratfalls and think of a way out of this.' But then she kind of sees what it is that's amusing him and finds that kind of fascinating."
Thus begins a most unusual friendship, in which she realizes that he's more than just a dumb animal, but a creature whose emotions mirror human ones.
"When he becomes upset, wanting more and more and more and she's beyond exhaustion and can't give anymore, he gets frustrated and starts smashing things, becomes completely embarrassed by his behavior and then has to run away and hide," adds Watts. "Ann finds that odd, but kind of understands it as well. They're two lonely beings, and I think they kind of understand each other. They've both struggled and been through desperate times."
In a way, Watts can relate to her character's complex relationship with Kong.
"There are so many things about that big dumb ape that is just completely the same as any man," she says. "They get jealous, they get full of rage, they get protective, they get dark and then they get compassionate and caring and humorous - a lot of the emotions that match human beings."