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Naomi Watts: reimagining Shakespeare in Ophelia

The actor discusses Australian director Claire McCarthy’s feminist approach to Hamlet that’s been a decade in the making.

Naomi Watts in OpheliaNaomi Watts in Ophelia

Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley may be leading the charge with the title role in Ophelia, the upcoming feminist reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but Naomi Watts commands the screen as Queen Gertrude. The actress drummed up all her trademark gusto to play Denmark’s famous Queen, as well as a smaller invented role as her feisty sister.

Director Claire McCarthy Director Claire McCarthy

Watts says it was a “bold idea” that came from Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel, which Ophelia is based on.

“It was adapted by Semi Chellas and directed by Australia’s lovely Claire McCarthy so it was a very female-driven group to tell this female-driven story,” says Watts of the film, which releases in Australia on 1 August.

“I just felt that it was a fantastic modern way to re-imagine the play. At the centre the movie's really about Ophelia coming of age and creating her identity and not being defined by anyone. She’s creating her own spirit.” 

In this version of the story, Ophelia is helped along the way by Watt’s Gertrude, who enlists her as her lady-in-waiting in the royal Danish court.

“Gertrude sees her old self in Ophelia. She sees things she wished for herself to achieve, things she hasn't been able to achieve because of her royal way of living,” says Watts. “She’s also a bit self-serving and she’s got certain blood on her hands. The role has always been up for interpretation and I loved that she got to be all things. She was good one minute and bad the next which makes it very interesting for an actor to play.” 

Watts re-examined Shakespeare’s Hamlet and watched different versions of the male-focused play including Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 movie starring Mel Gibson. 

“The women in Shakespeare’s plays, if they’re strong they’re mad and if they’re weak, they’re tragic damsels in distress. They’re always plotting against each other. But in this case they come together and become so much more powerful and that’s kind of what’s happening now in the world. So that's very uplifting." 

“I was so surprised that they’d been trying to get it made for around a decade. I think art always reflects the themes of real-life situations and it’s great that Ophelia is a character finding her voice and is no longer the victim.”

Watts admits she “does like a good period drama.” Certainly McCarthy, filming in the Czech Republic, was keen to set the story “still in the fourteenth century, still in a castle and to have all these epics set pieces. It’s quite faithful to the story but re-imagines it.”

Most notably McCarthy re-imagines the story with a lot of colour, which is rendered beautifully by her Australian/New Zealand cinematographer husband Denson Baker ACS NZCS, who also shot her 2009 film The Waiting City.

Cinematographer Denson Baker and director Claire McCarthyCinematographer Denson Baker and director Claire McCarthy

“At our first meeting Claire showed me all these fantastic look books and images and she really had a lot to say about it,” Watts recalls. “I loved the story right away. It’s scary putting Shakespeare on film, it doesn't always work, but this felt very different not using the Shakespearean language and giving it a contemporary voice. It’s great for people who haven’t followed his plays and it’s nice to give Gertrude her moment as well.”

McCarthy commends Watts’ fearless performance. “Naomi’s so complex and such a wonderful actress,” says the director who lives between Australia and the US. “I mean, she’s one of the greats. She’s not afraid and she’s not vain or hung up about anything. She really just wants to go deep into the material and bring something great to the screen.”

Watts has turned her talents to television too, working with her Mulholland Drive director David Lynch again on the third season of Twin Peaks, and starring alongside Russell Crowe in the mini-series about Fox News founder Roger Ailes titled The Loudest Voice (both stream in Australia on Stan). And she’s also been announced as the star of the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel pilot.

Watts was born in in the UK, raised in Australia and has long lived in the US, but there’s a local production on the horizon that’s set to pull her back. She’s excited about starring in the long-gestating true-life Australian project, Penguin Bloom, which she is producing with Bruna Papandrea following their huge success with the HBO series Big Little Lies.

With Penguin Bloom receiving Screen Australia production funding in February 2019, audiences can expect to see Watts on Australian screens very soon.

Ophelia releases in Australian cinemas on 1 August through Madman Entertainment.

This interview took place at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival where Ophelia made its world premiere