Naomi Watts has spent a lot of time getting to know Maria Belon, but her esteem for the Spanish woman has in no way diminished. Belon and her family survived the 2004 South Pacific tsunami and went on to inspire Watts' new film, "The Impossible." (The family has been recast as British for the movie.) "I was blown away by her," Watts remembers. "Having gone through this experience together and knowing what she went through, you want to hold onto everything she feels and says because you know how close she came. There's something now about her that makes her just understand life better and it's just deeply impressive. I'm full of self-doubt and second-guessing and cynicism. That's another type of human being."
Self-doubt aside, Watts could at least relate to Belon as one mother to another. "I'm not thinking about a tsunami on a daily basis," Watts admits. "I have fears about getting separated from my children just on the subway, you know? You laugh, but I've gone through in my head, 'What would I do?' It's happened on an elevator before. And then you're like, is your child going to know where to get off? Luckily it's only ever happened in our building, so it's OK. They know the number five. But if it's the subway and you haven't had a conversation about it... You know, I've actually tried to have the conversation, but it's just too confusing for them."
Filming the harrowing and hazardous scenes taking place in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami was no picnic for the actress, but she's not one to complain, always remembering to keep things in perspective. Watts remembers on particular scene where she clings to a tree as water rushes past. "I was there for a long time, but I was anchored with a harness. Still, with the pressure of the water coming you still had to hang on tight," says. "But you just kept reminding yourself, I'm not going to complain. I'm an actor recreating this. There were people who hung onto trees for 10, 12 hours."
Still, that doesn't mean the waterlogged sequence was a walk in the park. "Physically, it's the most demanding thing I've ever done. Working with water is always going to be tough. I mean, it was five or six weeks in those tanks," she says. But Tom Holland, who plays her eldest son in the film, seemed to enjoy himself, at least. "Tom thought it was the most fun he's ever had," Watts says. "It was like the water park every day, but the scariest possible one. But he's not only a trained athlete but he's 14, and I'm neither of those things."
Taking on the critics
The filmmakers behind "The Impossible" have come under fire for telling the story of the 2004 tsunami through the eyes of European tourists — and one family in particular. But Maria Belon, the Spanish woman upon whom the story is based, has had enough. "I am fed up with the criticisms of it being in English, a British family," Belon says. "I can't understand why people don't understand what the movie is about. The movie is about human beings. Under the wave — this is something you learn — we are so similar to each other, so extremely similar to each other. They are not white, they are not rich, they are not nice. They are human beings. I feel this is an excuse to pick one stupid story like ours, one tiny story, to talk about the human spirit, to talk about what really matters and what doesn't really matter."