Women on the verge of a role reversal
Naomi Watts's fortunes ride high
Laura Dern hopes for a comeback


PARK CITY, UTAH—David Lynch would appreciate the weirdness of the scene: Naomi Watts and Laura Dern are sitting together for an interview at the Sundance Film Festival.

The vagaries of fate, and a new dramatic competition contender called We Don't Live Here Anymore, have brought together the two blonde actresses whose lives and careers were radically changed by having appeared in a David Lynch movie.

Watts was plucked from obscurity and casting-call hell after her head-turning performance in Mulholland Drive, Lynch's 2001 Hollywood nightmare that premiered at Cannes. Dern rose to similar prominence in 1990 after co-starring with Nicolas Cage in Lynch's Wild At Heart, which also premiered at Cannes, and which won that year's Palme d'Or. Dern had earlier appeared in Lynch's Blue Velvet.

By some cosmic coincidence, Watts and Dern have been paired for press duties on Lynch's 58th birthday, Jan. 20. They haven't let the occasion go unnoticed.

"We just called him to say happy birthday," says the usually glam Watts, 36, who is dressed down in Sundance ski attire of big woolly sweater and blue jeans.

Asked if they have any Lynch anecdotes to share, Watts and Dern both demur. "David Lynch is an experience, not a quote," says Dern, also 36, who sports a dressier look of burgundy turtleneck and leather skirt.

"He's just extraordinary and obviously affected both of our lives majorly."

What's really strange, though, is that Watts has switched places with Dern as a Hollywood heatseeker. Watts is appearing in five films due out in 2004, including The Ring 2, the sequel to her 2002 horror phenomenon. She's also anxiously waiting to see if her name will be among the nominees to be announced on Tuesday for the Feb. 29 Academy Awards.

She's a safe bet to receive a best supporting actress nomination for her role in the critically acclaimed 21 Grams.

Watts, born in England but raised in Australia, is also preparing to return Down Under to star in New Zealander Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, in which she'll have the scream-queen role made famous by Fay Wray.

The L.A.-born Dern, on the other hand, hasn't had an Oscar nomination since her nod for Rambling Rose in 1992 (in true Oscar fashion, she was overlooked for the risk-taking Wild At Heart). She also hasn't been all that busy lately, a situation she's not happy about.

Prior to making the marital drama We Don't Live Here Anymore with Watts and co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), Dern hadn't made a movie since I Am Sam in 2001. Her dance card is currently open.

"Nothing now," she says, when asked about upcoming movie projects. "I'm waiting for something else great and exciting."

Dern can take comfort in the knowledge that, in the movie business, fortunes turn on a dime.

And both she and Watts stand to benefit from their equally impressive performances in We Don't Live Here Anymore, which was directed by New York-born John Curran, whose 1999 Sundance debut Praise was one of that year's festival discoveries.

We Don't Live Here Anymore has already secured distribution, as the first pick-up by Warner Independent Pictures, a new indie offshoot of Warner Bros. It means the film will get a big push when it is released later this year.

Based on short stories by André Dubus (whose writings also inspired In The Bedroom), the film is an excoriating look at modern marriage, as seen through the tangled unions of the characters played by Dern, Watts, Ruffalo and Krause.

Dern and Ruffalo play married couple Terry and Jack; Watts and Krause play married couple Edith and Hank. The women lust after each other's husbands, and vice-versa. The resulting acts of infidelity and the unforeseen consequences of them lead to some of the most harrowing marital exchanges seen on the screen in a long while.

Dern's Terry is the most outspoken of the four characters, constantly picking fights with her husband over their unhappy union. "You don't make love to me anymore, you f--k me!" she rages.

The role was so tough, Watts said she chose to instead play the more subdued Edith, even though her long friendship with director Curran, not to mention her co-producer status on the film, gave her free reign to play either female lead.

In fact, she wasn't interested in being in Curran's film at all at first, because the fateful drama 21 Grams was taking everything she had and more.

"John sent the script to me a while back, and I was shooting 21 Grams," Watts says.

"And I couldn't imagine any part (in We Don't Live Here Anymore) because 21 Grams was like every day screaming, crying, very emotionally draining ...

"That's when he started introducing the idea that as a producer I would be involved in some of the creative decisions, and it was a new challenge for me. I've always believed in the material, but I could never have done Laura's role."

Watts eventually signed on to play Edith, a passive-aggressive woman who seems incapable of saving her marriage, either by stopping her own infidelity or by challenging her husband about his.

Her character didn't sit well with Watts, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Curran to make Edith less of a puppet.

"Edith was so different in how she operated in that situation, so different from how I would deal with it. I would be screaming and shouting and shaking, and not letting my husband walk out the door. Face it, let's deal with it, let's confront this issue, it's not getting any better. But Edith is so disempowered by this point in their relationship and she becomes so passive and depressed, it's irritating to say, `Okay, she's going to do that. Okay, I'm going to do that.'

"No! Wouldn't she have more emotion at this point? John really fought me on that at times. I really wanted to do more and say more and struggle more. And he would say, `No, she had her awakening with Mark's character. That's the only time she felt alive in the movie.'"

Dern had less trouble playing Terry, despite her character's histrionics.

Having been through some tough relationships of her own — including a stormy and unsuccessful engagement to the frequently married Billy Bob Thornton — she could understand what Terry was going through.

"We've all played these parts," she says. "We've been or witnessed the rager and we've been or witnessed someone who is so depressed by their state that they can't verbalize anything, where they don't feel entitled to their voice in it.

"And many have witnessed infidelity on one side or the other. And so this is this play (in the movie), this dynamic that all of us enter in our lives in some capacity ...

"Each of us had to play people that had aspects that weren't attractive on any level."

Oddly enough, however, the audience at the Library Theater laughed a lot during the late-night screening of We Don't Live Here Anymore.

The movie is by no means a comedy, but some of the exchanges and frustrations seem so familiar, the audience couldn't help but chuckle in recognition.

Dern and Watts were surprised by the reaction, but they saw the laughter as a form of catharsis, which they believe will carry over to other audiences when the movie opens in theatres later this year.

Says Watts: "That's the first time we've seen it with an audience. And there's a lot more humour in the finished product than how we read it or even how we were playing it. I think what we worked out is that the humour is in the familiarity. It's situational. There are no one-liners, there's no comic timing or anything like that. It's all just, `Isn't this bizarre? Aren't we funny as human beings, what we do to each other?'"

Also funny are the contortions actors put themselves through in pretending not to care about the Oscars, even while passionately hoping to obtain one. Watts can't believe how much her fortunes have risen in the past three years, rising from an almost unknown actress into a potential Oscar nominee.

"I'm not pinching myself, I'm slapping myself. I can't wake up. And I'm knocking on wood. My hands are bleeding. It's an incredible time, it's overwhelming, and I feel incredibly lucky to be working with directors whom I've always admired and with actors whom I've always admired.

"And that's what I'm here for. That's what was worth the wait. Waiting for that horrible period of no work to end."

Class act that she is, Dern simply sits and smiles as she listens to Watts talk about the movie opportunities and awards that Dern won't be a part of this year.

But if We Don't Live Here Anymore succeeds, it could be an entirely different story for Dern this time next year. Things can always change for the better. Movies are a lot like marriage that way.