Reporting from New York — To tell the big-screen tale of Valerie Plame, a real-life CIA spy whose covert identity was blown by the White House, director Doug Liman needed a special kind of actress: someone who could build an emotional wall around herself and still convey “a sense that there’s a good person inside her.”
He was convinced that that actress was Naomi Watts. But after a pre-shoot with Watts and costar Sean Penn last year, Liman called his producer in a panic. “We’ve got to toughen Naomi up, a.s.a.p.,” he told Janet Zucker, “and we don’t have much time.”
He wasn’t sure it was even possible. Plame had been a CIA operative who spent 17 years living a life of secrecy and deception. Watts was, by contrast, a movie star who walked red carpets, was trailed by an adoring entourage and, on top of it all, was breastfeeding a new baby. “She was a little soft,” Liman said.
Two days later, the director drove his star to a paramilitary camp run by government contractors in Virginia. Minutes after he left Watts there, an instructor threw her to the ground, bruising her shin. When she cried out in pain, the instructor glared at her. “Don’t” he said slowly, “unless you need to go to the hospital.”Over the next two days, Watts was “stripped of everything that cloaked her in specialness,” Liman said. “It was kind of a Hail Mary, and nobody was more surprised than me that it actually worked.”