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"Mulholland Drive is a very long road that leads to everywhere and nowhere at the same time," says actress Naomi Watts of the Los Angeles highway that provides David Lynch's new film with its title. "There's twists and hairpin turns; one minute you're looking at a gorgeous view, and the next minute it's really dark and bleak."
Same goes for Lynch's who's-dreaming-who Möbius strip of double identities, sublimated desires, and skewed Hollywood satire, in which Watts and costar Laura Elena Harring each portray two diametrically opposed characters negotiating a forked path of charmed reverie and roiling nightmare. "In a way I think David might be a therapist and not even know it," says Harring. "My mother is a Jungian psychoanalyst, and I learned from her that whatever strengths you have, you have the same weakness. Everybody has a dark side that we're not aware of."
"Laura and Naomi have great chemistry together," says Lynch of his yin-yang glamour girls. "They've become great friends, and they're so different, and when a thing feeds, you know, when people's relationship off the screen gets deeper, it adds to the film, and it's a beautiful thing."
Originally shot as an ABC pilot in 1999, Mulholland Drive took plenty of unexpected detours in its journey out of television purgatory. "It was going to be something and then not about five times," says the Mexican-born Harring, whose family moved to Texas when she was 11. "We were on a roller-coaster ride for years. And one day David called us over to his house and said, 'Mulholland Drive is going to be an international feature film. And there's gonna be nudity!' So we're all shaking his hand, but we're like, There's going to be what?"
Harring admits to some initial ambivalence about having to disrobe for her rapturous love scene with Watts. "It's a very vulnerable feeling. But there's no movie without that scene. It's the turning point of the affair, and it's erotic and yet sweet and innocent. You would imagine that it would be a little more twisted coming from David."
Mulholland Drive is a lot twisted, of course, centering on what might be seen as a variation on the Kyle MacLachlan-Isabella Rossellini pairing in Blue Velvet, with aspiring actress Betty, played by Watts, as the guileless amateur investigator unpacking the secrets of Harring's tormented, raven-haired mystery woman.
"When I first read the script, I was a little worried," says Watts, who was born in England and raised in Wales and Australia. "I thought, My god, this is a really one-dimensional character: happy-go-lucky, sweet, perky, dimples in her cheeks, stars in her eyes, bounce in her step. She doesn't belong in a storyshe belongs on the side of a cereal box in 1952!"
The girl next door shape-shifts into a smoldering femme fatale during Betty's astonishing audition scene. "Everyone loves that bit because it comes completely out of left field," Watts says. "People always ask me, Did you have it like Betty when you first came to L.A.? and I'm like, actually, no! I did not get an audition with a major studio straight off the plane and it took me years before I ever walked out of an audition and said, 'Whoa, I nailed it!' "
Neither actress auditioned per se for Lynch, who casts his actors from still photographs and informal chats. "We sat down and talked about my family, his family, where I was from, all that kind of stuff," Watts recalls. "I was kind of shocked, and it felt good. And about 40 minutes later he got up and gave me a hug and said, 'Well it was sure great to meet you Nay-oh-mee!' " Watts throws up her hands. "No auditioning! No looking at my tape! I'm so scared that he's spoiled me now. And I feel so blessed that Mulholland Drive started out as a seriesI mean, who knows who would have been up for these roles had it started out as a movie."
Harring found herself unwittingly getting into character from her first meeting with Lynch: "So I'm on my way to my audition, and I'm so excited I actually have a car accident on the way to his house! I was distracted, I was primping or whatever, and bang, I rear-end somebody. So when I tell them why I was running late, they say, 'In the first scene of the script, your character has a car accident.' And to me that was an omen."
Fitting for a movie in which the pivotal scene is scored to a Spanish-language rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying," both actresses spend a significant chunk of their screen time in tears. Watts describes the requisite flood as "physically debilitating," while Harring recalls, "I would go home after a long day of crying and I would be shaking and nauseous and I couldn't sleep, and then I'd go back to work on three or four hours of rest, and again I'd have to be in this state."
Surely worthy of its own movie adaptation, Harring's life has taken no end of unpredictable plot turns: A near fatal shooting incident at age 12, a reign as Miss U.S.A. in 1985 (she was the first and, so far, only Latina to be crowned), a year of social work in India ("We built latrines and planted vegetable gardens and slept under the moonlight, all in the foothills of the Himalayas"), and a royal marriage in 1987 (she separated amicably from Count Carl Edward von Bismarck two years later).