“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 story—she 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 series—I 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).
Harring shrugs off queries about her adventures through the pageantry circuit. “It gave me my SAG card, because a producer saw me on TV and offered me a role. But other than that, it just slowed me down. For years, they put me in this box that I couldn’t act. When I got the call about Mulholland Drive, I didn’t even have an agent. I was so, like, giving up on Hollywood. You know, you get heartbroken.”
Improbable as it seems, once upon a time Watts considered herself a beauty-school dropout too. Watts did work in Australian commercials as a teenager, which led to a yearlong modeling contract in Japan. “I nearly wanted to kill myself—I was 18 and I wasn’t used to going to hundreds of castings and lining up and being told you’re not pretty enough. After that, I decided I would never go before the camera again.” Watts became an editor at the avant-garde fashion mag Follow Me by age 19; that same year, she took part in a weekend acting workshop as a favor to a friend and realized she was in the wrong line of work. “So one Monday morning I walk into my boss’s office and say, I quit. And two weeks later I got cast in Flirting,” John Duigan’s 1991 teen romance with Nicole Kidman and Noah Taylor.
Watts’s first post-Mulholland project is “a wacky Miramax comedy” with Brenda Blethyn and Christopher Walken called Plots With a View, shooting now in Wales. Next up for Harring is Nick Cassavetes’s John Q, in which she plays “a very trashy obnoxious hick. But my new thing is action,” Harring says. “I’m learning tae kwon do because I want to do Matrix-type movies, like kick some butt. I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon three times.”
She’s seen Mulholland Drive five times, while Watts has logged three viewings; both report every go-round reveals new meanings and hidden clues. “There are dozens of different interpretations,” Watts says. “People have said to me, I loved the movie—I didn’t understand it, but I loved it.’ And they find that strange. But to me, that’s brilliant, and I think it’s David’s whole endeavor—a honest, visceral reaction that doesn’t need to be explained.”
“Gone Fishin’: David Lynch Casts a Line Into the City of Dreams” by Dennis Lim
J. Hoberman’s review of Mulholland Drive