At ease playing tag in Central Park or working the red carpet, Naomi Watts is the epitome of grace under pressure.

For Naomi Watts, who has never looked more beautiful or been in more demand as an actress, sleep “is the most precious, hard thing” to come by in her life.

When the 42-year-old beauty phoned us from location in Thailand where she was shooting The Impossible with Ewan McGregor, she had just finished working with a fitness trainer on the beach and had also eyed a yoga class that seemed appealing. The day before, she’d been on an adventurous elephant ride through the forest. She was also wondering whether she could squeeze in an underwater dive session with her partner, fellow actor Liev Schreiber. Oh yes, and the couple had brought along their two boys, Sasha and Kai, whom Watts sweetly describes as a “fitness challenge unto themselves.”

21 Grams
© Focus Features courtesy Everett Collection
Just plain busy hardly describes her last three-plus years, which included the birth of both her boys and which ended with her impressive work in three movies released in 2010 including Mother and Child and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The third movie, alongside two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, was Fair Game, which garnered Watts powerful praise for her portrayal of courageous and real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Her upcoming movies include Dream House, a psychological thriller; The Impossible, a true story about a mother and her family in Thailand when the tsunami struck in 2004; and Untitled Comedy, a series of short comedies with a unifying story line.

And she’s already begun work for the highly anticipated movie adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ epic novel Blonde, in which British-born, Australian-raised Watts will portray perhaps the most iconic Hollywood woman, Marilyn Monroe.Watts epitomizes the active life, yet manages to balance both career and personal life . . . as long as she gets her “rest and sleep.”

Watts’ acting career didn’t kick into high gear till she was in her early 30s. But she always had a network of “really strong relationships with women,” one of whom she met on her first casting in Australia. She recalls that Nicole Kidman always encouraged her. “Nicole kept saying, ‘One thing will make a difference.’ And she was right — David Lynch and Mulholland Dr. changed everything for me. Nicole is a pretty tenacious and determined person. Yes, like me.”

The International
© Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Watts played a complex dual role in that breakthrough performance in director Lynch’s 2001 psychological thriller, and since then her diverse talents have seen her star in dozens of films including The Ring (2002), Le Divorce (2003), 21 Grams (also in 2003 and for which she received an Oscar nomination), King Kong (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), The International (2009), right up to Fair Game.

From thrillers to adventures, from personal dramas and comedy to Blonde, there’s a thread to Watts’ choice of roles, and it’s all about the character.

“Blonde is based on a masterpiece of a novel, and I’m looking forward to filming it. I’m not really thinking that Marilyn was such an iconic figure. What interests me, like with many of the parts I choose, is the life and arc she had. I like my job because we get to show all sides of a character. And as humans, no one person is only one thing — a hero is not always a hero; he or she has their tragic flaws. The thing about taking on different characters, you get to explore the different facets of a character, and they reflect some aspects of your experience, things you’ve thought about or seen in other people . . . and you get to live in the shoes of those other people.