Naomi Watts joins female stars swapping big screen for TV

Naomi Watts found huge success on the big screen but is now among the female A-listers discovering better roles on television. As her new series premieres on Netflix, she talks about the changes in the industry, the power of female film-makers and how her own experiences of therapy informed her latest performance

Naomi Watts plays a therapist who lives a double life in Gypsy, now streaming on Netflix
Naomi Watts plays a therapist who lives a double life in Gypsy, now streaming on Netflix Naomi Watts plays a therapist who lives a double life in Gypsy, now streaming on Netflix

THERE is a mass exodus going on in Hollywood right now, but it's not affecting petrol station queues, traffic patterns or house prices. Instead, it is a flood of top-flight female actresses who are turning their backs on the big screen in hot pursuit of the better writing and more interesting characters in television.

Oscar nominee Naomi Watts is the latest to join the ranks, which includes her friend Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley, who headlined the recent Sky Atlantic hit Big Little Lies, Winona Ryder, who starred in hit Netflix series Stranger Thingsand and Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, who play Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Feud: Bette And Joan, which will air on BBC Two later this year.

Watts, who was born in England and moved to Sydney when she was 14, found her break-out role in David Lynch's critically acclaimed drama Mulholland Drive, earned a best actress nod from the Academy for 21 Grams and hit box office success as Ann Darrow in 2005's King Kong. However, she discovered Hollywood's recent appetite for superheroes and reboots was not providing her with the complex and thoughtful roles she was interested in.

Instead she found what she was looking for in the new Netflix psychological thriller Gypsy, in which she plays Jean Holloway, a successful but duplicitous psychotherapist who is a married professional by day but a completely different person by night, carrying on an affair with a younger woman and meddling in the lives of her patients.

Watts (48) says she was not actively looking to move into television, but had to go where the best parts were.

"I definitely noticed that a lot of great writing was taking place in the TV format now, probably because of the sad state of the film industry and how all the films getting made are mostly in the franchise world, or superheroes or big comedy blockbuster-y type movies, and I really tend to enjoy working in the drama genre.

"Since the film industry was bottoming out, all the writers moved over to TV and we have to follow those stories, those writers," she says. "Certainly I thought this character was straddling both worlds of both good and bad and that is a great part to play. Men get to play those parts normally and it wasn't a stereotypical role and I like the idea that if I'm going to commit to a long-term project that it would never be boring."

She continues: "It felt like a choice. It wasn't like I've got to hang it up and go to the other place – there is no real change to be honest. What happened with the industry is films were making less and less money and were harder and harder to get made. So most of the money that was being spent was on films that are not really my passion and the female-driven drama writers moved to TV and that is where a lot of us have ended up going, to get the storytelling."

The series, for which Stevie Nicks recorded an acoustic version of her Fleetwood Mac 1982 hit Gypsy as the theme song, was partially directed by Fifty Shades Of Grey film-maker Sam Taylor-Johnson. It gave Watts the chance to draw on her own experiences with therapy and explore new types of analysis, she reveals.

The actress, who announced her split from US actor Liev Schreiber, her partner of 11 years, last year, reveals: "I have found therapy over the years very helpful, particularly if you're in a crisis point.

"But keeping up with it as much as you can, being able to communicate well with everyone that is in your life, that is something you can learn in therapy, because sometimes we just are connected to our own stories and it's good to learn how to understand and make room for other people's dialogue as well and identify with them.

"I've certainly done my fair share of therapy over the years and that was helpful but I didn't know much about the CBT world. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a very specific type of therapy whereby you're able to control the negative thought patterns and therefore change the behaviour so I did go and sit with a CBT therapist as myself and paid my money and did some sessions and that was interesting."

Of the five directors who worked on the show, five – including Taylor-Johnson – were women, and many other key behind-the-scenes roles were filled by women too.

This is something Watts sees as a significant statement, saying: "It did seem important because this is a female-driven story and so the collective group of women made it feel like we would get the most authentic version of her story.

"There is a call for action and it is taking place and not just in our industry and not just in front but behind the camera, across the board and in other industries too.

"I loved Sam and it was really Sam that brought me here because I knew her, not super well but somewhat well, and she brought it to my attention. Had it just come through my agents and managers I might not have read it so quickly or even got round to it, I don't know."

She adds: "I really trusted her an she's got this incredible way of telling stories without words. Obviously her visual sensibility is fantastic. With women we probably expect a lot from each other. We get close very quickly and the experiences I've had with women have all been pretty great and I love that a woman is telling a women's story, it makes a lot of sense."

:: Gypsy is streaming on Netflix now