NEW YORK - One is a three-hour, $200 million-plus combination of digital effects, yearlong hype and the largest of apes. The other is a frantic $30,000 production depicting an actress desperate for cardboard-thin parts in the Best of movies.
The films couldn't be more different - and neither could Naomi Watts' career from what it was five years ago.
On Wednesday, Ms. Watts hit theaters worldwide with the famed ape in King Kong. Her balance between blockbuster siren and indie shape-shifter is epitomized by the semiautobiographical Ellie Parker, released a month ago, featuring Ms. Watts in the Hollywood hell of a struggling actress.
She explains her contradictions simply: "That's me. I don't want to be boxed into any kind of confined space."
Peter Jackson's remake of the original 1933 King Kong is ratcheting the 37-year-old actress to the top of fame's skyscraper. Since David Lynch picked her out of a pile of head shots for 2001's Mulholland Dr., Ms. Watts has filled her years with critically acclaimed performances, including Le Divorce, The Ring movies and 2003's 21 Grams, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
"People keep thinking I'm this dark, serious person because the work I do is like that," she says. "Yes, the work I'm interested in does tend to be dark in nature, but it doesn't mean that that's who I am."
The blond, blue-eyed Ms. Watts is a carefree force who, while frequently found in the pages of glamour magazines, appears more herself barefoot and a bit ruffled. Her 10 years of struggle remain more familiar than her current success, of which she says, "I'm still working it out."
She was born in England and moved to Australia at age 14. Ms. Watts and her mother moved around frequently, which meant having to repeatedly fit in. She would change her accent accordingly and says the transitions bred her acting ability.
If anything, her penchant for dramatic, emotional shifts in character has become her fame. She plays essentially two roles in the dream/reality realms of Mulholland Dr., fluctuates from grieving widow to drugged-out avenger in 21 Grams, and literally changes persona while driving from one audition to another in Ellie Parker.
"We do make such dramatic shifts - we're capable of anything," she says. "You can't just say this is who I am and I'd never do that. It's like, I could say I'm not a murderer, but if someone touched my (hypothetical) child, I could believe wanting to kill.
"I like that behavior can be so unpredictable."
Scott Coffey, who directed Ms. Watts in Ellie Parker, has been friends with her for years, beginning when they both lived in what he calls "non-ending, perpetual L.A. purgatory."
"I think what people really respond to is there's a deep, deep pain to her work and she's really willing to examine that," Mr. Coffey says, adding that she openly explores herself in each character.
Before shooting King Kong in New Zealand, Ms. Watts and Mr. Jackson traveled to New York to visit the original damsel in distress - Fay Wray. Ms. Wray, who died last year at age 96, was Ann Darrow in the first King Kong.
Ms. Watts recounts: "At the end of the night, we dropped her off, and she said (whispering), 'Ann Darrow is in good hands.'"
Of course, the good hands holding Ann Darrow belong, on screen, to Kong. The movie has always been essentially a love story, and making that connection with a computer-generated gorilla was Ms. Watts' greatest challenge.
"I was able to go with this absurd fantasy," Ms. Watts says. "I was able to fall in love with this creature and believe he was a ferocious, savage beast as well."