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Q&A – Fair Game’s Naomi Watts and Doug Liman on Sean Penn, Karl Rove, and Watts’s Ability to Win in a Fight

Doug Liman knows a thing or two about international spies, having helmed both Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity. His latest, Fair Game, is another spy thriller, only the harrowing facts driving the narrative are genuine, no matter how far-fetched they appear to be. With Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in tow, Liman recounts the story of Valerie Plame, whose secret identity as a CIA operative was leaked to the Washington Post by the White House after her husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece criticizing our country’s invasion of Iraq. Liman and Watts recently opened up about abuses of power, lawsuits, Penn’s politics, and paramilitary training for the petite actress.

Q: The story deals with the Bush administration, though the main players in that party are out of office. Are there political elements to the film that carry on regardless of who is in power?

Doug Liman: There are. This is a story of an abuse of power by the White House. And that is something that we need to remain constantly vigilant of because it has repeated itself throughout our history. To me, it’s not even about George W. Bush, per se. It’s about the White House. And the White House is still there in Washington. And the powers that are amassed in that building are never relinquished by the next administration. This is a situation where a couple decided to speak out and say the truth, and they were attacked by the administration. That’s something that, for me, will always be relevant.

Q: Were you worried that anyone — Karl Rove, for instance — might sue?

DL: I come from a family of lawyers, so I’ll answer this question.
It was really important for me to stay true to the facts as they were
publicly known through court files and testimony because that was
enough. There was no reason to go beyond that into conjecture. You
know, I have my own personal opinions about other people who might be
involved in this who aren’t mentioned in the movie. But we stuck to the
people who either were convicted of crimes or were mentioned in [a
Justice Department] investigation. And that really didn’t come from a
fear of being sued because probably the best publicity you could ever
get for a film like this is for Karl Rove to sue us. He’s a pretty good
strategist. He probably knows that. It came more from the fact that
there was enough information in the public record and there was no
reason to exaggerate it.

Q: Because Sean Penn is almost immediately associated with liberal politics, was it smart to cast him in such a prominent role?

Naomi Watts: Well, he’s also one of the best actors in the world, living or dead, so…

DL: And when I go into making a movie, I’m not thinking about [these
interviews] a year later. Actually, this didn’t start out as a
political movie for me. I have a political background, but this didn’t
start with me reading the newspapers and being outraged and saying,
“Somebody should do something about this.” This actually started with
me being handed a screenplay that was developed by producers who read
the headlines and were outraged. I fell in love with the characters of
Valerie and Joe in the pages of a screenplay and wondered, Is this
really true? I later got to meet Valerie and Joe and was so
captivated by their story that I wasn’t even thinking, Political film.
I am a liberal Democrat. But I’d like to think that had this been a
story that was attacking Obama, I would have done it as well.

Q: Naomi, can you talk about preparing to play Valerie Plame and her input into your process?

NW: Everyone in America is familiar with this story so I felt an
extra amount of pressure that I wanted to tell it as truthfully as I
could. There’s also the fact that Valerie was not only alive but closely
involved. She acted as one of our CIA consultants. She was on the set
being our BS barometer. She was very hands-on. It’s not every day
as an actor that you get to meet a person like this. She’s someone who
truly is impressive to meet. So I was nervous. It felt like a big
undertaking. Because of her injustice, because of that level of
betrayal, it was deeply important to me to somehow serve her story in
the best possible way. But our relationship was formed in a very quick
and small amount of time. Basically, I had a baby on December 13. I read the
script on December 28. And we ended up doing a little mini-shoot to catch
the end of winter in February. So there was so little time and so many
facts. Obviously we knew the story. But it was told through the media
in such a fragmented way. It was about piecemeal-ing it together and
then sort of letting go of the facts so we would concentrate on the
character, so I could then figure out who this woman was. How did she
deal with this betrayal? How did her marriage and family function? How
did her lifestyle change? Who did she become? It would be so easy to
assume that any of us would either avoid the fight altogether or just
come undone. And she did neither.

Q: Did you connect with Plame on a personal level, as you are
both working mothers juggling intense and often strange professional

NW: Well, I had the utmost respect for her because of that, how she
managed with twins, traveling all over the world and keeping outrageous
hours week in and week out. My job can be like that, but there also are
incredible breaks. I talked to her about that, how she managed to be a
professional and a mother and be really good at it. That’s one of the
things I most recently learned about her. I never really got to see her
with her kids, but I got to listen to her talk about them endlessly.
When she came into my hotel room in Cannes and I saw her relate to my
own children, it was very clear that she was a natural mother. Because
my kids don’t really pay much attention to people unless they’re
holding some fantastic toy or something. [Laughs] But that balance was
very interesting to me, how she managed it, and it is definitely
something I can relate to.

Q: Wasn’t there also a physical element to your preparation?

NW: Oh, yeah, Doug also sent me off to boot camp. He told me, “You’re
too soft and maternal. You’re going to boot camp!” So I did some
paramilitary training for three days.

Q: Does that mean you could take me out right now?

NW: Yeah, pretty much. [Laughs] So don’t mess with me.

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