Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts says she let out a yelp of disbelief when she heard she was up for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award for her role as a true-life survivor of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Her nomination for The Impossible pits her against some formidable competition, including two other British-born actresses, Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) and Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea).

Though Hollywood insiders say 43-year-old Watts is the front runner, she will be on tenterhooks until the winners are announced on Sunday. She is also being mooted as an Oscar nominee. The shortlist for the 2013 Academy Awards is due to be published on Thursday next week, and Reese Witherspoon is lobbying for Watts to be included.

The nominations themselves are a vindication of what the actress describes as “my struggle and determination”. Whether she takes home any trophies is almost irrelevant.

Born in Kent, Watts emigrated to Australia at 14. Her mother, Myfanwy, an antiques dealer, split from her father, Peter Watts, a sound engineer for Pink Floyd, when she was four. He died from a heroin overdose when she was seven. “I’ve known pain and sadness from a very early age,” Watts says.

In 1991, she landed a role in Home and Away as handicapped Julie Gibson, then spent the next 10 years at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. It wasn’t until 2001 that her standout role in Mulholland Drive brought her a taste of real success.

Until that happened, had she ever felt like giving up? “Every time I failed to land a part, I would think: ‘I’m just not cut out for this. I can’t handle it – it’s too much rejection.’ But each time I was about to give up, something would stop me.”

So did she feel she was ready for success when it happened?

“Yes – it’s all about the preparation,” she says. “It meant I never took anything for granted. Australian culture has always been great for never letting you do that.

“It instils in you a good work ethic and a reverence for what you do. There is no sense of entitlement in Australian culture. It goes back to the convict mentality. We are grateful – and, yes, that was good preparation.”

Now she’s getting worldwide critical acclaim for her role in The Impossible. The movie veers from terrifying pain to chronicling intimate family grief, and Watts plays it horrific and raw, with not a single flattering shot of her throughout. Her clothes are ripped, and she is bloody and caked in mud.

She is bashed, thrashed, dragged through slime, takes refuge in a tree for survival, almost drowns under the wave, and coughs up disgusting black sludge when she is near death. But she somehow clings on to life in the hope of being reunited with her husband and three boys.

The movie required months of tough work, and Watts did all her own stunts. She shrugs off the physical stress as “nothing”. “Yes, it was intense – lots of underwater filming and climbing trees. I’m a tomboy at heart. I have an elder brother and was never interested in girlie things, so climbing trees didn’t bother me.

“But being under water…” She screws up her nose, as if it was slightly irritating, rather than both gruelling and even terrifying. (Watts is scared of water.)

Watts has two sons, Sasha, five, and Samuel, four, with actor Liev Schreiber. Before that, she had a passionate relationship with fellow Australian Heath Ledger, who, like her father, died of a drug overdose.

She and Schreiber met at a party in 2006, when she was 36, just before she was about to shoot The Painted Veil. She recalls feeling suddenly bereft because she was going to be away for three months.

“I tried to get out of the movie because I couldn’t bear to leave him. We were so in love.” In the end, she persuaded Schreiber to take a role in the movie so they wouldn’t have such a long separation.

In her newest movie, Diana, she plays Princess Diana.

There is a deep intake of breath when she talks about it, and she looks for the first time a little overwhelmed. Playing Diana is more overwhelming than a tsunami?

“It’s high-pressured. I tried to say no, then changed my mind.”

Even though the film only covers the last few of years of Princess Diana’s life, Watts uses four wigs to change her hair length and colour quite considerably.

“I also had to have my eyebrows shaved in the middle.” This was to get her nose looking right.

It’s not these small details that bother her, though: it’s tough playing an icon, and Watts knows it will encourage comparisons. It’s already being said she’s not tall enough, or beautiful enough.

She learnt secrets about Diana that will only be revealed in the movie. But she also found “that Diana had a fantastic sense of humour and was a rebel”.

She describes Diana as “complicated, strong, intelligent and vulnerable” – attributes that could well describe Watts herself. – Daily Mail

• The Impossible is due be released in South African cinemas in March.