As Cornelia and Josh, Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller play a middle-aged couple facing a crossroads in their lives while their youthful counterparts, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver, are just getting started, brimming with energy and enthusiasm.
Set in New York, the thespian foursome are immersed in an elite world of documentary film making, albeit with rather different approaches.
Immediately drawn to the script, Naomi Watts, 46, waited three years for the film to be made, declaring today that she finally lives up to the “middle-aged” requirements of the story:
Q: What is it about the world of Noah Baumbach? What does he give an actor?
NW: A great script to start with that’s pretty much flawless; his writing is really wonderful. I think the way he plays out each character with a unique voice is really impressive, and rhythmically his dialogue works. I think every time you take on a new role, you’re trying to help find that voice and you add your own bits and pieces along the way but with Noah it’s already done.
Q: Noah is tapping into the obsession with youth culture. Do we allow ourselves to age or do we try and hold on to something from our youth?
NW: This is the million dollar question and I think when you see the whole film you walk away with this feeling of: We’re all the same, we all think its better somewhere else; its better being older if you’re younger – or its better being younger when we’re older. And if we could just trust the moment that we’re in and live it in the way that you best can embrace it, it would be much better for all of us.
Q: How did you relate to playing a woman who has run out of time to have children and feels she won’t be fulfilled otherwise? Is that a myth that every woman is sold?
NW: I think it’s very much a part of society and I don’t know that any woman could ever not think about that at some point – even making the choice not to do it and getting to the place of peace of choosing not to be a parent, there would have still been some struggle in between. I’m not a man but I don’t think it would occupy their minds as much. I’m completely respectful of anyone who chooses not to have children, it’s completely OK. Its hard work being a mum so you’ve got to want it.
Q: And Cornelia changes her mind and decides she does want children?
NW: What I love about Cornelia is that she’s open to changing her mind. Its not that she made a better decision, that’s not the point of it, it’s just that she was absolutely squared away on that subject and thought she was completely fine with it and then she changes her mind – not because it’s the better decision – but for her, she came to that point where she felt that was the right move.
Q: What was your experience of 20s vs. 40s? Which were the best years for you? NW: I think whether you’ve got children or not you’re just more aware of others as you get out of your 20s. In your 20s – and these are generalizations of course – I feel like I didn’t care about as many things or as many people, or even myself, as much. There’s more recklessness and more ruthlessness; you’re not as considerate of how things land with other people I think.
Q: Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and yourself are all New Yorkers. I have this romantic notion that you all got together and made this movie in a trendy Brooklyn loft somewhere?
NW: The first rehearsal was in a brownstone in Brooklyn where we filmed. We were supposed to make this film a few years earlier and it didn’t happen for whatever reason and then Ben was busy or I was busy and then it went away and then they were going to put a different woman in it. . .
Q: It seems impossible to imagine anyone but you in this role?
NW: There were a few options there for a second, because maybe my timing was wrong or maybe they went off me, maybe they wanted a younger persona and I remember feeling sad about that because I really connected with the script right away – but then they came back and I was really glad. It was also my year where I was looking to get away from these dark, emotional pieces that I seemed to be doing over and over again so it was perfect timing for me. Also I think it’s better that we were both in our mid-40s, rather than someone who was 38 or 41 even.
Q: You couldn’t empathize as much with younger actors playing these characters who are meant to be middle-aged?
NW: Yeah, I think you want to know that they’re really feeling the loss of their youth and their fear of the next chapter.
Q: Are you hobo or hipster?
NW: Neither! The funny thing is that these people who pose themselves as this incredibly hip young couple turn out to be not as hip as they think they are. That’s what I love about it – this endless fascination with the youth culture is there in all of us and the irony of them using vinyl and typewriters and oh, let’s leave it to questions and not know the answer, let’s try and remember – we’re fooled into believing they are so pure and that’s why we think they’re worth loving; that becomes the genesis of our crush on them and then we figure out they’re not as authentic as they promise.
Q: And the movie addresses falsification?
NW: Exactly, and then that goes back to the trust theme of perhaps we should invest more trust in ourselves.
NW: Tough question. I feel like personally I have more drive now than I did then probably because I care more and also because I’ve reached the mid-life point; what haven’t I done? What do I need to squeeze in? And that fear of is it going to go away. I think in my 20s I was just all about having fun.
Q: What do you envy about today’s younger generation?
NW: I love the energy and the knowledge. I barely know how to use this thing [she says indicating her phone]. I get by.
Q: In the movie your characters try and keep up with their new young friends who are half their age. For example Ben’s character starts wearing a cool hat and you take up hip hop classes. . .
NW: I go to a dance class myself called BBS – Body By Simone – its little mini dance routines and I am often the oldest person in the room although I forget that. I’m fairly fit. I’ve always loved to dance and keep fit but more recently, literally within the last six months, I feel like I cannot keep up any longer and my back starts to hurt. And I get angry and then I have to really learn to forgive myself and go: you know what, you’re nearly twice the age of some of the people in this room, give yourself a break.
Q: You have some great moves in this film?
NW: I have a bit of a frustrated dancer in me. I’ve always loved dance. Dance was one of the things that led me to acting even though I say I fell in love with acting fairly early on and its true but around 16 and 17 I got heavily into dance but I think I just came into it too late and I was never going to be really great at it so I let it go and the dance led to more acting classes.
Q: Did you know Ben Stiller before working together on While We’re Young?
NW: We had met here in LA when I was shooting The Ring and he was doing Meet The Fockers and we have friends in common. But we didn’t know each other well till now. He’s fantastic and we really had a great time on this and we were both laughing at where we were at, this other couple, and how it was mirroring what we were going through as well. It was clever writing in that way.
Q: Did you improvise with any of your own personal experiences of getting older?
NW: Noah is very keen on sticking to the script and it’s not open forum for improvisation or anything and neither should it be because his writing is so fluid and so good, there’s no reason to deviate. Except for the dance thing – I definitely threw that side of myself in.
Q: Noah had no idea you could dance like that?
NW: They didn’t know what kind of dancer I was – and its not good dancing up there but it was her freeing herself and saying, OK I do need to shake this up and bring my body alive again and forget about everything and everyone around me, and she threw herself in with such ferocity almost bringing on a rebirth of herself. It surprised Noah and it surprised me as well because he kept rolling the camera and he shot every angle and I was like ‘Oh my God I’m just going to go crazy here and I think he likes it!’
Q: In the movie, Cornelia and Josh go to an ayahuasca ceremony where everyone trips out. Have you ever tried anything like that?
NW: No, that kind of thing does not appeal to me at all – the idea of sitting in a roomful of people and listening and watching them throw up. I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. But yeah, daredevil things like running down the tracks, I’ve done things like that in my 20s. I feel like I’m a tomboy and always have been but the daredevil side in me since I’ve been a mum has definitely dissipated.
Q: Many of us feel the need for release, be it through drugs or other means. How do you find your own release?
NW: I meditate. I do transcendental meditation and I have been doing that for a long time and that does just clear the mind. I am not religious at all.
Q: Have you ever been seduced into joining something?
NW: I have had moments of that but I am pretty much a very pragmatic person and I am not someone to lean into that. Possibly in my 20s, I could have landed in some version of that because I was perhaps a little lost, but it was almost like I felt I grew up when I was about 28. I feel pretty much the same. I get reminded when I look in mirrors that I am not. Hopefully you keep growing and keep planning things as you go along.
Q: You starred in two of this year’s most popular awards movies, St Vincent and Birdman. How do you feel about working so much?
NW: Yes, but Noah’s movie was 6 weeks and it was home in New York and St Vincent was 12 days and Birdman the same, and that’s over the course of a year. It seems like a lot when you have three movies back to back but that’s not really how it is.
Q: While Were Young explores these two couples who are documentary filmmakers although most cinema audiences don’t usually watch documentaries. What’s your own take on the world of documentary filmmaking and the do‘s and don’ts of this film genre?
NW: Yes, that’s why this young couple throws everything into turmoil because they’re questioning: this is the right way to do it; this is what we were taught, truth is the necessity – and they’re trying to show us this new and other way and its very seductive and it puts everything in question when you see them raising these points and I think Cornelia – this is why I loved her character because she’s a step ahead; she sees beyond it and sees their motives. . .
Q: But does that mean there has to be a commercialism to it? It’s almost seems like reality TV has sneaked in to documentaries…
NW: …. and destroyed everything!
Q: Because audiences want to get the reaction that…?
NW: I know, it’s a big deal the way reality TV has moved everything, not just documentaries – its dramas, TV, the whole world. There’s no mystery any more, there’s no secrets, everyone wants to be in the nitty-gritty of it all and I find it slightly scary.