How Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning Stay Hungry

“With women,” says Watts, “but never with men, ‘ambition’ always gets labeled an ugly word.”

Article by Ella Riley-Adams

NAOMI_ELLE_T AUSTRALIAFrom left: Elle Fanning, 25, actress, “Somewhere” (2010), and Naomi Watts, 54, actress, “21 Grams” (2003), photographed at Jack Studios in Chelsea, Manhattan, on March 6, 2023. Fanning wears a Chanel dress. Watts wears a Chanel jacket; Catbird earring; and Aeri Go ring. Photograph by Hart Lëshkina. Styled by Tess Herbert.

Naomi Watts:

Elle impressed me the first time we met [while making the 2015 film “3 Generations”, in which Watts plays the mother of Fanning’s character]. She was 16, but with such emotional intelligence. When I was trying to get my start in my late 20s, I was already being told I was too late. They said, “You’d better get going. You’ve got only seconds left!” I think that’s changed — for the better, obviously. We’re now seeing women in their 50s carry films. There even seems to be a bit more movement in the opposite direction, like aging is suddenly trending. 

With women, but never with men, “ambition” always gets labelled an ugly word. I’ve always been hungry, and that’s what got me here. I spent many years under the radar, not getting jobs — just tiny bits here and there — until David Lynch gave me an incredible role [in 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.”]. Had I not maintained that level of determination or ambition, whatever you want to call it, I would have packed it in and just tried to find something else. Knowing why you love what you do is important. What’s feeding you that makes you keep coming back for more?

Elle Fanning:

Naomi’s kind of genre-less; it’s her own path that she’s forged. That’s what I hope people will one day say about my work. I always want to surprise people and push against what they think I can do. 

When I was shooting the first season of “The Great” [the Hulu series, available on Stan, that premiered in 2020, and is now in its third season, with Fanning playing Catherine the Great], it was also my first time producing a show. I hadn’t been behind the scenes much before, making those decisions, but I’d always been curious about how everything’s put together. Now I can feel myself evolving, not being as afraid to speak up in rooms that I wouldn’t normally be in. I’m still young, but I keep having to remind myself, “You’ve been acting since you were two — you’ve been on a lot of film sets, and you’ve seen a lot of things.”