When Naomi Watts first met Maria Belon, the woman she plays in the chilling real-life tsunami disaster movie "The Impossible," the actress' usual instinct to quiz the woman and learn more about her character just felt wrong.
“When I first sat down with Maria, I just didn’t know what to say,” the actress confessed to TheWrap's editor-in-chief, Sharon Waxman, at the kickoff to TheWrap's annual Awards Screeening Series. “It felt perverse, in a way, to ask a single question. I’m just an actor, and she faced death and the possibility of losing her entire family.”
Belon and her family had been vacationing in Thailand in 2004 when the massive Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami hit. It struck on the morning of Dec. 26 with waves nearly 100 feet high, killing more than 230,000 people throughout the region and causing more than $10 billion in property damage.
The film from director J.A. Bayona ("The Orphanage") follows Watts and Ewan McGregor as the real-life Belon family, who were separated when the tsunami hit. While the badly-injured Maria lay in an overcrowded hospital, attended by oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), McGregor's character searched the ravaged landscape looking for his family, which also included young sons Simon and Thomas (Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin).
Also read: Toronto Film Fest: 'The Impossible' Director on Why He Included Footage That Caused 2 Patrons to Faint
In front of a capacity and palpably moved audience at L.A.'s Landmark Theatre, Watts and Waxman had a discussion that ranged from dangerous tides to blood, filth and acting.
Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, Watts said, were interested in finding an intimate and emotional story to tell within the context of an epic natural disaster.
“It’s exactly their experience,” Watts said while describing the location shoot in Thailand, which the Belons visiting. “It was the first time they went back, and it was quite difficult for them. We shot every place [including] the same hotel they were in.”
To reenact the tsunami itself, Bayona built an enormous tank in Spain, where Watts and her costar Holland were violently buffeted by floating debris.
“I have a fear of water,” Watts told the audience, describing the time she, her brother and her mother got taken out on a tide. “I was 14, my brother was 15, and as a result I’ve always had a fear of the waves.”
Watts drew on that experience to summon the terror she needed for those scenes, but she also heard from many extras on the Thailand set about their own experiences that day.
The cumulative effect of the violent catastrophe and the emotional tumult is so powerful onscreen that two audience members reportedly fainted at a Toronto International Film Festival screening – although as the carnage and chaos mounts, the film also depicts small but moving acts of heroism and generosity among the survivors.
When “The Impossible” opened earlier this month in Spain, there were no medics on hand, only bankers as the movie (made for $45 million) broke box office records taking a whopping $13.3 million in its first four days and generating buzz in the U.S. ahead of its Dec. 12 release.
“The reason it’s called ‘The Impossible’ is not just because it was impossible what they went through,” explained Watts. “It’s impossible to leave that behind with all that survivor’s guilt. When I asked Maria, she felt that she wanted to stay there because she knew a part of herself would always be there.”