Naomi Watts’ stellar transformation to play New York socialite in Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans

Naomi Watts is as formidable as they come.

The British-born, Australian actress has starred in a string of critically acclaimed films such Penguin Bloom, Ned Kelly and Mulholland Drive, while being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for 21 Grams and The Impossible.

She also has achieved success on the small screen in The Loudest Voice and, most recently, The Watcher.

But the 55-year-old faced her greatest challenge yet when playing complex New York socialite Barbara “Babe” Paley in the new FX miniseries Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans, which is now streaming on BINGE*.

The series is based on Laurence Leamer’s book Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, And A Swan Song For An Era and follows the real-life story of American author Truman Capote and the high-society “swans” who confided in him in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

He was the centre of their social circle until the novelist to expose their scandalous secrets in a 1965 excerpt of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers.

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With very little archival material on alpha “swan” Babe – there was no camera footage of her or voice recordings – Watts had to really dig deep to bring her to life on the small screen. But it was a challenge she willingly accepted.

“Laurence Leamer’s book was our source material, but then we had these wonderful writers as well, and so we really stuck to the scripts,” she told during a press conference to promote the film.

“But with Babe, there was no footage available that I could find, recordings or visuals, so trying to create a voice and her physicality was, you know, something that I had to invent through a multitude of wonderful photographs.

“You know, just how her hand was placed, perhaps, or how she held her cigarette; it was clear to me that there was never a hair out of place, never a wrong word spoken.”

For the transformative role, blue-eyed Watts donned brown contact lenses, a bouffant wig, and fake teeth – a nod to the horrific real-life car accident Babe suffered in which she lost her front teeth and was forced to wear dentures.

Still, Babe’s beauty remained and as one of the original ladies who lunched, she held spectacular dinner parties and fundraisers for her elite Manhattan social circle.

“So much effort put into her appearance and not just for her own vanity but how she designed a dinner table, who were the guests, what would the conversations be, what would the cutlery be, how it was placed,” Watts says.

“There was just so much time and thoughtfulness put into how each event would go, and yes, plenty to find on the internet, plenty of things to read. But there was this delicious writing that we could lean in on, so creating Babe was a complete joy for me.”

Babe worked as a fashion editor at US Vogue for two years before she went on to marry womanising CBS chairman, William “Bill” Paley. The role was played by Treat Williams, who tragically died in a car accident in June 2023, just months after filming.

Although Watts and Williams had many combative scenes in the series, due to Bill’s philandering, the actress only has good things to say about her on-screen husband.

“Treat was an incredible actor. He brought so much to this and we had so many scenes where unfortunately we’re in conflict, but off the set, we were having a lovely time talking about the gratitude that we both felt with this in incredible writing, these wonderful rich parts, and to be able to get that opportunity to play them at this point in our lives,” she says.

“He was really, really joyful because of that. And he spoke endlessly about how much he loved his family and how good things were in his life. It’s deeply, deeply sad that he’s not going to get to celebrate with us through this time because he certainly deserves it. His work was unbelievable.”

Feud reunites Watts with TV producer Ryan Murphy, who is also behind her Netflix series The Watcher. And it was on the set of the Netflix show that they began to discuss Capote and his swans, which included Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Molly Ringwald and Demi Moore, as well as the talented Tom Hollander as the flamboyant author.

“Ryan and I had been working together and already on The Watcher, and he proposed the idea,” recalls Watts, who is also an executive producer on Feud.

“It’s an era that is no longer there and kind of an iconic one of this incredible elegance and opulence and it’s just something that was worth revisiting and all of these fantastic female characters and Capote and the feud, the betrayal, the wonderful friendships that go horribly wrong, and then the undoing of all of that.

“You’re always looking as an actor for fraught characters going through some kind of transformation, a good or bad. They were all wonderful characters.”

Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans is streaming now on BINGE

*News Corp, publisher of this website, is majority owner of BINGE

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