When Naomi Watts was approached to play the title role in Diana, the new film by Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel, she says her instinct was to turn it down. “Pretty much any time I’m about to start on a movie, I’m trying to find ways to get out of it. I feel that fear. And playing real people, the stakes are higher.” Portraying such a universally known figure was a particular challenge. As Watts points out, “Everyone feels she belongs to them.”

But she found herself intrigued by the story, which focuses on Diana’s two-year relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, between 1995 and 1997, just before she met Dodi Fayed. Khan’s discretion about the relationship has made it one of the least-documented areas of Diana’s life. (He has recently criticised the film.)

“This was a story I knew nothing about,” says Watts. “It turned things around for her after the breakdown of her marriage. It’s very hard to come out of a divorce, no matter who you are; you feel you’ve lost your identity. She reinvented herself through the relationship with Hasnat Khan. I liked the idea of telling a true story and I liked the idea of a transformation.”

Watts is the first to admit she doesn’t resemble Diana. “I knew people would be quick to jump and say, ‘She looks nothing like her! She’s not tall enough, she doesn’t have the right nose, she doesn’t have the right accent, she’s not properly English.’ [Watts was born in Kent and moved to Australia at 14; her natural voice has a gentle Australian twang.] It was a nagging irritation to go to work with that. But after a while you forget about it.” She focused on Diana’s manner, movement, expression. “I kept that Bashir interview on my iPod day and night [the BBC Panorama interview Diana gave to Martin Bashir in 1995]. Even watching it without the sound was helpful, to pay close attention to her face.”

In fact, as these pictures by Brigitte Lacombe show, Watts can look uncannily like Diana – the tilt of the head, the sideways smile, the upward glance. Photographing on a film set, says Lacombe, is a particular skill that requires instinct and intuition, and is quite different from a portrait shoot, where the subject is as focused on the photographer as the photographer is on the subject. “You have to watch very, very carefully on a movie set,” Lacombe says. “You are just an extra person, you have to grab your moment and be very light, know when it’s OK for you to step in and when it’s time to retreat.”

Naomi Watts on location at Langleybury Mansion, near Watford, which stands in for Kensington Palace
Naomi Watts on location at Langleybury Mansion, near Watford, which stands in for Kensington Palace © Brigitte Lacombe

No such courtesy or discretion was afforded to the real princess, of course. As Watts observes, Diana became famous in an era when the power of the press was surging. “She was in a very difficult position. I don’t know how one could survive that level of fame. How could you prepare for that? Some people criticise her for manipulating the press but how could you not want to try and control it when it’s so in your face?”

Watts, who was nominated for the best-actress Oscar in 2013 for her role in The Impossible (based on the story of María Belón Álvarez, who survived the 2004 tsunami with her family), knows more than most about the intrusive side of fame. “I have my level of frustration with the paparazzi photographing me and my children and my family, but it’s nothing to the scale of what she was going through. Everything was reported: the colour of her dress, the length of her skirt, whose hand she was holding. I can certainly get a glimpse of it from having been exposed to it at my own level and it’s horrible. The photographers bully you – they want to get that special shot that will get the money.”

She does not, she says firmly, want to be seen to complain; this comes with the job. But all the same, she adds, “it can be ugly. Even on the red carpet, when you’re prepared, with the right clothes, your hair done – when 50 people are shouting your name, it makes your heart jump.”

Did Watts warm to the people’s princess? “I’m an actor so I’m looking to portray the essence of someone and help understand that person. Empathy comes into it but it’s not important that I love them. I’m not there to take a position on what they stand for,” she says. “There was so much to learn about her and a great deal of it is nonsense. It was very hard to get to the truth, everything was contradictory. But I did speak to some people who knew her well and I think she would have been someone I’d have enjoyed the company of. The jury’s out on so many things but in terms of what we seem to know, she was a great mother and had a great deal of empathy and compassion in everything she did. Every time we see her speak, her heart comes through.”


‘Diana’ is released on September 20. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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