Jennifer Coolidge and Naomi Watts on ‘The Watcher’ Characters and Hollywood’s Ageism Problem
What would you do if you started receiving eerie, anonymous letters in your dream home?
“I don’t think I’d just suddenly leave,” Naomi Watts tells ELLE.com, empathizing with her character Nora Brannock in Netflix’s The Watcher. In the thriller series, Nora and her family move into a stunning new house only to be sent threatening letters from a mysterious author who knows them by name and refers to the kids as “young blood.”
Watts’ co-star Jennifer Coolidge, however, would opt for a more defensive approach—one that includes “a bunch of rottweilers and pit bulls and german shepherds to surround the house.” The Emmy winner portrays Karen Calhoun, a realtor and old friend of Nora’s who seems to be hiding a secret. Though she’s able to sell the Brannocks the house in the show, in real life, Coolidge thinks the family should’ve had some serious protection.
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“I feel that’s what’s missing, is just some really vicious dogs that could really save your life when someone is being so awful,” she says. “And then you think of what an awful thing that is to do to a family, and you should have no mercy for someone like that.”
This twisted saga is based on the haunting true experiences of the Broaddus family, who received similar letters from someone called The Watcher after they bought a house in Westfield, New Jersey, according to a New York Magazine story published in 2018. While multiple neighbors were deemed suspects, ultimately, after years of police probes and private investigations, Reddit theories and neighborhood gossip, the real Watcher was never identified. And the Broadduses found a new home.
“I think what makes this story so relatable is you can imagine this family who’s dreamed about this place, and they’ve had all kinds of plans in place, and even though there’s risk involved, they’ve done it anyway,” Watts says. “And they finally got their dream. And to have these bizarre letters and then bizarre people swirling their dream, they’re not gonna let go easily. You can relate to that kind of story.”
Soon, Watts, who just starred in the horror film Goodnight Mommy, will portray Babe Paley in Feud: Capote’s Women, also from The Watcher producer Ryan Murphy. And Coolidge, who recently won an Emmy for her performance in The White Lotus, will return to the cult HBO series later this month. At 54 and 61 respectively, both booked-and-busy stars (and countless others across the industry) debunk the ageist comment Watts heard earlier in her career that it’s over for women in Hollywood once they turn 40. “I’ve gotten some great parts recently,” Coolidge says, “and I’m not 30 anymore.”
Here, the co-stars talk messing around on the set of The Watcher, Coolidge’s big Emmys night, and roles for older women in Hollywood.
The Watcher saga has so many twists and turns. What was your initial reaction to hearing that this was a true story? Had you heard about it before the project?
Naomi Watts: I hadn’t, and I don’t know what was happening with me at that point in time, ‘cause I know that most of the East Coast was following it with great veracity. But I didn’t know about it. But when I knew that Ryan was gonna be calling, I was told a little bit about the story and of course I went and read the article right away and got very swept up in it, devoured it. It felt super juicy and super intriguing. And I just imagined myself in that situation how hard it would be. So it was an instant yes.
Jennifer Coolidge: I just remember that I knew the story and I remember at the time it was sort of one of those stories you couldn’t really forget. It was disturbing and it was very easy to picture yourself in that situation. I grew up in suburbia outside of Boston and it’s the eeriest kind of story ‘cause you realize how vulnerable you can be in an instant. All it takes is one creepy person.
Did either of you try to get in touch with the real people you portray? I know Jennifer, your Karen is a little more fictionalized, but Naomi, did you try to get in touch with Maria Broaddus?
Watts: No, no. We really just stuck with the text. Yeah, it’s based on a true story, but creative license was taken. These people could be anyone, really. And I’ve definitely played true stories before and found myself wanting to have a conversation or have some kind of connection with that person. It can be incredibly helpful, but it’s not always entirely necessary. And particularly when that person’s not known to the world, it isn’t absolutely vital. In fact, we didn’t know how the story was going to play out. We had some material, but we didn’t have all of the scripts. So discovering it in real time actually became quite helpful with the whole mystery of it all.
Both of your characters starting off as longtime friends is a new addition to the story. I’m guessing you’ve met before joining this project? What was your first day on set together like, and what was it like building that rapport for the show?
Watts: We didn’t know each other.
Coolidge: No, but I was a huge fan of Naomi’s for a very long time. She is sort of like an icon in our field and has done this incredible body of work and everything is so different. And I never forget anything you’d ever do, Naomi. Like, you’re just etched in my brain and you’re surprisingly this very humble person. What a great combo to be at the top of your game and sort of unaware of all the admiration somehow. Or maybe you know and you’re just pretending you don’t know. I don’t know.
Watts: I was super thrilled knowing that Jen was joining the cast. I’d just literally finished watching The White Lotus. I mean, I’d known her work from previous pieces, but this was a moment to really watch her shine. I just was blown away by her performance in that, as was the rest of the world. And so to get on set with her, it was just fantastic. And yes, we had this friendship that was there on the page and it was important to me that we were comfortable with each other and everything and we just kind of got to know each other on and off the set. [We] had a moment to hang out a bit. She’s solid gold. She just brought so much.
Coolidge: And we did mess around too. We did have a couple days where we really kind of joked around.
Watts: Yeah. We definitely went off the page and did some of our own stuff. Trying to keep up with Jen and then also hold a straight face is not the easiest, but it was fun [laughs]. She makes you raise your game.
Speaking of, Jennifer, congratulations on your Emmy, by the way. How did you celebrate?
Coolidge: Well, I still have yet to celebrate. I had a bunch of stuff going on at the time and I haven’t really blown the doors off yet. I can’t wait. I mean, maybe I’ll do it on Halloween night or something. There were some afterparties after the Emmys, but I couldn’t go to them because I’d been carrying this heavy beaded dress and it kind of sucked the life out of me. I couldn’t go out and party afterwards. So, you know, I may have to fly somewhere.
Do you think Karen could sell Tanya McQuoid, your character on The White Lotus, a home?
Coolidge: Oh, that is such a good question. I think Tanya can be very disappointing and make you think she’s going to buy a house from you, but I feel like Tanya at the very last minute might let you down. And that would make Karen go nuts.
Watts: I feel like I’d buy anything from Karen.
Coolidge: Really? Nora’s smarter than that.
Watts: Naomi though.
Coolidge: Oh, Naomi! Oh, I see. You’re right.
You’re both thriving in your careers now, and you have huge resumes behind you. Naomi, you recently talked about how someone earlier in your career told you that women wouldn’t be able to be cast after they turn 40 because they become “unf—able.” I can’t believe somebody said that to you. But years later, how do you feel looking back at that? Do you think Hollywood’s perception of older women has changed?
Watts: I think it’s definitely changed. And by the way, that comment was made as like, “This is ridiculous, but this is the theory,” and it was said to me because I came in quite late. Not to say that I wasn’t trying; I had been trying to break through for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I actually managed to get a job where people actually were gonna see this film, and that was Mulholland Drive. And so, the theory was that you gotta get cracking now, pedal to the metal, and work like crazy, because it’s probably gonna be all over. And yes, that horrifying term was used and I was like, “Wait, what? What does that mean exactly? I see other women on screen that are older.”
And then I thought, oh, right, you mean like not playing the leading lady, or what, the reproductive organs aren’t working anymore, so now we have to play the crazy ladies? Like, this is some bullshit. But by the way, we’re actors, and we don’t mind playing the crazy ladies. I’m good with that; those parts get super interesting actually [laughs]. I’ve always preferred the more character-y kind of type of work. And I don’t like to be boxed in. I don’t like to be told “these are the rules” too much.
Hollywood has certainly changed. I mean, look, there’s so many wonderful actresses out there who are well into their fifties, making great strides in their career, and not going anywhere anytime soon.
Jennifer, is this something you experienced as well? Have you noticed a change too?
Coolidge: I think you just have to not listen to it [the criticism] and plow ahead. I’ve been at dinner parties where the whole night is about, you know, “There are no parts for women anymore,” and I feel like if you really sit down and make that subconsciously a reality, somehow your mind hears that and you can get depressed. But, I don’t know, I’ve gotten some great parts recently, and I’m not 30 anymore. And like I say, some of the greatest parts I’ve ever played, I got in the last two years.
Watts: It’s changed. It’s definitely changed.
Coolidge: It’s definitely changed and some very exciting things are happening, I think. And Naomi and I had an amazing female director for The Watcher.
I also noticed most of the women are over 50 in the cast [including Mia Farrow, Margo Martindale, and Noma Dumezweni], which is really great.
Watts: All of them!
Coolidge: Yeah. And Jen Lynch, what a brilliant director [of The Watcher]. I guess it’s just up to us to make sure that if these parts aren’t being offered to us, we make them happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.