Naomi Watts and Jonathan Bailey Get Empowered on TV, From Explicit Gay Sex Scenes to Crying While Filming ‘Erotic’ Moments

Naomi Watts and Jonathan Bailey Get Empowered on TV, From Explicit Gay Sex Scenes to Crying While Filming ‘Erotic’ Moments

In school, Jonathan Bailey studied “Mulholland Drive,” examining the nuances of Naomi Watts’ breakout performance. Now Bailey has the chance to grill the Oscar nominee about her process. In Ryan Murphy’s “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” from FX, Watts portrays Babe Paley, the New York socialite and one of Truman Capote’s “swans,” whose falling out with the author was legendary. And after steaming up the screen in “Bridgerton,” Bailey takes on another sweeping romance with Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers,” this time as Tim, an idealistic congressional staffer who enters into a decades-long affair with a closeted World War II veteran and State Department official.

NAOMI WATTS: I heard that you were shooting three things at the same time: “Bridgerton,” “Fellow Travelers” and “Wicked.” Is this true?

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JONATHAN BAILEY: That is true. [His voice cracks.] Did you hear? My voice just broke.

WATTS: Yeah, because you have PTSD?

BAILEY: Maybe? There’s some residual trauma there.

WATTS: The gymnastics of that, I cannot believe it! So you were shooting in different countries — not just different sets — with different accents.

BAILEY: Yeah, it was fine at the time. Then, obviously, it comes out in the wash at some point. I had a perm for “Bridgerton,” and they were straightening my hair for Tim.

Naomi Watts Variety Actors on Actors
Naomi Watts Variety Actors on Actors

WATTS: Oh, my God! How do you even have any hair left? Did it not fall out?

BAILEY: I went on holiday, and my hair looked like coral — as in, it was underwater, just floating around. There were moments where [doing all these shows] meshed together in a kooky way.

WATTS: In a kooky, good way?

BAILEY: There’s something to be said for just freefalling, not having enough time, and just going on instincts. But it was progressive. There are some videos on my phone that I was crying looking at: It’s me as Tim, in a ’50s tie and jacket, and then in Nike sweatpants learning the choreography [for “Wicked”] on the lunch break.

WATTS: Oh, my God. I can’t imagine how you were dreaming at night.

BAILEY: It was wild.

With Babe, there’s such an incredible interior world. Your eyes are just incredible — the ability to be able to communicate with words but also with nonverbal.

WATTS: One of the most restrictive things was contacts. I had brown contact lenses, and I have very sensitive eyes. It was difficult to get them in.

BAILEY: In “Wicked,” I had to wear contact lenses.

WATTS: It’s horrible, isn’t it?

BAILEY: Especially if you know [your eyes are] something that you can rely on in terms of how to communicate what’s going on with the character.

WATTS: Because I had to go darker, it was like wearing sunglasses all day. I just felt like there was something between me and the other actor. Having to produce tears was even more difficult, because they dry your eyes out so badly. Then the smoking …

BAILEY: Do you not think sometimes it helps when you smoke, because then the smoke gets in your eyes, and you can cry and smoke?

WATTS: I love a prop. Little cheats.

Jonathan Bailey Variety Actors on Actors
Jonathan Bailey Variety Actors on Actors

BAILEY: But the transformation was extraordinary. I didn’t realize you were wearing contacts. So nothing in the performance was lost.

WATTS: Oh, good. I was really nervous about it. Then we had loads of conversations about the teeth — would we? Wouldn’t we? Ryan is quite nervous about prosthetics in general, and I don’t blame him. It’s awful when you see someone, and you can’t get lost in the story because …

BAILEY: … it’s distracting.

WATTS: I certainly never wanted to do that, but I did want to attempt to look more like her. She had these fantastically perfect teeth because she’d had a car accident when she was really young, so she had false teeth. And my teeth are just not that great — English teeth. Then I had to learn to speak with them, because you get quite lispy.

And with these long monologues, it was hard because I’m just worried about remembering the lines. I was constantly feeling the pressure of getting my words right, because they were such brilliant words. I wouldn’t want to mess it up. So normally I’m quite social on a set, but I couldn’t be on this one, so I took up knitting.

BAILEY: But it’s quite nice to do something cognitive, isn’t it? Just to put your physical energy into?

WATTS: Yes. And it creates a bit of a barrier between you and other people, but not in an impolite way. It’s a polite way of saying, “I’ve got to finish this row.” And I’m the worst knitter — literally, there’s holes in them. But I did manage to crochet a little hat for Gus and a little hat for Tom [Hollander].

BAILEY: There’s such an amazing conversation in “Feud” about the role of women to gay men. I found it really emotionally full and quite painful.

WATTS: [Babe and Truman’s] relationship is emblematic of a relationship that doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s so beautiful. They’re not brother and sister, but they are like peas in a pod. And there’s just this trust where they just fall into each other. And there’s no competitiveness that there might be with women.

BAILEY: They can really bolster each other.

WATTS: The world is surrounded by informed stories, on and off the screen. It was an anchor, that the writers and Gus all had something to bring to the story.

BAILEY: When you women are together — looking unbelievable and being completely brilliant and sexy — did it feel new and empowering?

WATTS: It felt empowering because so many women in one story is rare — so many women of a certain age is so rare, and women that appreciate each other. They’re women with depth and darkness and challenges. It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my career, and I feel so fortunate to have had it at this point.

We all felt the pain, the beauty, the depth of these stories and …

BAILEY: … and have lived it in various ways.

WATTS: It just ends up elevating it to another level.

So in “Fellow Travelers,” I’m so moved by the love story. It’s so powerful. Did you know about the Lavender Scare before?

BAILEY: I had heard about the Lavender Scare. I just hadn’t understood the complete brutality of that time and McCarthyism. As a Brit, there’s so much about the American experience — but also specifically the politics and the queer experience within it — that I hadn’t known. So it’s catharsis. Because suddenly we’re there — four gay men, a predominantly gay creative team — and you think, “I’m here today because of my ancestors or an industry which is changing.”

People have loved gay actors, whether they’ve been able to say they’re gay or not, for years. But to be there with those guys … and to then have the nuance of conversation — a lunch break which isn’t just about “How delicious are the sweet potatoes.”

WATTS: It’s “how delicious is this story, and how does it move you?”

BAILEY: You don’t need to say, but clearly people are bringing their own personal stuff. It was amazing to have that space, and the opportunity of eight hours of TV to tell a quite brutal but brooding and lovely love story for gay men. It is new.

WATTS: It was so beautiful. I cried a lot. Some of the intimate moments, the dance scene, just felt so …

BAILEY: … tender and sweet.

There’s something very specific that I want to ask you about. I had to do a scene that actually wasn’t included in the story, which ended up informing a lot of the character. It was me masturbating. And I remembered …

WATTS: Oh, “Mulholland Drive,” yes. I was traumatized.

BAILEY: Yeah, so was I. And it was really similar, actually. Anyway, I just remember giggling quite a lot, and the line between feeling comfortable and feeling not, when the stakes are that high.

WATTS: I remember having to go to the bathroom multiple times because I think I might have been having explosive something or other.

BAILEY: Euphoria.

WATTS: Literally. I was so in butterflies. I was freaked out and David [Lynch] knew that, but he didn’t want to not get the scene. I kept sort of attempting it and going, “I can’t do this, David. I can’t do it.” He was always off at the other side of the room in a black tent or something, and actually he made it very private for me.

BAILEY: And [this was] before the time where we had intimacy coaches and all that, right?

WATTS: Oh, forget that. No, it was not like that. So I managed to feel a little bit safer because of that, but I just kept crying. And he didn’t want an emotive scene; he wanted someone who was angry and trying to reconnect with an erotic moment.

With “Fellow Travelers,” you must have experienced a certain level of high from the response. The audiences and critics have been really receiving it well. How does that feel?

BAILEY: I feel incredibly proud of it. So many people haven’t seen that full queer experience in this way. Sometimes you have to go 50 years back to show everyone what’s happening [now]. I’m proud of it, because I know if I wasn’t in it, I would’ve loved it. I also know if I was younger, it would’ve helped me out a lot.

I also know that all the people in my life, and therefore I’m assuming people who don’t understand the queer experience and are threatened by it, or find it gross or obnoxious, or that it’s going to come and get them, can watch that and understand. Even the sexuality of it is so important because it’s part of the gay experience, as it is the human experience. But also you’ll understand the nature by which men have these explosive, passionate, really hot, but also quite dangerous sex.

WATTS: That was handled so wonderfully.

BAILEY: I’m proud of it. And it was never a moment of self-consciousness with it. It’s funny, isn’t it, when you know the big swings you have to take, but actually you trust it.

WATTS: So “Bridgerton” — was that the beginning? The launchpad that changed things?

BAILEY: It was a “Mulholland Drive” moment for me, where people see you. I’ve been doing theater, but the Netflix effect is a specific phenomenon, which is personally quite destabilizing. Because suddenly it happens overnight. It’s wild.

WATTS: But it wasn’t overnight, because you’ve been working since you were a kid.

BAILEY: I’m so glad that I experienced opportunities to try stuff out and to make mistakes — especially in my own actual life — before TikTok and people chasing you around. The opportunities that come with that are brilliant. But then for something like “Fellow Travelers,” I described it as being quite punk — to go from a straight character to as gay as you can find.

WATTS: Very punk rock.

BAILEY: It was a real balm.

Production Design: Keith Raywood

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