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FAIR GAME

Finding Valerie And Joe
From the start, Liman and the producers wanted Naomi Watts to play Valerie Plame. An actress of tremendous emotional range and an Academy Award nominee for her work opposite Sean Penn in 21 Grams, Watts embodied Plame's combination of easygoing femininity and steely calm. "Naomi was a natural for the role,” says Bill Pohlad. "The nature of Valerie's life was to be one character to her friends and someone else at her job. It's an amazing challenge for an actress.”

Aware that the screenwriters knew Watts, Liman asked the Butterworths to send her the script. "I asked her to read the first ten pages and see what she thought,” Jez recalls. "Naomi phoned me right away. She said she read the entire screenplay in one sitting. She loved it.” Watts, who had just given birth to her second child, says she wasn't really in script reading mode. "However I knew the quality of Jez's work and I knew the story of Valerie Plame. What I love about this story is that the drama of the marriage really anchors the politics. The unravelling and re-building of their marriage keeps it emotional and gives the audience something more than history to connect with.”

A meeting was quickly arranged between Naomi and Doug Liman. "From our first meeting, Naomi showed unwavering commitment to the film,” says the director. "She became my partner every inch of the way, rolling up her sleeves, and working long, long days in difficult conditions. We shot in five different countries under conditions that a star of her stature would never normally endure. And through all of this, she was able to deliver what may be the finest performance I have ever recorded on film.”

Watts was equally impressed by Liman's determination to present the unvarnished truth of the story. "Doug has a passion that is blinding,” says Watts. "I knew he had the courage to tell this story. The things that he did to tell this story were at times mad, like going to Iraq and doing all of the camera work himself. He would never accept no. This is a guy who'd rather be arrested than compromise his film.”

Watts offered to send the screenplay to Sean Penn to see if he was interested in playing Joe Wilson. Liman and the producers jumped at her suggestion. "I knew this was right up his alley,” Watts says. "He has the same kind of passion as Joe Wilson. He commits 7,000 percent.”

After meeting with Liman, Penn agreed to star in the film. "Of course, Sean Penn was everyone's first choice for Joe,” Liman says. "Sean is the greatest actor working today. In my opinion, he's the greatest actor of his generation. That's how I felt going into the film, and Sean exceeded those incredibly high expectations.

"Watching his process was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” says the director. "He spent time with Joe Wilson and just absorbed him. He succeeded in becoming him. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever witnessed.”

Watts agrees Penn's transformation was uncanny, but after making two previous films with the two-time Oscar® winner, she expected nothing less. "That's who he is. There's nothing like acting in a scene with him. You feel like you are a Toyota that suddenly starts driving like a Porsche.”

The real Valerie Plame also was awed by the physical and emotional authenticity of the performances. It was, she says, as if she was confronting doppelgangers of herself and her husband. "Joe and I were absolutely thrilled with the cast and the crew. I showed my son a photograph that was taken of me and Naomi on set. He looked at it and said, ‘Mom, isn't it strange to find you have a twin at 45?'”

Plame and Watts didn't actually meet until after shooting began, but they spent many hours speaking by telephone and e-mail as the actress prepped for her role. "I decided to really focus on getting into her mindset,” says Watts. "I wanted to know all about her personal life, how she juggled being a wife, a mother and a career woman operating in a man's world. I wanted to know what it was like keeping secrets from pretty much everyone she knew. I hunkered down and really spent time researching things like her speech, her family and her charm.”

Joe Wilson was flattered and excited to be played by Sean Penn. "Being portrayed by someone like Sean is something I never would have expected,” Wilson says. "He's such a consummate actor. We spent a week joined at the hip, and he really does get into your skin.”

Watts believes that the Wilsons' personal struggle will touch audiences as much as it has her. "I hope that Valerie and Joe's story will move people,” she says. "It's a testament to them both that their marriage survived despite the level of scrutiny they were put under.”

The film also features an expansive ensemble of distinguished character actors, including playwright and actor Sam Shepard in the role of Valerie's father, a retired air force lieutenant colonel, Bruce McGill as Jim Pavitt, deputy director of the CIA, and David Andrews as Libby.

"Every director says he couldn't have made the film without his cast and crew,” says Liman. "But it doesn't make it any less true in this case. I could not have made this film without this extraordinary cast and my incredible, gifted, committed and talented crew. "This not a great climate in which to make a serious, ambitious film that is being produced on a very small budget,” he adds. "But everyone involved gladly cut their fees. Everyone's willingness to do whatever it took to get the film made was nothing short of astonishing.”

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