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How Feud’s Naomi Watts Perfected the Already Perfect Babe Paley

When Feud: Capote vs. the Swans viewers meet Naomi Watts’s Babe Paley, she’s red-faced and tearful, angry over the discovery of yet another of her husband Bill Paley’s (Treat Williams) affairs. She calls for her best friend, Tom Hollander’s Truman Capote, who arrives with ****** and a sympathetic ear, as well as a bit of advice: Don’t file for divorce. Instead, he says, make the scoundrel pay, perhaps with a Van Gogh or maybe a Manet?

As a onetime Vogue fashion editor turned socialite supreme, Paley exemplified beauty, grace, and perfection, all of which, Feud leads us to believe, she worked tirelessly to achieve. Watts did, as well, even with little firsthand resources. “There was no archival footage available that I could find, and I did a deep dive,” she tells Vulture. “So there was no real mimicry of Babe’s behaviors, her voice, or how she moved, but I did study pictures and looked very carefully at her eyes and how wide her smile might be or how her hands were placed and I just put together whatever I could.”

How was Babe Paley presented to you?

I was working with Ryan Murphy on The Watcher, and he took me out to dinner one night and said that he had optioned this Laurence Leamer book and would I like to be a part of it? Knowing what I did already about the swans, these iconic women, and knowing, up front and up close how great it was to work with Ryan, I said, “Yes, please.”

Truman comments on that when he makes that delicious comment about how “Babe Paley only had one flaw: She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” That just sums her up.

It’s fun to play someone glamorous, but it’s also hard work. I sat there for hours every morning trying my best to look exactly right. It took the hands of many professionals, and Babe was doing that on a daily basis for her entire life. She was dedicated to being the perfect woman, and not just in how her hair and her matching outfits looked, but in things that went well beyond that. How did she create a dinner party or host a group of people? Who was invited and how did she place them together? What were the conversations that would be on topic, and how could she be well versed? It took a really high level of discipline, and I kind of admired that, even if it’s extreme.

Being effortlessly chic can take a lot of hard work.

One hundred percent. It’s a losing battle, and that’s kind of what makes our story a cautionary tale.

Babe had a whole life before what we see onscreen too, including a previous marriage and a ten-year stint as the fashion editor at Vogue before she left to marry Bill.

She had her job starting in her very early 20s for a decade, and she was very passionate about style and fashion, but I think her real training was in how to be a good wife. That’s how her mother raised her daughters. Why waste time on a college education when you could be the wife of someone incredibly powerful and rich and important?

Babe and Truman fall out because he publishes a chapter of his book in Esquire, and it’s all loosely veiled references to Babe and to her husband’s infidelities. Why do you think Truman did something like that to his best friend, and why do you think Babe took it so much to heart?

That’s such a hard one. It’s very easy for me to sit here in this seat, zoomed out from the whole thing and speculate.

I do think addiction played a big part of it from his perspective as to why he was led to it. He was at the stage in life where he wasn’t able to deliver what he was supposed to deliver. Writer’s block was extreme, and the alcohol had addled his mind. He wasn’t thinking like he had anymore.

Truman was very turned on by this high section of society, and they were keeping him somewhat relevant in the ways he wanted to be. He saw all of their cracks like they were his own, and he wanted to examine them. I think the closeness between him and Babe came about out of necessity. They needed each other, and there was a friendship born out of both of them experiencing great holes in their lives, which was a lack of love and a lack of truth, I suppose. He made her feel seen and important in real fundamental ways that she hadn’t otherwise been allowed to by her family or her girlfriends, and definitely not in her marriages. So the relationship made a lot of sense for a solid 20 years.

In terms of why she was so hurt, it’s funny because I’m working on an adaptation of a book called The Friend right now, which is by Sigrid Nunez. She talks a lot about writers and how one should know that if a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. And so in some ways, we can look back and think that Babe was naïve and that surely she would know that it was always a possibility, but at the same time, she had these blind spots based on the fact that she needed to relate to some other human in such a deep way, and she gave herself to him.

That’s why this is such delicious material. As we’ve heard [writer] Robbie [Baitz] and Ryan say so eloquently, a feud is only a feud if, at its core, it’s also a love story. 

When Truman’s article comes out, it feels like all the blowback hits Babe rather than her husband. You’ve read the source material: Did he actually get into any hot water for what Truman wrote?

I think powerful men like Bill could make things go away and move on. He had his business to worry about, but these women’s entire investment was in how they presented themselves to the world. To have someone pull the rug out was just too hurtful and too much to move on from.

It was almost expected for a man to have this kind of scandal swirling around them all the time, but for these women, that was not okay. Babe tolerated a lot with all of the infidelity and her skin got thicker and thicker, but when she opened up to this one person who she felt, like I said, seen and loved by, that was when her skin just became too thin. It was her undoing.

It becomes a reflection on her. It’s not “Why is he doing this to her,” it’s “What is she lacking that he has to do this?” 

Exactly. She took it all on herself, all that self-loathing and thinking, “I’ve devoted my entire life to be this good person and it’s come at such a cost, and now what does my life amount to?”

On a lighter note, I’ll say that the fashions and looks on this show are really outstanding. I love Babe’s huge hair helmet, which somehow still manages to look soft and perfect. Was there anything you really fell in love with, fashion-wise, on the show? 

There were some sunglasses, actually. In one of the trailers, you see me walking into La Côte Basque and I’m wearing these perfect vintage glasses. I think I literally just picked them on the day out of the tray that the props people pass to you, but I held onto them because they’re quite fantastic. 

It wasn’t just the wig that created the transformation, really. I had her eye color and wearing large contact lenses that cover the entire iris is quite hard to do. I also had fake teeth, because she got perfect teeth after having that terrible car accident as a teenager. I had to learn how to speak with those, too, because you can get quite lispy. The iconic looks that Lou Eyrich put together were amazing, too. Some were real vintage pieces, some were remade pieces, and every now and again she’d slip in a Banana Republic cashmere sweater just to save a little money.

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