Naomi Watts on potraying suffering and avian encounters

Emma Page

December 20, 2020

Article taken from Stuff.

Like most people who grew up in the Antipodes, Naomi Watts has a tale about marauding magpies, those black-and-white birds with the sharp beaks and a territorial tendency towards dive-bombing.

“I was riding my horse through a forest and we got bombed,” she recalled recently, gleefully lifting her arms skyward as if re-enacting the scene.

“My boyfriend at the time yelled out, ‘Throw your arms up, throw your arms up!’ And I was like, ‘What? Throw my arms up? I’m holding onto the reins.’ And he’s like, ‘Quick! Quick! Do it because they’ll get you.’

“So we had to pick up the pace and race out of there. I was quite traumatised by it.”

Watts, 52, is talking magpies because, intriguingly, she acts alongside one in her latest film, a moving and beautifully shot Australian production called Penguin Bloom that also stars Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) and our own Rachel House (Whale RiderHunt for the Wilderpeople), who she loved working with.

Watts has been a Hollywood regular since her big break, aged 32, in Mulholland Drive, the 2001 mind-bending, neo-noir masterpiece from David Lynch that regularly tops best film lists.

Other films followed including 21 GramsKing KongEastern PromisesThe Impossible, and Birdman. So did two Oscar nominations for best actress and a reputation for tackling emotionally vulnerable roles.

There have been hiccups too: her 2017 Netflix series Gypsy only ran for one season, The Book of Henry, also 2017, was critically panned and this year HBO cancelled the Game of Thrones prequel she was to star in.

At her best, critics tend to describe her work in elemental terms – think “magnetic” and “electrifying” – and that emotional subtlety shines in Penguin Bloom too.

It’s a true story, following the Bloom family – Samantha, her photographer husband Cameron and their three young boys – as they carve a way through tragedy and back to hope.

Watts plays Sam, a keen sportswoman, active mum and adventurer who, while holidaying in Thailand with her family, falls through a rotten handrail at a lookout point, breaking her spine. Back home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, paralysed and using a wheelchair she struggles to find her place in her family, the world and way out from a deepening depression. Recovery comes in the feathery form of Penguin, an injured, abandoned magpie chick, rescued from the beach by her son Noah.

There’s an “instant high level of responsibility and pressure” that comes with telling a true story, says Watts, who felt it especially keenly as Bloom, and often her husband and kids too, spent a lot of time on set.

“It’s like, whoa, how am I going to manage this? What if she doesn’t like the sound of my voice or my mannerisms?…What if I’m disappointing right in front of her eyes?”

In short order Watts was asking Bloom to come on set, running things past her and getting feedback: “She was just incredibly generous like that.”

Working with the magpies was a whole other challenge, an exercise in discipline and patience, of waiting and hoping the bird would nail the script and cheering silently when they did – no spooking the talent.

The experience hasn’t really altered her take on the birds: “I still think they’re not particularly friendly creatures, but I do know them to be incredibly smart…so therefore trainable”.

Well, mostly anyway. There was an incident, a christening of sorts, right at the start of the shoot.

“I got pooped on the head,” says Watts, cheerfully matter of fact. “And the poop slid down my face. It was a definite ice breaker moment.”

If the world was Covid-free, Watts, who is also a producer on the film, would be out promoting it: premieres, shaking hands, walking red carpets, giving interviews. But like its release at the Toronto Film Festival last year, this interview is virtual, another iteration of the new normal.

To reach her I’ve hung out in a Zoom Room, hosted by a Melbourne publicist who’s working from home because of lockdown, and zipped through an upmarket office in the States until finally, there she is: Naomi Watts, with that iconic blonde bob and magnetic presence, at home in New York with a bright modern painting on the wall above her right shoulder and distractingly cool silver choker around her neck.

“Hi,” she says, smiling, shimmering through the small screen as much as she does the large. “How are you?”

Has it been strange, all this virtual stuff, this new way of doing things?

“Yeah,” she says laughing. I miss people! It’s an odd way to do things, but you know, we’re resilient and we’ve learned to adapt and here we are.”

Like it does out in the world, Covid vibrates beneath this conversation like a loud, insistent hum and it’s obvious that the pandemic saddens Watts, the rising case numbers in the States, the isolation, the uncertainty around her work, “the darkness that is everywhere hovering around us” as she puts it.

She’s just glad that the film is out there and wonders, after these periods of isolation, if the “simple story of hope and resilience” might offer a kind of therapeutic reprieve.

“I hope that it connects with people. I hope that it makes them have an hour and half of feeling good and outside of themselves. The takeaway is: hug your family, you know?”

Watts was born in Kent, England. Her dad, Peter Watts, the sound mixer for Pink Floyd, died when she was young, a few years after her parents divorced. Her mum, Myfanwy Roberts, an antiques dealer and costumer designer, moved the family to Australia when Watts was 14, softening the blow by promising her daughter acting lessons.

Penguin was filmed in Australia at the end of the 2019 winter, shot mostly in the Blooms’ real family home on a hill overlooking a Sydney beach.

Since it was summer holidays in America, Watts brought her two children, Sasha, 13, and Kai, 11, with her.

“We all had a wonderful time and I love being in Australia. I wish I was there right now.”

And there it is again, that pandemic-induced reflection.

“And you’re in New Zealand,” she adds, gesturing through the screen, “like, the best, you’re doing so well.”

Watts, it turns out, is a Jacinda fan: “Congrats to you guys over there. We love her, so good. Female-run countries are doing well.”

In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, Watts described how she’d turned down roles with giant pay cheques to pursue projects she connects with. “I don’t think I’m any good if I don’t feel an honest connection with the material,” she explained.

She can clearly pinpoint the moment she connected with Bloom’s story.

Her friend and co-producer Emma Cooper had sent her the Blooms’ book, a collection of Cameron’s photographs running alongside Sam’s story.

“I just happened to open it up on a Sunday morning with my kids in the bed having a lazy lie in,” says Watts. “We were just going through these pages and images, these super powerful images, and I was turning each page and getting more and more into it seeing these beautiful kids with the crazy little bird…and Sam.

“My kids were little and can lose interest very quickly – with almost anything,” she laughs. “But this really pulled them in. Just that very creation of unity in that moment gave me something wonderful.”

A standout from the film is the honest portrayal of chaotic family life. Some of the most affecting scenes are when Sam, alone in her bedroom, the sunlight dulled by the earth-toned curtains, can only lie there and listen to it unfolding around her.

All the camerawork is intentionally shot from wheelchair height, throwing the viewer literally into Sam’s point of view. But it is also kid height and so the secrets of the house reveal themselves: clothes spilling out of drawers and things lost under the couch.

I wondered if this all appealed to Watts.

“Family is chaos, isn’t it?” she says with the tone of someone who knows. “But it’s also pure and magical and wonderful and there’s nothing like that. Throw a pandemic in the mix and nothing will bring that home stronger. It’s the simple things.”

A day after this interview, in uncanny happenstance, a magpie, beady eyed and sharp beaked, approached the picnic rug I was sharing with friends, pecking at abandoned strawberry tops in the grass. We were curious at first, enjoying the close encounter and then it turned creepy, the bird slowly, threateningly, encroaching. The kids, spooked, climbed into our laps and we held them tight.

Script developed by Never Enough Design