‘The trickle went down my face’: Naomi Watts on working with magpies

Garry Maddox

January 15, 2021

Article taken from The Sydney Morning Herald.

Naomi Watts knew all about the angry side of magpies from when she was swooped while horse riding through a forest near Canberra many years ago.

“Obviously there was nesting going and a bunch of magpies just came down and bombed us,” she says. “It was kind of terrifying.”

Her boyfriend of the time knew they should swing their arms around as they rode to scare away the marauding birds and all ended well. But Watts was still unprepared for another run-in with a magpie making Australian film Penguin Bloom. Showing no regard for Watts as a two-time Oscar nominee with a flourishing Hollywood career, the magpie co-star shat on her head.

“It was very early on – possibly even the first day – and I was still getting warmed up to this whole experience of birds crawling all over me,” Watts says via Zoom from New York. “The bird was on my head and [the trickle] went all the way down my face and then – oh my god – it slipped warmly into my mouth. It was the most horrific experience.”

Watts moved on from that awkward moment to play Sam Bloom, a surfer, seasoned traveller and mother of three young sons from Sydney’s northern beaches who was paralysed in a near-fatal fall on a family holiday in Thailand in 2013. After arriving back home after seven months in hospital, Bloom and her family were helped through the crisis by a wounded magpie chick.

Based on a bestselling book written by her photographer husband Cameron and Bradley Trevor Greive, the film focuses on Sam as she struggles to come to terms with her new life. In one harrowing scene, she knocks a jar of honey off a kitchen bench in a gesture that suggests both her pain and the fragility of life.

As shown in her affecting performances as a grieving widow and mother in 21 Grams and as a doctor caught up in a tsunami in The Impossible, Watts is an actor who can dig deep to express raw emotion on screen.

“I’m not afraid of the darkness,” she says matter of factly. “I think it lives within all of us.”

So what is it that allows her to tap into these extreme emotions?

“Darkness is part of all of us, whether you’re up for embracing it or not,” Watts says. “I feel, rather than hiding it, I want to embrace it because when I go [to watch a film], I feel less alone about my darkness when I see someone cracking themselves open on the screen.

‘I’m not afraid of the darkness. I feel less alone about my darkness when I see someone cracking themselves open on the screen.’

“I feel like I can relate – and I feel like life is not so scary – when I see other people who are willing to open up like that and are willing to go there.

“There’s a real need for that level of storytelling, just as there is with the complete opposite: we all need to feel good and watch a funny, goofy comedy as well.”

Watts sees value in viewers imagining themselves going through Bloom’s experience.

“It teaches us something about survival by watching somebody else manage through it,” she says. “It becomes a story of survival and hope.

“Sam embraces to this day that her life took a very dark turn and she managed to get through it: ‘It’s still a continuing path … but it’s my path and I’m going to have to own it and muscle through it somehow’ [she says]. That’s impressive and brave.”

Watts decided to make the film after reading the book with her kids on a lazy Sunday morning and realising how the story made the family feel more connected.

“We were laughing one minute then we were going ‘oh no’ and ‘oh my god’ – crying – and really feeling all of those feelings together,” she says. “It struck me that this is something powerful. That’s what should be gleaned from the experience of watching this film: the powerful bonding that a family creates through the ups and downs.”

Two decades on from her breakout role in Mulholland Drive (2001), Watts has powered on through her forties and early 50s, regularly taking control of her work as a producer and executive producer. While her highest-profile roles in the past decade have been in The Impossible (2012), Diana (2013) and Birdman (2014), she has also starred in the Divergent films (2015, 2016) and the television dramas Twin Peaks (2017) and Gypsy (2017). More recently, she played Gertrude in Ophelia (2018), a female take on Hamlet from Australian director Claire McCarthy, and journalist Gretchen Carlson in the mini-series The Loudest Voice (2019).

Even during the worst of the pandemic in North America, she starred in and produced the thriller Lakewood with Australian director Phil Noyce in Canada.

“New York got hit so intensely so early on that they figured out how to manage it,” Watts says, although this was before another surge in virus numbers. “There were drastic numbers early on so everyone said, ‘OK, we’re wearing masks, we’re doing this’. My kids are in school twice a week. It’s nerve-wracking but we’re adapting. This is the world we live in now.”

Watts feels the pandemic has made films like Penguin Bloom more relevant.

“In any art form, I feel like we’re just craving stories,” she says. “We’re lacking that physical connectivity. We’re left with this longing so to wrap ourselves into other people’s stories is what we need to do to escape our own or identify with our own. This is a story of hope and survival and it feels like we need those kinds of stories right now.”

So what was it like producing the film – presumably having to worry about everything that happens daily on set like falling behind schedule, the timing of lunch breaks and the budget – while leaving enough energy to act?

“The producing hat for me was very much in the development stage: finding the right group of people and being unified with how we wanted to tell this story,” Watts says. “Once we got on the set, obviously we hire really good people and make sure they’re managing the time and the lunch and everything.

“But you do start worrying about time when you’re running out of light and things like that: ‘Come on, let’s get this and let’s not lose the shot.’ ‘The birds are creating magic over there in the corner and we’re missing it’. Stuff like that. You’re 100 per cent committed at all times.”

To enhance the authenticity of the filmmaking, director Glendyn Ivin (The CrySafe Harbour) chose to shoot in the actual Bloom family’s house at Newport. Costume designer Joanna Mae Park raided Sam Bloom’s wardrobe and recreated key pieces for Watts to wear during filming. And Bloom let Watts read her journals, which revealed the depths of her pain after the accident.

“That was the most personal gesture,” Watts says. “I’ve played real-life people enough to know that it’s a big responsibility, especially if that person is still around. You want to make sure you honour their story.

“With Sam, I was nervous about meeting her because what if she didn’t feel comfortable about this story being told? But on the contrary, she was so accessible and so generous and gave and gave and gave.

“At one point, she was like ‘do you want to read my journals’ because I kept asking questions … I was like ‘whoa, that’s incredible’. She definitely spoke about how hard it was for her. Seeing it in her own written words, day after day, it was so upsetting.”

‘She definitely spoke about how hard it was for her. Seeing it in her own written words, day after day, it was so upsetting.’

Watts says it took time studying Bloom to know how to play her.

“Even while we were shooting, I noticed she’d always have her hand on something,” she says. “Little things [like that] would come to you that would be helpful to put into a scene as you played it.

“With Sam, what was so striking was how brave she was – how strong – despite the fact she hated going through that experience. She was always managing to crack a joke or put on a brave face. That’s incredibly impressive when internally you’re all twisted up.”

Watts says she learnt the importance of staying connected and expressing yourself from playing Bloom.

“She lived very privately in her mind in that first period,” she says. “She didn’t want to make her problems anybody else’s problems. She was shutting down and closing off and isolating and it took the arrival of this bird to get her away from her thinking.

“Apart from the survival aspect, that’s what makes it a magical story. This bird took her away from herself and she was able to reconnect with her family and repair her mind, though not her body, unfortunately. Now look at her: she’s kayaking and winning races and surfing.”

So does she think birds can show empathy and compassion for humans or are these just projections?

Watts thinks about it for a moment. “It’s definitely a projection,” she says. “Maybe it’s both. I feel very connected to animals. I haven’t had that instinctual feeling about birds so much but … sometimes I can have a whole conversation with my dog that definitely feels like they’re empathetic.

“In cinema, animals are always the things that make me cry. I’ll be watching a story about grief or loss of a husband or some family member but it’s when a man breaks down cuddling his dog that really gets me.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design