Much was required of Naomi Watts as the producer and leading lady of the emotional survival drama “Penguin Bloom” — from articulating the pain of a disabled young mother, to allowing her costar the occasional bathroom break on her head.
In the film, an official selection of the 2020 Toronto film festival, Watts brings to life the true story of Samantha Bloom, whose random and devastating back injury left the active mom paralyzed from the mid-section down. Struggling to cope with the vitality and chaos of three young boys and an unsure husband, Samantha finds renewed hope in form of a wild bird her boys nurse to health in their Australia home.
“As a producer, this is something i had great belief in and spent the money developing with my great friends. It felt easy, because I just believed in,” Watts said in conversation at Variety‘s virtual TIFF interview studio, presented by Canada Goose.
Watts’ human costars included “The Walking Dead” breakout Andrew Lincoln and Rachel House in the Glendyn Ivin-directed project. Portraying the bird, whose name serves as the title of the film, were 10 different wild magpies at various ages to mark the flying houseguest’s growth.
“The first shot we did was a closeup, and I thought, ‘It’s going to peck my eyes out.’ It had to sit on my head. And then I felt a warm drizzle come down the center of my face and over my left eye, around my nostril and into my mouth. It was the perfect ice breaker,” Watts said.
Defying the typical Hollywood convention that one should never work with children or animals, Lincoln praised the film for embracing both.
“The reason why people don’t want to work with children and animals is because when they’re good, they’re really good. I said to Naomi, the camera is not going to go higher than their heads, they’re that good,” Lincoln said.
Birds aside, Watts digs deep into the psyche of a woman forced to find a new identity as she grapples with excruciating pain and a future bound by limits thanks to her injury.
“Sam was incredibly generous, she gave me some of her journals to read, and it was deeply personal. So much pain for her to carry. Physically excruciating pain daily, as well as, ‘I’m trapped in my body and i’ll never have the life that I loved again. I’m alone, in deep isolation, I’m miserable,” Watts said.
Ivin credited the Bloom family for their bravery, and willingness to explore.
“Sam Bloom will never recover, it’s not like she’ll ever walk. But they encouraged us to go to places that most films like this may not portray,” he said. “Naomi is a brave actor, she’s not afraid to go where you need to go. Nothing was off limits.”