Watts tells EW about acting opposite live birds for her powerful new movie about a broken family that heals after adopting an injured magpie.

By Joey Nolfi
September 12, 2020 at 12:25 PM EDT
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Courtesy of TIFF

Sometimes, shooting a movie with a non-human costar is, quite literally, tough s---.

Penguin Bloom producer-star Naomi Watts learned that the hard way on the set of the upcoming drama, a deeply moving portrait of Sam Bloom, a real-life Australian mother whose family receives a jolt of healing energy when they adopt an injured magpie after a freak accident leaves the matriarch partially paralyzed.

"That was one of my big concerns going into it: How do we fall in love with birds? Birds don’t act, and magpies are aggressive birds that nobody likes!" Watts tells EW just ahead of the film's Saturday premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. She ultimately credits her oldest son, a steadfast lover of nature, with warming her up to the nature of the winged creatures — which appear in around 90 percent of the final bird-focused shots in the film, while computer graphics and animatronics make up the difference. "A lot of the time it was sitting there and letting the cameras roll, hoping we’d get something, and sometimes we didn’t, but every time we found ourselves with something special, whether it was in the script or something else that was equally or even more surprising."

Like a feathery costar paying no mind at all to the trajectory of its dirty business: "I didn’t expect to be s--- on the face!" Watts remembers, laughing. "That didn’t end up in the movie, but it was early on in the film, on the first day, the bird was on my head and I felt a warm feeling and my mouth was [open], like ‘Ahh!’ and it literally went into my mouth."

Prior to the film's bow at TIFF, EW caught up with Watts for a candid chat about why suffering for the art was worth it (the film marks one of her most powerful performances to date), shooting scenes without the use of her lower body, and what ever happened to that long-rumored remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds she was previously attached to lead. Read the full conversation on Penguin Bloom — directed by Glendyn Ivin and also starring Andrew Lincoln and Jacki Weaver below.

Follow EW for the latest news, reviews, and more from the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is based on a real family's journey toward healing. How did you first hear about the story, and what spoke to you enough that you wanted to produce and star?

NAOMI WATTS: It wasn’t a story I was familiar with because I lived away from Australia for a long time, but it was quite big in the news at the time that it happened. Then, a book was created as a compilation of all of these wonderful photographs that Sam Bloom’s husband, Cameron, took. The book was sent to me through a friend, Emma Cooper, who’s our producing partner with Bruna Papandrea. I read the book, pulled it out on a Sunday morning, and I remember having a lazy morning in bed with the kids and of course the pictures are just so compelling. They drew my kids in right away. I loved this family experience that it created right there on that morning. It drew us in automatically in such a powerful way, we ended up reading it cover to cover and thought it was incredibly moving. As an actor, you’re always looking for great stories about ordinary people going through extraordinary things and how they survive and find ways to reinvent themselves.

What were your first meetings with Sam like, and what were you trying to pull from her family’s experience that you incorporated into the performance?

You just never know who that person is until you get in the room with them. With Sam, it was an instant connection. She couldn’t have been more generous and open. She's a very dear woman. Our relationship got deeper and deeper the closer we got to making the film, to the point where she shared her journals from that time period when she was fresh out of the hospital in a deep, dark depression.

I was looking at photos of Sam, and it looks like you guys shot in her real home?

You're absolutely right! It was their house. They moved out! We totally redesigned it to suit Glendyn's aesthetics and sensibilities for the look and feel of the film. Their house is white with white walls, and very clean-looking, like many Sydney houses, but I think Glendyn wanted to reinvent it and take some creative license…. It makes sense, because we shot it in the Australian winter, and the rich colors really helped the light.

Outside the emotional connection to Sam, I imagine it took a lot of work to train yourself not to use your lower half. How does that change the way you express emotion or perform when one part of your body is immobile?

Really hard! In fact, the scenes of transferring from the bed to the chair were very difficult because my body knows how to move, and it’s hard to undo that instinct. Every time I would do that transfer, Glendyn would say, “Oh, I saw your leg move!” or “Your stomach was obviously very involved in that!” These are things Sam doesn’t have the capacity to do. That’s how trapped she felt constantly. That’s why those diaries were so helpful to me, because the way she wrote about that experience of getting adjusted to her new body and how trapped that made her feel, just so deeply dark, it was incredibly helpful to have that.

Also helpful: You worked with a real bird, right?

That was one of my big concerns going into it: How do we fall in love with birds? Birds don’t act, and magpies are aggressive birds that nobody likes! We had three different things going on: Multiple trained birds — because just like anyone gets tired after a while of doing trick after trick, they need a break — computer graphics where needed, and animatronics, like a puppet. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, it just sounded like it wasn’t going to work, but in the end, they convinced me enough. It’s 90 percent of all live birds. A lot of the time it was sitting there and letting the cameras roll, hoping we’d get something, and sometimes we didn’t, but every time we found ourselves with something special, whether it was in the script or something else that was equally or more surprising.

Were there any mishaps or unexpected surprises with the birds?

Um, well, I didn’t expect to be s--- on the face! That didn’t end up in the movie, but it was early on in the film, on the first day, the bird was on my head and I felt a warm feeling and my mouth was [open], like ‘Ahh!’ and it literally went into my mouth.

I’m so sorry.

There was a trust issue as well, like, is it going to peck my eyes out? It felt weird in the beginning. My eldest son is into nature, and will pick up any animal without any fear, so I got into the birds quickly because he was there and was into it. We all bonded over these birds. [There's a moment] where the bird is on its back under my chest, it was in the script, and I thought it would be impossible. No animal likes being on their back unless they’re truly comfortable, so it was a magical moment. There was also lots of shooting with the bird looking in the mirror and picking up tea bags and things!

When you said that you were afraid the bird was going to peck your eyes out, that made me remember: You were supposed to do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, weren’t you? What happened to that?

That’s right! That just never happened. That’s a long time ago now we talked about it, over 10 years! They just never got the script right, and it kind of fell away, like many of these things do.

You channeled the fear of the birds into this!

Exactly!

It’s also a movie that feels extra relevant now, because Sam is such an isolated person at the beginning, so do you think the film's themes are more potent right now?

I do. We’ve all had to rethink our lives in isolation and in deep ways. There’s a grief to feeling disconnected to other human beings and dealing with loss, and that’s exactly what Sam went through, suddenly feeling physically and emotionally different because of a lack of physical movement and connection, and feeling ashamed of herself and not being able to maintain friendships. We had a little version of that experience.... there's something there that makes it feel more relevant, how life — when you strip it back — makes you think of the simpler things and how meaningful they are.

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