How Penguin Bloom star Naomi Watts and the real Sam Bloom found humanity in feathered friends
On the evening of Jan. 20 — after perhaps the most important day in modern American politics — I connect with Naomi Watts and Sam Bloom to talk about birds.
"Big day for you guys, eh?" says Aussie Sam Bloom referencing the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — a moment that, for many, signaled a fresh start after Donald Trump's divisive four-year term in office capped with a global pandemic, racial reckoning, and violent insurrection on the United States Capitol. But for someone like Bloom, a wife and mother of three whose life took a would-be tragic turn on a family vacation in Thailand after a fall left her paralyzed from the chest down, the "big days" of turmoil often melt away into molehills of minor emotions — all thanks to a tiny, injured bird that found its way into her family home, whose ultimate recovery inspired her to chart a path of resilience of her own.
It's a story Watts — producer-star of the family's Glendyn Ivin-directed biopic, Penguin Bloom (on Netflix now), based on their autobiographical book of the same name — felt compelled to tell not only as an empathetic mother herself, but also as a self-made champion of stories that unify the body, heart, and spirit, and inspire dynamic empathy — even across species lines.
"It's about hope, love, and unity — that's a strong word today, isn't it? It feels like the timing has worked in our favor, because we've all had a version of grief this year, feeling disconnected, lonely, and separated from loved ones, and this story is so simple and pure," Watts says, flexing teary-eyed sincerity with each word as Bloom listens in on the call. "It's about reevaluating your family and coming together, and it gives you a sense of joy and hope but facing all the courage and resilience and darkness that's part of our lives, too."
Ahead, Watts and Bloom tell EW how their feathered friends served as more than just colorful household pets, but living — and life-saving — windows into the human soul.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Naomi, you told me out of TIFF that you grew very close with Sam during production, is that right?
NAOMI WATTS: I wasn't lying, was I, Sam?
SAM BLOOM: Not at all!
When did you two first meet?
WATTS: We met in a hotel. It was a group gathering: Sam, her husband, Cam, who's the photographer [behind the book the film is based on], and the producers. We had a beautiful breakfast on the Sydney harbor, we went for a walk and took some beautiful images. It was really polite, talking about the possibilities of where we could go with the story.
Why do you think the bond become so strong?
BLOOM: Naomi, you're so down-to-earth. You're compassionate, and you have a big heart. You make people feel completely comfortable. You're a beautiful person, inside and out. The first time I met her I thought she'd be perfect [to tell my story]. I put all my trust in her.
WATTS: You're going to make me cry!
Sam, this was a difficult period in your life, and you shared your real journals from this period with Naomi. What did you want her to "get" about your headspace at that time?
BLOOM: How I was actually feeling. I was so devastated, I was angry, I was overwhelmed with my situation. I hated my life. I felt guilty as a mom, wife, and friend. I pushed people away. I wanted Naomi to get into my head and understand how I was feeling, which she portrayed brilliantly. Even the looks, I watched it again last night and Cam goes, "Oh my God, Naomi does the exact look you do when you're angry!" [Both laugh].
As a performer absorbing this information, like those physical tics, what did you take away from Sam that she didn't tell you outright?
WATTS: I knew there was a lot of darkness she'd gone through, particularly in that first year coming back from Thailand, dealing with excruciating pain on a daily basis as well as battling these horrific thoughts of wanting to end it. I could imagine that world, but I tried to discover how she created the will to live in that transition, and how that translated physically in looks and body movements as well as internally. How does that play out in an emotional trajectory? I was struck by how composed Sam was and how much poise and dignity she had, despite all of that she's gone through. When I look at Sam, I see her as an incredibly strong, courageous, and inspiring. That's a story I think we all need to watch and learn from.
Physically, was Sam on set coaching you through the more challenging aspects of learning to use only the top portion of your body?
WATTS: Yes! That was the hardest part, wasn't it, Sam?
BLOOM: It's not a normal thing to try and switch off three-quarters of your body!
WATTS: She sent video footage of her transferring from the bed to the chair, and I was watching carefully. She was precise with every movement, going by the numbers. I practiced with a wheelchair in my apartment. It's hard when gravity is involved. Instinctively, no matter how forceful you are with your mind to tell that part of your body to switch off, it's almost impossible. We had to shoot these scenes over and over again, many takes, and it got to the point where I asked Sam to come to the set because I couldn't tell what I was doing wrong. Even when Andrew [Lincoln] lifted me, my legs don't instinctively flop like they do when they're not engaged with the life of the muscle, so it was incredibly difficult. I noticed Sam's balance. She can't lean certain ways from the bra strap down.
BLOOM: Right, no core!
WATTS: I had to watch and get Sam's strict instruction!
There's obviously sensitivity about how actors portray people with disabilities. How do you feel Naomi handled that portrayal?
BLOOM: She had so much respect for it and did a great job. I asked somebody last night whose brother was also in a wheelchair, and she thought it looked real [too]. She nailed it. It never doesn't look right!
Naomi, you told me last time about a bird, well, doing its business in your mouth during filming! Sam, I have to ask: Was that a real experience you had with Penguin? Are accidents in the mouth a real peril with pet birds?
BLOOM: I wasn't as lucky as Naomi. I've never had poo in my mouth! But Penguin used to poo all over me. It was pretty disgusting. It's just what they do. I spend my life cleaning up bird poo!
WATTS: It was my own stupidity, because I was laughing and shaking my head, I created the momentum that allowed it to go into my mouth. So, I'm an even bigger loser!
Sam, have you had more birds since Penguin?
BLOOM: We've had quite a few birds! We have one at the moment, a little baby magpie who's so cute. People contact us via Instagram saying they found a baby bird for us to look after! We like it. They're never in a cage, always free to fly away when they're ready.
Naomi, your kids were super into the wildlife on this film. Are pet birds in your future?
WATTS: Um, no… but they were seriously talked about after filming! We fell in love with the bird trainer and his birds! We had a moment of discussion about it, but, no, not yet — not in New York!
For both of you, what has the act of bonding with an animal taught both of you? Is it more profound when you're connecting emotionally with non-traditional, non-domesticated animal?
BLOOM: It's quite unusual having a magpie as a companion. All animals are healing. Everybody who has an animal talks to them and tells them what's going on in their mind. I love their energy. It brings happiness and good energy to your house.
WATTS: Sam, you said the bird unlocked you, didn't it? Who knows if it just came at the right time, maybe you would've gotten there on your own, but you were able to refocus your energy?
BLOOM: Instead of focusing on myself, I put my energy into looking after Penguin because she was so vulnerable.
WATTS: You told me that animals don't judge you. With everyone else around you…. everybody has their expectations or needs from you about how to manage your grief, and you were doing it privately, and when somebody was like "Cheer up!" it felt like that worked for them, but not necessarily you, and the bird is just there with you.
BLOOM: She was there all the time. I'd tell her everything, and I'm pretty shy, so I wasn't going to be telling everybody what I was thinking. That would've been horrifying if they knew what was really going on in my mind, so I'd just tell Penguin!
The authenticity amplified because you shot in the real Bloom household, right?
BLOOM: They kicked us out. [Both laugh]
Sam, what was it like for you to see this story dramatized in your old house? Did that stir up dark memories?
BLOOM: We loved it! They changed it a lot, painted it, put curtains up, and made it darker and moodier, but they shot a lot of footage on the northern beaches in Sydney, so it's great seeing where I grew up, seeing that on the big screen.
Which scene was most important for the crew to get just right about your story?
BLOOM: The scene where the kids are sick and I was stuck in bed and couldn't get out and be there for them, that's such a raw and powerful scene. It means a lot to me because it actually happened, just laying there feeling like the worst mom in the world because you can't jump up and be there for your kids while they're vomiting.
WATTS: As a mother myself, I knew how truly devastating that must be for a mom to not only not be able to do what she wants to be able to do for her children, but that the kids have stopped calling for her because they know she can't. The guilt and shame, the pure sadness of this is my life now.
What does it feel like to you to hear Sam say that you portrayed her life just right?
WATTS: It's why I'm here. As far as I'm concerned, it ends there. That's the most important feedback you can get. Everything else is a bonus from here on out, if other people are moved by it. Of course, I want that, but the most important thing for me is to have the approval from Sam saying: "You can tell my story, thank you, it's great!"
Isolation is a distinct theme in this film, and it's relevant at a time when people feel isolated at home right now. Why this story right for people in this moment?
WATTS: It's about hope, love, and unity — that's a strong word today, isn't it? It feels like the timing has worked in our favor, because we've all had a version of grief this year, feeling disconnected, lonely, and separated from loved ones, and this story is so simple and pure. It's about reevaluating your family and coming together, and it gives you a sense of joy and hope but facing all the courage and resilience and darkness that's part of our lives, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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