Watts’ ‘shocking’ encounter with ‘co-star’
Actors don't usually form such an intimate connection with co-stars on their first meeting, but when those co-stars are trained magpies, all bets are off.
That's how Naomi Watts ended up with a bird pooping in her mouth during production of Penguin Bloom, an Australian movie based on the real-life story of a Sydney family found hope again after a terrible tragedy.
"I just let the bird crawl all over me and do the things and act like I supposed to," Watts told news.com.au of her first bird encounter on set. "I was concerned the bird was going to peck my eyes out, which it didn't.
"But it did do something equally shocking, which was take a poop on my head, which promptly trickled down my face and right into my mouth, because I went 'oh'."
Not an ideal introduction to the handful of magpie actors who would be integral to Penguin Bloom, but it does highlight the birds' personalities - personalities we've maybe missed while busy trying to avoid being swooped every spring.
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Watts confessed she was already on the backfoot in the human-magpie power struggle because she had previously been bombed by a flock of them while horse riding. But having now worked with them, she feels much more comfortable around the feathered creatures.
"The bird trainer blew us away and blew my son away over and over again," Watts said. "By the end [of production], my eldest was begging me to get different kinds of birds, but here we are in New York, in an apartment, so it doesn't make sense."
Adapted from a popular book, Penguin Bloom follows the story of northern beaches family, the Blooms - mum Sam, dad Cam and sons Noah, Oli and Reuben. They were happy-go-lucky and active when, on holidays in Thailand, Sam fell several storeys onto hard tiling when the railing gave away.
Paralysed from the chest down, Sam's world collapsed into a small, dark space, unable to find joy or hope in the things she loved. That's when a baby magpie came into their lives. She was black and white, so they named her Penguin.
Penguin Bloom is a tender and sweet story of finding light again when you're swathed in darkness, and of finding purpose in the most unlikely places, or in this case, of animals.
Watts boarded the project early, before there was even a script and she said she grew close to Sam Bloom in the process, to the point that Bloom offered to Watts the diaries she wrote at the time.
"A few days before we started shooting, after we'd had plenty of conversations, that's when she said, 'Do you want to read my diaries?'. Because the questions, as you get closer to each other, you can get them to open up more but I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes, asking the questions that I had.
"She said, 'Look, don't worry, you can ask me anything, you can watch me do anything, here's [my diaries]'. And I went, 'Wow, are you sure you're OK with that?'. I felt it was such a big thing to do but - and she was incredibly generous - she thought it was important."
Watts has previously portrayed real-life people who are still alive, notably in The Impossible as Maria Belon, who had survived the 2004 tsunami. So, she understood the weight of responsibility in taking on these particular roles.
"There's a lot of fear in the lead-up to playing someone that's still alive because you feel that level of responsibility to get the story exactly right," she said. "Obviously, they've lived through something extraordinary and you have to honour it with authenticity.
"You feel very protective on behalf of them."
The Blooms, especially Sam, was frequently on set, often at the request of Watts who liked having Sam around to provide insight into not just emotional moments but even on a practical level such as demonstrating how someone with her particular injury hoist themselves out of bed.
While Watts wanted Sam Bloom to be around, Penguin Bloom director Glendyn Ivin revealed Andrew Lincoln, who played Cam Bloom, felt self-conscious about his real-life counterpart being present.
"It actually threw him a little bit," Ivin said. "He wanted to get his version of Cam right, he didn't need to have watching to know. So, every actor is completely different."
Ivin was impressed by Lincoln's ability to pull off the Australian accent, a notoriously hard twang for those from beyond our shores.
"Actors can sometimes do accents but they rote learn it, like each line," Ivin said. "But we both knew that if he was going to be working with kids and animals, that he's going to have to go off-script, there was going to be ad libbing and he'll have to ad lib with an Australian accent.
"The first time I saw Andrew, in his hotel room pretty soon after he arrived, he answered the door speaking with an Australian accent and he didn't drop it through the entire production.
"Now, when I've spoken to him since and he's back using his English accent, it seems strange."
Penguin Bloom shot on location in the Blooms' actual home, which added to Ivin's pressure to get it right.
"It was a very invasive process," he told news.com.au. "This is a film where it's not only about one member, Sam Bloom, but also Cam Bloom, their three sons and we're shooting in their house. So I was always very respectful."
For `Ivin, what he wanted the film to add a psychological depth to a story that has been in the public eye before.
"We know the story from the book about how Penguin helped the family come back together," he said. "For me, it was interesting to see some of the more psychologically details of what it's like to have a spinal injury or to go into Sam Bloom's internal world a bit more.
"I've always liked in the book how no one skirted over the darkness or the depression, or exactly how she was feeling. I think in the film, we were able to go into that a lot more. In particular, in more detail her relationship with Noah."
With Penguin Bloom opening in wide release around the country this week, millions more Australians will learn of the Blooms' story, and of the bird that saved them in unexpected ways. But for Watts, the most important critic was always going to be the Blooms.
"It begins and ends with them, really," she said. "Obviously it's great if audiences connect with it, but it's their story. They went through hell and back."
Ivin said the Blooms have already offered their positive critique. "They were really happy with it, and you know when you've got it right when they're picking up on small details. They're really behind it and proud of it, as we all are."
Penguin Bloom is in cinemas from Thursday, January 21
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Originally published as Watts' 'shocking' encounter with 'co-star'