Naomi Watts and Jacki Weaver couldn’t help but be moved by the incredible true story of Samantha Bloom and her magpie pal, Penguin Bloom.
A surf-loving Sydney mum-of-three, Sam had spiralled into a deep depression following a 2013 tragic accident which robbed her of the use of her legs, only to have an injured baby magpie named Penguin lift her spirits in a surprising way.
Inspired by her new feathered friend, reliably perched on her shoulder, Sam’s life took on new trajectories, taking up competitive paracanoeing, eventually placing 13th in the world, and bringing home gold from the World Adaptive Surfing Championships.
With Sam’s story now adapted into a powerful drama, Penguin Bloom, Watts immediately signed on to play Sam Bloom with Jacki Weaver portraying her mum, Jan.
But neither of them was too happy to find themselves working with wild birds – a necessity when the movie takes its name from Sam’s saviour, magpie Penguin Bloom.
Using multiple magpies across different age groups, Watts would become second fiddle to her feathered co-stars, patiently waiting for hours for the birds to take their cue.
“I love nature and animals but I was a bit concerned at the beginning,” Watts tells STACK, chatting from her home in New York where quarantine rules have prevented her from attending the film’s Australian premiere. “I should have had more time with the birds in the lead-up but, for whatever reason, there wasn’t enough time.
“So on the first day, I remember the bird crawling all over me and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I hope my eyes don’t get pecked out’.
“I just had to learn to get comfy although there was bit of an ice-breaker on the first day when the bird basically pooped on my head and it ran all the way down my face. One way to break the ice,” laughs the twice Oscar-nominated actress.
Weaver is less charitable: “To be honest, I think magpies are horrible. I hate magpies. They used to attack children on their way to school, that’s why we used to wear hats to school in the bush because they’re nasty things. Fortunately I was only in scenes with them a few times, but I was still terrified,” she admits. “The patience of the trainer and our director, Glendyn Ivin, was amazing.”
Preparing for what she knew would be a difficult role – spent almost entirely in a wheelchair – Watts was amazed when Sam Bloom decided to share her private diaries with her. “I was incredibly grateful because I knew that it was so personal and, firstly, the act of generosity to be that available and open and, secondly, I knew that she was going to go really deep.
“We’d spent a fair amount of time together but now it was time to get really into the depths of her darkness, and indeed it was all there on the page. It was heart-wrenching but I already knew that that’s what Sam had been going through. She’d certainly intimated that much, but to see it written out in her words over and over again repeatedly, how really truly unhappy she was and how she couldn’t get through days on end; she wanted to not be there anymore. It was intense,” she says.
Weaver didn’t get to meet Bloom’s mum, Jan, until she was already filming. “By then I already had a handle on who she was, because it was a very good script. So when I did meet her, I was pleased to see I wasn’t going completely in the wrong direction.
“That is something you have to bear in mind when you’re playing a real person. You don’t want to get it really wrong and hurt their feelings.”
If mother and daughter sometimes butt heads in Penguin Bloom, Weaver drew on memories of her own mum. “I adored my mother, she was a wonderful woman. But I think a lot of mothers and daughters do rub each other up the wrong way sometimes, especially in their late teens and early twenties.
“Also my character of Sam’s mother, she’s devastated by the predicament her daughter is in and she’s so upset, she can’t help but be fussy and naggy and just irritating really. All of us have had mothers, so I think we understand,” she says.
Always happy to work back in Australia, Watts even signed on as a producer, bringing her own two sons to the set. “Being able to bring my kids with me was one of the things that made the experience so special – Sam’s kids were there, my kids were there, plus the kids that were playing our children. There was a lot of fun and games, making it all the more personal and community driven,” she says.
Both actresses have kept busy during the pandemic, Watts in Canada shooting Phillip Noyce’s lockdown drama, Lakewood, while Weaver was in Montana filming crime thriller, American Murderer, with Idina Menzel.
But, like the rest of us, Watts is ready for real life to resume. “I’m definitely over it. I’ve had enough,” she admits. “I’ve had some moments that are OK and some moments that have been actually quite special, particularly with the children. But we’ve got to be safe and treat this in really careful ways and keep going. But I do see hope now with the vaccine circulating.”
Penguin Bloom is out on April 21 – Pre-order your copy now