Naomi Watts was at home in New York when she started flipping through the pages of the book that would change her family’s world. Penguin Bloom had been sent to her by fellow producer Emma Cooper who thought the unique true story might make the basis for a film.
“I just want you to look at this and see if it captures your imagination'” Cooper said, gently seeding an idea she was convinced would interest Watts. She was right! The 2016 book about Australian mom Sam Bloom with husband Cameron’s intimate photographs of Sam, their family and the injured baby magpie they adopted takes your breath away and was about to light a heavenly spark in Watts and her children.
“I put the book aside and then pulled it out on Sunday. It was a lazy morning in bed and the kids — Sasha and Kai — were still little. I remember being completely captivated by these images and I thought, particularly for one of my kids who is very much into nature, and from the age of about four can tell you about every animal — what it eats, its habitat, how it lives, every detail, every country it comes from, everything — I knew that I would at least get his interest.
“But then we all got into it. I just kept turning the pages and reading and reading and turning pages and seeing one more beautiful image after the next. I was thinking ‘How did they capture that moment? That doesn’t make any sense. Let me read more — and then the story started coming back to me.”
The British-born Oscar-nominated actor who moved to Australia when she was 14 and then, chasing a Hollywood dream, relocated to the US in the mid-nineties, was vaguely familiar with the Bloom family story.
She’d heard about Bloom from some friends in her former home town and seen her in the media. This woman in the photographs — slight, heavenly, wheelchair-bound, caught in moving thoughts as she holds a wild magpie — was that Sam Bloom, the super-active Sydney beaches mom of three and ardent surfer who suffered a devastating spinal cord injury in a freak fall on vacation in Thailand in 2013. In that instant the life Bloom knew ended, replaced with nightmares, pain, and darkness until this wounded wild bird saved her.
As Naomi was about to discover, in truth Penguin — named by Bloom’s son Noah who found the bird — was more of a friend than a savior, but that unique relationship with a scruffy little magpie, proved to be a turning point for the whole Bloom family. Bloom nursed Penguin, confiding in the bird and together they started to heal.
“What I realized reading the book together, is that it created this really powerful experience that drew us all in as a family unit and in that moment, I thought this is a story about a family and how powerful that need is to be together and connect. It’s about how they rebuilt themselves through the magic of this bird, but really it was the family, and the bird was the crutch of that family, literally,” notes Watts.
“In that instant it was compelling in ways that I hadn’t experienced before. My kids were really drawn in, particularly Sasha, and they had lots of questions. They loved the funny images, the lighter images, with the bird eating funny things. They just loved it,” she adds with a sigh, “and I knew that it would make a really beautiful story for the movie.”
Meeting the Blooms
Watts’s eyes light up as she talks about the family she and her children now count as personal friends. She immediately felt attached to the story because of its Australian setting and relished the idea of making a film back in Sydney where she’d spent her teenage years.
This would be a family affair, as she planned to bring her children with her to experience Sydney beach life and connect with the Bloom world they had glimpsed that Sunday morning reading the book. “I hadn’t made a film in Australia for a long time and to develop it from the ground up was very exciting,” says Watts. “It felt like this story of hope, of survival, was universal and powerful for anyone.”
Watts signed on, not just to play the lead, but also as a producer, personally “chipping in to buy the rights to the book”. As she worked to get the project off the ground, her passion heightened and when she met Bloom in person over breakfast in a hotel in Sydney, she knew this was going to be a very special film.
“Right away I just knew,” Watts smiles. “It’s always nerve-racking when you meet someone that you’re going to play. You never know how they’re going to feel. Are they going to be overly attached or are they going to be able to bring something that will open you up in ways that you hadn’t thought of and bring ideas to the table? But before we’d even started talking, I knew. I just felt a deep connection with Bloom that made me feel safe.”
Key to understanding Bloom’s terrifying new normal was getting inside both her head and her body. Watts needed to fathom the private thoughts tumbling around Bloom’s brain. Bloom refuses to sugar-coat her situation. She hates what the accident has done to her, robbing her of being the woman and the mother she used to be and longs to be again. She questions the life she is left with but somehow, every day her courage wins through, fueled by her family’s love and a need to not let her boys down.
It’s a powerful dynamic perfect for a compelling film but Bloom was also keen to ensure the movie of her life would depict the whole truth without Hollywood gloss. “Of course, I was stoked that Naomi would be playing me,” Bloom confides. “But before the production started, I sent her my diary. It’s something which only a handful of people have seen, but I wanted to help her know how I was feeling inside.”
The journals were invaluable Watts tells me, fiercely honest and often heartbreaking. “Bloom was so generous. Her diaries were deeply personal and unbelievably helpful.” Throughout her career Watts has embraced tough roles and had no intention of papering over the cracks of Bloom’s battles. “I don’t think of myself as being afraid of darkness. I think it’s part of human nature. If something has been taken from you as big as that, and particularly for someone like Bloom who was the most active person, it was just unimaginable.
“I felt deep empathy for her and her loss. I was deeply impressed by how she has found ways to manage it and navigate it, and yet still there’s lots of anger and frustration. It’s a constant road ahead of healing. She deals with not just the psychological loss but the physical pain as well, constantly.”
As the film started to take shape Watts spent hours talking to Bloom developing a profound understanding of the realities of her situation.
“Sam’s saying: ‘Yes, I’m getting through, I’m still here, but it’s not over.’ It’s not like a little bird came down and saved us. Yes, it created some magic, it created some bonding, but the work isn’t finished; I’ve just found better ways to manage it,” she says. “That’s a great lesson for all of us and incredibly empowering because a movie like this should help you explore what if it were you? How would you manage it? Who are you in that story?”
As a mother of two herself, that journey hit a chord. “It’s absolutely a family story. Yes, Sam’s at the center of it but she’s very connected to her children and her husband. Every day is a new day. It was about rebuilding the whole family structure. They all lost something in the process and they all manage it in their different ways .
Watts met the Blooms all together right from that first encounter with Bloom. “They all came. They’re a very close-knit family,” she laughs. “Cameron is so full of positive energy and Sam seems very shy and demure at times but she’s got to be strong, she’s got real courage, she really does.”
It would be confronting for Bloom, Cameron, and their three sons to watch actors playing them on the big screen, but the Blooms never flinched and gave their all to the project. The film was shot in their actual home high above Bilgola beach in Australia and the family moved up the road regularly visiting the set. “The family had a lot of input and it was always 100 percent welcome,” says Watts. “They were reading the scripts as we were producing them and often times I would go to Sam and say, how would you have approached this?”
“Watts was so unreal; she’d ask me to come on set and if they had to do a specific thing, for example, if she had to get dressed, she wanted to make sure it looked right. It was weird watching the monitor thinking, ‘Oh my God, she’s playing me.’ Especially when I’m just me. And she’s incredible,” laughs Bloom.
Magpie Casting Call
The toughest piece of casting was Penguin the magpie. “This was the one thing that was tripping me up,” says Watts grinning. “I thought how are we going to manage this? We talked about a combination of three different things: real trained birds, animatronics, and computer graphics. But I’m like, ‘you can’t train birds that well, and magpies, they’re kind of aggressive.’ I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
“It got closer and closer to filming and I was getting more nervous and then I remember getting there the first day and meeting this bird guy — the trainer, Paul Manter. He was wonderful, my son fell in love with him. The bird walked all over me, travelled around my body and it looked like he wasn’t going to poke my eyes out, even though I was thinking that’s going to happen.” Magpies do peck with their strong triangular beaks, they flap their wings and the nails of their toes are pretty sharp.
Was she scared at all?
“I’m a bit of a farm girl at heart, having grown up in the UK before Australia and living on a farm with my grandparents, so I’m not spooked by anything in nature particularly, not even magpie, even though I’ve been bombed by them before. I wouldn’t say the birds attacked me viciously but I remember going horse riding once in Canberra and we went through some trees and a whole flock came down around my head.”
In the end it was a team of eight different magpies who played Penguin and Watts confesses she was surprised and thrilled with the results, “Mostly it was just having to sit and wait and be patient and hope. One of the most beautiful moments is when I’m holding the bird on my chest. I couldn’t believe we got that. So, all credit to Paul, our lovely bird trainer.”
Making the movie proved to be a bonding time for everyone. Watts’ children were often on set and when the Bloom boys came home from school all the children including the actors who played them would spend time together. “Sasha loved all the birds at our place. He would cuddle them and all the kids played on our trampoline. When our boys came over, they’d show off by doing lots of somersaults,” says Cameron.
“They loved it,” agrees Watts. “Noah and Griffin Murray-Johnston (the actor who played him) hung out quite a lot together, as he was on set more than the other boys. They would play the guitar together and chat,” Cameron adds. British actor Andrew Lincoln, best known as the hopeless romantic professing his love on placards in hit movie Love Actually, played Cameron, capturing his mannerisms and gentle nature to a tee. “What resonated for me was Cameron’s amazing connection with nature,” says Andrew. “His was a family — not unlike my own — that had travelled, had a big worldview, that were sort of free-thinkers and had a communion with the wild. Then this broken bird comes into the household, and it almost brings a heartbeat back into his wife. I loved that.”
“It’s just a beautiful story to put into the world, and such an extraordinary tale of love, and courage and triumph through adversity,” Andrew says.
“We had a lovely relationship during the time he was here,” adds Cameron. “We went surfing together with [our son] Noah and talked a lot about my photographs and how I cared for Sam and the boys since the accident.”When he saw the final cut Cam felt Andrew’s portrayal of him was perfect.
“He’s a father of two young kids and understood the hardship I faced.” He was also “blown away by Watts’s performance. The anger and sadness were all there as was the torment of having her old life ripped away. There’s a scene that gets me later in the film that still breaks my heart.” For Bloom watching the film was a challenge. “I found it extremely confronting,” she says quietly.
“It was very hard for me to watch certain scenes in the movie because most of them actually happened. Watts’ portrayal of me was absolutely phenomenal. There’s an emotional depth I didn’t think was possible.
“Naomi and I continue to have a close connection and I’m sure we will be friends for a long time to come. She’s been very supportive, compassionate and kind. I’m grateful to have such an extraordinary actress tell my story,” says Bloom.
I wonder if filming in Australia made Watts want to move back here. “It’s so funny, we’ve been talking about Australia a lot lately. We’d really love to be there right now,” she laughs adding that after their visit her children “definitely love Australia”.
But the concept of home is not straightforward for Watts who was brought up in the UK and Australia and has raised her own family in the US.
“My mom [Myfanwy Roberts] is in Europe. She doesn’t live full time in England even though she works there. I still have lots of friends there, I love England, but I also really love Australia, and I love America. America has been very good to me. My children are American, my ex [actor Liev Schreiber] is American, and so I’m very connected to this country.”
Watts’ parents divorced when she was four and her father Peter Watts, who was a sound engineer for the rock group Pink Floyd, died when he was just 31 from a suspected heroin overdose. When years later her mum moved the family to Australia she promised to let Watts takes acting classes.
Watts loved acting and won roles in Home and Away and Australian movie Flirting alongside Nicole Kidman who became a lifelong best friend. But when she moved to the US hoping to make it in Hollywood, the reality was very different and looking back she’s thankful and somewhat amazed she didn’t throw in the towel. Watts’ big break came when director David Lynch picked her for his cult movie Mulholland Drive. Watts won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actress.
“It was a long road to any success and it took a master like David Lynch to connect with me and see my talent,” she says. “I think I was so wounded from so much rejection over the years that I couldn’t be myself in those audition rooms, so it was incredibly painful and I thought about packing it up more than a handful of times. But just in the nick of time something would come, a little bite that would home me back in just as I’d packed my bags. I would get that job done, pay off some bills, and then get to the same point. It was like that for a good 10 years. Somehow I just kept going. Looking back I don’t know how I managed.”
Coaching from the sidelines was Nicole Kidman.
“She was incredibly encouraging. I would tell her that I’d had the seventh call back and it was looking good but I wasn’t sure; she’d say, ‘just hang in there, Nai, all it takes is one thing’. It didn’t really make sense to me at the time but I just kept going. I had a few moments when I thought, no, I can’t do it, but she was always trying to bolster me with confidence.
“When David Lynch finally took that risk on me, he somehow loosened me up enough to the point where I would unveil all these masks. David gave me his energy, and he intuited something and made me feel safe and we connected. So Nic was right, it did just take one thing.”
Watts says that at the time she was concerned that even though she was now winning parts she may have arrived too late to build on her new success. “Certainly my career really only kicked off in my early 30s and I remember thinking, oh gosh, I’ve only got till I’m 40, because that was what we were being told. It’s all over by then. But here I am into my 50s now and it’s not too bad.”
Turning 50 was another milestone.
“It sounds like a big one, doesn’t it, and it is a big one. I embraced it as such. I got together with my friends and I’ve been very lucky. I feel like I’ve had some great relationships over time, I’ve got my wonderful children, it was shared with all of them. I made a special moment with everyone.”
Watts is now 52 and when I ask if she feels different to the young girl who was overwhelmed at auditions, she pauses, lost in thought. “I do, yes, but then I would say sometimes no, sometimes I feel like I’m still 27 and I get a shock when I see a reflection of myself. “I’m glad I don’t have the angst that I had in my 20s. But you solve one set of problems and then you open up to a new set. You just learn to roll with it, ride the wave a bit better and at this point of my life I’ve figured it out a bit better now.”
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Now to Love.