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Naomi Watts Talks Her Unlikely Bond With A Bird In 'Penguin Bloom'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sam Bloom and her family were on vacation in Thailand when their whole lives changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PENGUIN BLOOM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, screaming).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sam falls and is paralyzed from the chest down. As she struggles to adapt to life in a wheelchair, she finds an unlikely connection with a magpie named Penguin. The rescued bird helps her accept her new condition. Naomi Watts plays Sam Bloom in the new movie "Penguin Bloom," which is based on a true story. And she joins me now. Welcome to the program.

NAOMI WATTS: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You actually met the real Sam Bloom while preparing and filming this role. Can you tell me a little bit about her personality, what she's like?

WATTS: She's really just a lovely woman that, you know, you don't get all at once, not the easiest upfront read. We had our first meeting in a group setting - just her and her husband, Cam. And then we just had a lovely, polite breakfast, chatted away. And we just spent lots of time on the phone, Facetiming, talking about her journey of recovery. And she couldn't have been more generous with her time. And when she could tell that I was really digging deeper and deeper, she actually said, do you want to just read my journals?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, wow.

WATTS: And - yeah, because I think she found it hard to express sometimes. And the words on the page just really gave it to me in really clear ways. And it was gut-wrenching.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Naomi, this is, I guess, a process question that I am curious about. A lot of acting, of course, depends on body language, you know...

WATTS: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...To evoke emotion, to tell a story. But that's limited here due to Sam's paralysis. How did you navigate that limitation?

WATTS: It was the hardest part. The physicality is usually something I really enjoy. But with Sam, it was so hard to, you know, really try and tell the bottom half of your body from basically the bra strap down to not move. You know, like when Andrew Lincoln, who plays Cam, my husband, is picking me up, you help the lift just by instinct. So I found that incredibly hard. And again, Sam was very available and generous with her time. She did lots of recordings of her doing the physical transfers as well as coming to the set because I actually said, can you please be here for this day? Because I'm having trouble, and we'd have to do multiple takes. And I was like, I trust your eye more than anyone's. And it just so happened that she was living around the corner 'cause the whole film takes place in their house. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a beautiful house, I must say.

WATTS: It is. I know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm like, wow, they actually really do live there.

WATTS: Yeah. But it actually interestingly became, you know, part of the pain for her because that beautiful view that you see - just beaches, which was her entire youth. Every imaginable water sport took place there. And it was just all a horrific reminder of what she couldn't exist in anymore. It was - it became torment for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have to talk about the bird.

WATTS: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Penguin only stayed in Bloom's life for a short while before returning to the wild. But you worked with a real bird for this movie. What kind of challenges did that bring?

WATTS: Really, the challenges were in my thoughts and the lead up to it. I was worried that - how do we get this bird to really engage and, you know, communicate with me?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were having actor-ly (ph) thoughts.

WATTS: Yes. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were wondering if your co-star was actually going to bring what needed to be brought.

WATTS: Yeah. I mean, on the page, it sounded great, but I was like, how? How is this possible? And especially magpies. I've had a horrific experience where I was horse riding in the woods and been attacked by a whole flock of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really?

WATTS: Yeah, they're quite aggressive birds. They're not kind and friendly. But they are smart - so very trainable, it turns out. And it was very much a waiting game. Every day you wondered if you were going to get this beautiful moment on the page. And, sometimes, yeah, you would just stumble across it right away. Or other times, you'd have to wait and wait. And you might not get what was required, but you might get something just as brilliant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when you looked at the script initially in her story, what was it that drew you?

WATTS: Yeah, the strength in her and how she was able to recover. And I also love the family spirit in this film. You know, when I read the book for the first time, it was on a Sunday morning. And I was - my kids were still quite little, and we were having a cozy lie-in. And they were completely drawn in by these bizarre images of this bird doing these wonderful things, this baby bird. And it was just so cute. And it struck me how this experience alone, just looking at the book and then reading the story, which had a darker tone to it, the unity it created with my children at that moment. That feeling kept going. In the making of the film, we had the on-screen kids. My kids were there. Andrew's kids were there. It was like a little summer camp. And I think, somehow, now more than ever, there's a need for that pure and simple thing of just family unity, how a family that was - had nearly come undone repairs itself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it was something that resonated watching the film, because, of course, this moment, we are all going through sort of an immense amount of grief in all sorts of different ways.

WATTS: Yeah. Yeah, we have. We've experienced grief and disconnection, and this should really speak to that. And I mean, Sam's story's quite unique, but it definitely taps into a version of what we've been going through.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you because I ask everybody, how are you doing?

WATTS: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What has this moment been like for you?

WATTS: It's been everything. Like, literally, I've experienced everything from moments of utter sadness and real, oh, my God, I can't handle this anymore, real loneliness. I hate speaking on the phone more than anything. I've always hated that. And the constant conversations and selling oneself - It takes me back to the days of when I used to audition like crazy. And you have to be brilliant in a room. I'm like, no. I just want to be in the presence of people. I love people. I love that connectivity. And yeah, I mean, the kids have suffered, I think. At-home school has been super tough for them. I worry about the mental health of everyone, you know, and particularly kids.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Naomi Watts stars in "Penguin Bloom" on Netflix. Thank you very much.

WATTS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.