by Gill Pringle

Naomi Watts was immediately moved when she heard the true story of Samantha Bloom. A surf-loving Sydney mum-of-three, Sam had sunk to the depths of depression following a tragic accident which robbed her of the use of her legs, only to have an injured baby magpie named Penguin snap her out of her sorrows.

If it sounds sappy, then that’s not how Watts viewed it and nor does the real-life Sam Bloom, who insisted her story not be given a Hollywood-style happy ending after she was approached by filmmakers.

“You have to be very respectful when you are telling a real person’s story,” says Watts who produces and stars as Sam Bloom in the heart-warming film, Penguin Bloom.

A lifelong outdoors enthusiast and world traveler, Sam Bloom’s January 2013 family vacation in Thailand resulted in tragedy when she casually leaned against a wobbly balcony railing, sending her tumbling to the ground, and shattering her spine.

Returning in a wheelchair to the family home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, she struggled to find hope until her boys rescued an injured magpie.

As a professional photographer, Sam’s husband Cameron Bloom would document how this bird – named Penguin – brought his wife out of her darkest hour.

Inspired by her new feathered friend, reliably perched on her shoulder, Sam’s life took new trajectories, including kayaking, thanks to lessons from Gaye Hatfield, a boating expert who would become both friend and coach, guiding Sam to national kayaking titles at international para-canoe championships, and winning World Adaptive Surfing titles in California.

In chronicling Sam and Penguin’s story, Cameron’s book would become a worldwide phenomenon, spiking the attention of Aussie producers Emma Cooper and Bruna Papandrea, and director Glendyn Ivin.

With Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) cast as Cam Bloom and Jacki Weaver as Sam’s mum, Jan, Watts relished returning to Australia to make the film, disappointed that quarantine rules prevent her from returning for Penguin Bloom’s release.

Sam Bloom revealed her innermost feelings with you by sharing her diaries. How did you feel taking such an intimate peek into her life?

“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’s what she’d 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.”

Naomi Watts and Sam Bloom

Was it hard for you to inhabit Sam’s sorrow and pain?

“It’s not difficult. I embrace it and it was important and I felt honoured to be playing this story of Sam’s and seeing her transformation and her emotional trajectory. Actors live for this kind of storytelling because I believe it’s in all of us – obviously more extreme in Sam’s case but it teaches us about how to manage things ourselves when we get wrapped up in somebody else’s story. We hope to identify ourselves in these stories – like, ‘who would you be in that situation? How would I deal with this?’ That’s the whole point of going to watch a film on the screen.”

Sam’s story is incredible and of course she’s gone on to world gold in Adaptive Surfing. I know you’re a little fearful of the ocean yourself. Obviously, we see you kayaking in Penguin Bloom – were you concerned that the script might call for you to break out some surf moves yourself?

“I’m pretty athletic mostly but not great in the water – which is weird because I’ve done quite a bit in the water. But I was more concerned just about getting cold but I took to it OK and Sam was impressed and Gaye, the [kayaking] teacher was great. But it was really difficult getting to learn how to really only use your core. It was hard to learn how to physically shut down a part of your body.”

Naomi Watts as Sam Bloom and Rachel House as Gaye Hatfield in Penguin Bloom

The Blooms have three sons. Did you bring your own two boys with you to this set?

“Yes, I brought my kids with me and that was one of the things that made the experience so special – her kids were there, my kids were there, plus the kids that were playing our children. It was a lot of fun and games and made it all the more personal and community driven.”

How difficult was it to play Sam Bloom, being a real person who you’ve already gotten to know quite well?

“When you’re playing real people, it’s a delicate balance of wanting to know them in a really intense way, but also allowing for the story to play out and affect you in a certain way. You need to serve the bigger story. So, it’s a difficult and tricky balance…. There could be many ways to interpret the Blooms’ story. I’m not cynical, but I don’t like when things get too sentimental either, though I can like certain things in that area. It took some time for me to put all the elements together in the right way.”

How did you get along with the little magpies who played Penguin through various stages of its maturity?

“I love nature and animals, but I was a bit concerned on the first day. I should have had more time with the birds in the lead up but, for whatever reason, there wasn’t enough time. 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.”

Has it brought out the bird-lover in you?

“Yes, and the bird trainer Paul Mander was so impressive, and he was there entertaining us all with his tricks and blowing us away. One of my greater concerns was how would we create this connection with the bird on screen? It’s one thing on the page and even in Cam’s pictures, but it’s another thing on the screen, where we’re constantly racing against time on a film set and there’s loads of people around. It’s not the same as trying to take a photograph at home when there’s nobody around and you’re just hanging around. That was my biggest concern going into this shooting schedule and some days we had to wait and wait, and some days we would get something even more extraordinary than what was on the page. It was a waiting game and always a mystery.”

More than anything, you wanted to be with the Blooms for the premiere of Penguin Bloom in Australia this week, but quarantine rules made that impossible. You must be very disappointed?

“Yes, it’s heart-breaking. There just didn’t seem any way to make it work. My kids are in school – even though they’re not there in person – right now and we just couldn’t make it work. It’s heart-breaking and I can’t believe I’m not there. My family are going to one of the premieres and I’m already receiving notes from friends who have already seen it and I’m just so sad I’m not there with everyone.”

How has the pandemic treated you in general?

“I’m definitely over it. I’ve had enough! 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. I hope it’s going to get better really soon, and I do see hope now with the vaccine circulating.”

Have you worked at all during the pandemic?

“I did a film [Lakewood] in Canada in late summer with Phillip Noyce. Luckily, we managed to make this film work because it was very Covid friendly. I was the only person in the film, although there’s a couple of scenes at the beginning and the end with other actors, but mostly it was just me so that made it safer. We had a very small crew, and we were able to shoot it in a small number of days.”

Penguin Bloom is in cinemas January 21, 2021


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