Naomi Watts is days away from shooting new film, was ‘the most nervous’ acting with birds in ‘Penguin Bloom’

No, this is not a normal film festival.

Naomi Watts is out of breath picking up the phone on Friday while settling in to talk about “Penguin Bloom,” her film which debuts Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s not a normal year – the festival is largely virtual, save for scattered public outdoor screenings and drive-ins in Toronto proper – and most stars are nowhere near it, appearing virtually through video panels and press conferences.

In fact, Watts literally just paused a home workout to grab the phone. “I just got off a treadmill because I’m about to – wait for it – start filming next week. I’m in Canada and right now I’m in lockdown (and) in quarantine,” says a winded Watts, who is with her children before beginning her next film, “Lakewood.” “I’m on a treadmill because in the movie I do a lot of running and sprinting.”

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She’s still wrapping her mind around the reality of going back to work. “On one hand, I’m so ready to be in a creative space and do what I love to do, which is storytelling, rather than sitting at home on the phone a lot and talking, which is not my comfort zone. But of course, it’s nerve-wracking at the same time,” says Watts, who will be COVID-19 tested about three times a week on set.

In “Penguin Bloom,” Watts stars in the true story of Sam Bloom, an Australian mother of three who leaned on a faulty railing on vacation in Thailand and broke her back, becoming paralyzed from the chest down. Bedridden with depression, the film catches up with Sam as she struggles to accept her new reality as her husband (Andrew Lincoln) and children attempt to return to life as they knew it. It’s in this submerged state when her son brings home an injured black-and-white stray magpie, soon dubbed Penguin. Over time, Sam finds comfort in the creature, whose recovery mirrors her own embrace of life.

The real Sam “had a pretty wonderful lovely life, (she was) a very active, sporty woman who was raising a family of three boys also very active and sporty. And in an instant, her life changed,” says Watts.

“She went from feeling completely physically and emotionally broken – like she absolutely did not want to live, she went through very dark times – and managed to put herself back together, at least in an emotional way, through this connection with this creature. She was able to get outside of her own head. It just felt like a story of hope and belief and empowerment.”

The story also meant Watts had to act with not just one real bird, but several.

“This was the part that made me the most nervous about taking the role on,” she says. “Magpies are famously known as not being particularly nice creatures, they don’t have a good rap out there. So how could we have a connection to this bird? It has to act! It’s hard enough getting children to act – and other animals, like dogs, much less wild birds.”

In the end, her magpie co-star appears onscreen as a mixture of trained birds, computer graphics and some animatronics. “It really was 90%, probably more, just the real birds,” she estimates.

As “Penguin Bloom,” which is being shopped for distribution in Toronto, tells its inspirational story, it also offers gorgeous vistas of the Australian coastline, conjuring a bit of travel FOMO – at least for this journalist.

Watts feels it, too, reflecting on her own stay-at-home experience.

“None of us have traveled,” she says. “We’re longing and we’re pining for things we’ve seen or things we want to see.

“And we’re also reflecting on the simple things, which is how important the family unit is – and that is one of the things that means more now than ever, having gone through this last six months.”

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