Sailing Icon Jessica Watson on Adapting True Spirit
Feb 7, 2023
Australian Jessica Watson sailed into history as the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone and unassisted. She left Sydney Harbor in October 2009 at just 16 years old. Watson spent nearly three months at sea. Confronting raging storms, technical difficulties, and crushing loneliness that pushed the teen to her limits.
Director/writer Sarah Spillane adapts her story in True Spirit. Titans star and fellow Aussie Teagan Croft portrays Watson on the epic journey. The film flashes back to her youth as a kid pursuing a dream with fierce determination. She overcame dyslexia, training accidents, and a barrage of criticism to achieve a magnificent feat. Watson’s parents (Anna Paquin, Josh Lawson) and trainer Ben Bryant (Cliff Curtis) supported her every step of the way.
Watson had a unique reaction to seeing her most dangerous moments on the big screen. She found it “kind of funny” and was more moved by the portrayal of her family. Watson helped Spillane with details for the script, but didn’t get involved once filming started. She gave the filmmakers and cast “space to bring the story to life.” Watson continues to be a recreational sailor. She’s currently employed as a consultant with a “big four accounting firm.” Watson acknowledges that people find her profession “surprising” but enjoys her work and spending time with colleagues.
MovieWeb: You’re a global maritime star and Australian national hero, but how does it feel to have Hollywood calling? Talk about having your story told by Netflix.
Jessica Watson: It’s crazy and incredible. It’s really stunning to have it sink in these last few days. Seeing it on the big screen, and it’s real… wow.
MW: Sarah Spillane told us about the process of getting the film made. How involved were you from start to finish?
Watson: I was talking to Sarah a lot over the years as the script came together. There were a lot of different details to start with. We had to get the idea of inspiration and things like that. As it progressed, I’d get these texts from Sarah. She’d start with a random question, and then some sort of sailing technical question. There was a lot of that over two years. Then I got to spend some time sailing with Teagan [Croft]. But it was a case of once the filming started for me to sort of step away. You guys have got this! Over to you, just letting them have that space to bring it to life. It’s my story but also a lot more than that. Everyone brought something of their own to it. That was really important.
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MW: I loved the flashback scenes of you as a kid. You were so scrappy. You’re fighting dyslexia. Was that part of the narrative accurate to your real experiences?
Watson: Yeah, some things are so uncanny and unnerving. Those learning to sail scenes were filmed where I actually learned to sail (laughs). There are parts based on the story and not quite accurate. But then there are parts that just hit you. Yup, that’s exactly what it was like. Those childhood scenes are really sweet. I think they do capture what I was like, this serious little kid, who was quite scared of sailing to start, but was also pretty determined.
Alone at Sea
MW: True Spirit captures your most harrowing moments alone at sea. What was it like to see those experiences recreated?
Watson: I had this weird reaction where I find it kind of funny (laughs). Some of the drama…it’s just so strange. Having said that, the thing that really gets me is seeing the other side of it, my family. In this case, it’s not quite my family, but seeing what they went through and how intense that was. Obviously, at the time I was very wrapped up in what I was dealing with at sea. To see what they had to go through is pretty confronting.
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MW: You got a lot of blowback for being so young and attempting such a dangerous feat. What do you say to those critics now? And do you encourage other young people to pursue risky dreams?
Watson: I really understand where people are coming from. It was quite sweet that many people worried I suppose. But I think it’s about knowing the risks and being sensible and considerate. It’s not about being reckless. But at the same time, you got to live, you need to have adventures. You don’t know where dangers are going to come from. You have to push yourself. You have to challenge yourself. I think sailing is an adventure. It’s perhaps worth it.
A Great Sailor
MW: What is Jessica Watson doing in 2023? Do you have any extraordinary plans?
Watson: I absolutely love sailing, more than ever. It’s really important to me these days. But at the same time, I’ve increasingly taken it less seriously. I’ve dabbled in racing, but I’m not a great performance sailor. I love being on the water with my mates. That’s my weekends. Day to day, I actually have a very sensible desk job. I’m a management consultant with one of the big four accounting firms. I think a lot of people find that quite surprising. People are constantly saying, what’s next, what are you going to do to challenge yourself? For me, it was about putting myself out of my comfort zone in new and different ways. It’s something I really enjoy.
MW: Is there ever a day, sitting at your desk looking at spreadsheets, that you yearn to be back on the ocean? Or is the office life truly fulfilling?
Watson: Who knows what the future is going to bring? There may be other big adventures. I’ve always said I would like to sail around the world with stops next time. Go to the incredible places I sailed straight past. There’s the occasional day, sitting at my desk, when I can see the bay in the background. There’s no denying I’d kind of like to be out there. But I genuinely love what I’m doing. I love hanging out with my workmates.
True Spirit is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
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