Interview: Jessica Watson and the cast and crew of Netflix’s True Spirit

At the age of 16, Jessica Watson attempted solo global circumnavigation.  Departing in Sydney on October 18th, 2009, and returning on 15th May 2010, her incredible, untapped journey saw her cross the equator in the Pacific Ocean before crossing both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

A Young Australian of the Year Award recipient and awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, Watson is an inspirational figure whose incredible journey has been adapted in the anticipated Netflix drama, True Spirit.

Starring Tegan Croft as Jessica Watson, Josh Lawson and Anna Paquin as her parents, and Cliff Curtis as her sailing coach and mentor, Ben Bryant, the stars were out in full force at the film’s pink carpet premiere in Brisbane, only a short drive away from its Gold Coast shooting location, in honour of the film’s Netflix release.

As it sails onto the streaming service, Peter Gray spoke with Jessica, Tegan, director Sarah Spillane, and actor Todd Lasance about reliving such a moment, who is their source of inspiration, and how the feeling of isolation informed the production.

Jessica, I’d love to know what your experience was like reliving this moment in your life?  And what was one moment you found that Sarah (Spillane, director) and Teagan (Croft) really got right on screen about your journey?

Jessica Watson: It was really the essence of it. They really got why I wanted to do this. There are just these moments where you’re watching it and it feels so real, like, with how tough it all really was. But, also capturing that the world also beautiful, and that resonates with me so much.

And given that you are an inspiration to so many people, is there someone in your life that you looked to as an inspiration?

Jessica Watson: All the people who came before me and set similar records, definitely. All the amazing sailors. But I was also very inspired by my parents. Also, Sarah, the director!

Teagan Croft: Well, I would have to say I was heavily inspired by Jessica Watson (laughs).  Having grown up and seeing her complete this. Not just going through it as the youngest solo sailor, but for following that dream and having the guts (and) the self-confidence.  Taking the risk and knowing it’ll pay off!

I imagine one of the hardest things an actor can do is perform in isolation. Obviously, there is communication with other people throughout the film, but for a lot of it, you’re talking to a camera or yourself! What’s the process of getting in the headspace like for you as an actor?

Tegan Croft:  It is really hard! I had readers with me on the boat, you know, all the other actors flew away and left me (laughs). It was just me and my little boat. I guess for me, I was able to put in place the voices of my family, and really picture them saying so much of that stuff to me. I was having similar conversations with my family during COVID. I hadn’t seen them in months, and I was struggling with wanting to live my dream, too, while living in that isolation. So, it was really easy to draw from that feeling.

Sarah, it’s been over 10 years since your last feature film. How have you evolved as a filmmaker in that time, and how has filmmaking itself changed in that time for you?

Sarah Spillane: That’s a really interesting question. When I made Around The Block, it was heading to the end of the traditional cinema era. We were one of the last films to have a traditional, limited theatrical release, but also one of the first to embrace the new streaming model.

I’ve been working in TV since then, and now having the opportunity to do this film with Netflix, who have really revolutionised the industry, to create a global release that hits 190 countries at the same time, is something that never could have happened with Around The Block. I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix on this, and I hope everyone enjoys it.

How much did you integrate yourself into Jessica’s life? Did you spend much time with her family to get everything feeling accurate and authentic?

Sarah Spillane: I definitely spent a lot of time with Jessica. I split my time between LA and Sydney, so I came out a couple of times, not only to spend time with Jessica, but to travel to the Sunshine Coast and met her family and spend time with them. Then I would bounce back to LA to write the script, then came back and filmed in on the Gold Coast!

Was Netflix always the company involved in producing and distributing the film?

Sarah Spillane: Netflix is really the biggest studio in the world right now, especially in streaming. So it was a bit of surprise when Netflix came on board. We had tried the traditional models of funding, which like I was saying, the industry has changed so much and the model of theatrical pre-sales doesn’t really exist anymore.

So, it was almost by luck that I was talking to Netflix about a completely different project, and one of the executives has seen online that I was attached to True Spirit. She asked me about it. I was completely unprepared, but I pitched in the room. And there was the incredible synchronicity between the Netflix executives, myself and one of our producers, Deborah Martin Chase. I was just really excited that everyone in that room could see how special a story this was.

When you’re directing quite an isolated performance like the one Teagan gives, how do you get that feeling of isolation across on screen? What was it like working with Teagan to get that performance out of her?

Sarah Spillane: Funnily enough, when I wrote the draft of the script that Netflix ended up acquiring, I wanted to experience a similar type of that isolation. I didn’t trust myself captaining a boat! So, instead I rented this shack in the Californian desert, and I spent weeks alone. I didn’t see a soul, just rattle snakes! And that’s how I wrote that draft. I really felt like experiencing that loneliness. That isolation really allowed me to dig deep into some themes about family and nature.

Todd, your character, Craig Atherton, is a compilation of sorts.  Did you base him on anyone in particular?

Todd Lasance:  I’m playing the antithesis representation of the ‘media’ itself. He represents the public opinion, the media opinion. There was a lot of backlash, a lot of pushback and resistance to Jessica going on this journey. I represent the opinion of: “This is a dangerous thing to do! She could die!” Question the family, all that stuff.

We’ve seen in the last couple of years that film production itself is moving more and more into Queensland, whereas in the past, the hubs for this sort of filmmaking have been Melbourne and Sydney. Is it exciting for you as an actor that there is this wonderful filmmaking hub being created right here on our doorstep?

Todd Lasance: I have a double excitement for it! I’ve just moved to the Gold Coast with my family and I’ve managed to do three or four projects, back to back, on the Gold Coast. No matter where you travel around the world, you’re always sort of up-rooted in this job. You’re always leaving family, leaving friends. It’s literally the only negative!

So, to work in a city where you live…it’s like the unicorn! You never get to experience that! The fact that more projects are coming here… honestly, low key, I’d be happy to shoot here for the rest of my life! And then go overseas for a holiday!

Jessica Watson is an inspiration to so many people! But, who is your inspiration, whether it’s acting, or life in general?

Todd Lasance: Acting has always been DiCaprio and Matt Damon in that Good Will Hunting era. They were inspirations for me career wise. But, it’s difficult because you want to forge your own path, and I feel like I’ve had such diverse roles, so I’m lucky!

As far as Jessica is concerned, one of the things I’m so happy about is that so many people around that world will see her story on Netflix. We all know what Jessica did – circumnavigated the world at 16, solo. Incredible! But we have no idea what she actually endured. To see the elements she went through and what she endured psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually – it blew my mind! I get goosebumps just thinking about it! So the fact that everyone gets to experience that kind of story or resilience, on a global scale, I’m excited for it!

True Spirit is now streaming on Netflix.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.