You’ve worked with such a vast array of species. Are any species particularly challenging?
The principles of training and building a relationship are the same for all [species]. Finding the motivation, finding the desires of that particular individual within a species, is probably the most challenging part, but also the most fun. When you get out of your own head and can just be there with them and their needs—amazing things can happen.
So for instance, I’m working with an alpaca and in one of the scenes, the actor is supposed to come up and pet the alpaca. It’s very different for an alpaca than it is, say, for a golden retriever. You don’t need to spend a lot of time with a golden retriever, they’re gonna love being petted by the actor.
With the alpaca, they’re like, ‘I really can’t wait until this person leaves.’ But the alpaca is also like, ‘What I really care about is that bucket of apples that you have.’ So going through all of the questions — do you like to be with other alpaca, yes or no? Do you like apples, yes or no? Do you like this feed? Do you like me standing next to you? And I go through all those checklists in an organic and friendly way, and take my time.
So you build this toolbox of things that work well for this particular alpaca and you are always willing to adjust as they adjust. Now I have three alpacas. I have one that loves to be petted. She didn’t know she loved to be petted when we started, and now she’s like, ‘Oh, you can pet me even without apples, I like to be petted.’
We did a movie called The Witch, and it has a goat that is... very prominent in a lot of scenes. During the press tour, some stories came out about the goat being a bit too aggressive on set. I think he sent the lead actor [Ralph Ineson] to the hospital three times.
Wow, well if I were in that situation, I would have a second goat that liked the actor. And if that other goat had a particular behavior that was needed, I’d use him but isolate it in its own scene. But yeah, some of those stories come up every once in a while. My guess is the goat was having a good time. I don’t know about the actor.
Do you find sometimes there’s an animal that has really good chemistry with an actor? Or really bad chemistry?
Oh yeah, I’ve been on sets where the actor felt upstaged by the animal and was resentful, so on ‘action’ they disconnected. It’s like the animal is trying to have a rapport with this person and receive the information they need in order to do their stuff in the scene, and that person just disconnects.
One of my favorite actors to work with was Morgan Freeman. It was a big, long emotional scene with a dog, where they allowed this kind of improv to happen. Morgan was so able to adjust to what the dog was doing, and envelop her in that scene and just make it about the two of them. He just handled the situation so elegantly and beautifully, and the dog was like, ‘I’m with you, you’re my forever person.’ It was one of those defining moments in my career where I sat back and was like, ‘Wow, I’m in the presence of greatness here.’