During the Great Depression, a veterinary student from the wrong side of the tracks, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), meets and falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a star performer in the Benzini Bros. Circus. They discover beauty amidst the world of the Big Top, and come together through their compassion for a special elephant. Against all odds – including the wrath of Marlena’s charismatic but dangerous husband August (Christoph Waltz) – Jacob saves Marlena from an unhappy life and they find lifelong love.
MoviesOnline sat down with Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz and director Francis Lawrence to talk about their new film. They told us why Sara Gruen’s bestselling book made such a powerful impression on them, what it was like having an elephant named Tai as their co-star, and how they set about recreating a bygone era set in the 1930’s.
Q: Reese and Rob, you both have read the book and enjoyed it. What was the most powerful impression it made upon you?
Reese: I liked the structure of the book. I liked how it was bookended – and all through the book — with this man’s remembrance of his life and life experiences. That’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, too – Hal Holbrooke’s part of the movie where he’s reminiscing. I thought that was great.
Rob: I always had a bit of an affinity for that era and wanted to do a movie around that time. I think it was very solid how she created that world and I just wanted to be a part of it.
Q: For each of you, what was it like working with an elephant? It’s not everyday actors work with such huge animals.
Reese: Francis and I went out and visited Tai probably three or four months before shooting and he brought a camera. I was like I wonder why he’s bringing a camera? And then he took pictures of me, of every moment of the first experiences I had of meeting her, and then her picking me up. (to Rob) Did he do that to you too? And then he sent me the pictures and I was like oh my gosh! So I really had this memory of the first time. I was terrified.
Rob: You were?
Reese: Oh the first time I was terrified. I screamed.
Rob: That’s so strange.
Q: But you’re an animal person?
Reese: I like animals but this was a completely unique experience.
Rob: I don’t think I was scared at all. There was only one moment when we first saw the whole pack of elephants, the herd together, and Gary, Tai’s trainer, said “Sit!” literally as if you were talking to a dog and it sat down in exactly the same way a dog would. Just seeing that, I mean, it’s totally incomprehensible when you see it. I basically decided to do the movie at that point. I hadn’t read the script or anything. It’s very powerful thinking that you can have a relationship with these huge beasts.
Q: Christoph, your character’s relationship with the elephant is not a good one in the movie. What was it like for you when you met the elephant?
Christoph: This animal has one relationship with a human being, only one, and that’s her trainer, and the rest of us are just there. I didn’t work with an elephant. I worked next to an elephant. And considering that she could step on your toes, it’s a good idea to keep a certain distance. It’s also a good idea to befriend the trainer. Now, in this case, it just happens to be that this trainer is one of the most extraordinary people you could meet. So I did what he said. I did. I thought it was a good idea to do exactly what he tells me to do and refrain from any further endeavors.
Q: Rob, we heard there was an on set romance and that Rosie took a liking to you. How did that work?
Rob: This is insane. I don’t know who started this thing. I’ve been asked about it all day. It sounds really disturbing. It’s like you’ve been flirting with the elephant. You’re always saying no one else had a relationship with the elephant. I think I had a relationship with the elephant and it was based purely on candy. I strategically placed mints – like I’d suck a peppermint for a minute and then stick it onto my body, under my armpits, covering my entire chest all the time and not tell anyone. So every single time the elephant would be constantly sniffing me and I’d be like “I don’t know, she just really likes me. It’s crazy.” I think she was just sniffing around for the treats.
Q: In the movie, your character lies about being a vet to get a job in the circus. In real life, have you ever lied in the casting audition to get an acting job?
Rob: Oh, yeah, all the time. I don’t know if there’s the same thing in America, but there’s a thing called the Spotlight Form in England, where you have all these things – like your talents and accents and everything. You just tick these boxes saying what you’re capable of as an actor.
Francis: Your special abilities.
Rob: Yes, your special abilities. I just tick everything. I can do any accent in the world. I can do literally any technical skill. I can do it. I think it’s still like that. I can do Lithuanian accents fluently.
Q: What about you, Reese? Have you ever lied at an audition?
Reese: Lie?! Of course you lie. I mean, that’s the whole point. They want you to lie. They want you to tell them that they can trust you and you’re going to take some of the responsibility away. They like that. That’s what they like.
Q: What’s it like to kiss when one of you is so tall and the other is much shorter?
Reese: What’s it like to kiss a tall guy? I don’t know. In the movies, they put you on a box and then you can kiss the taller guy.
Rob: It’s really easy for me. I’ve got quite bad posture and she’s the perfect height. I’ve got a big, heavy head so I just slump down and she’s in the right spot naturally.
Q: What was it like shoveling animal poop?
Rob: Working with poop? I don’t mind that at all. I have a natural propensity to work on big piles of poop. (laughs) I’m very familiar with it. I don’t know why I wasn’t grossed out by it at all. It’s something about the environment and everything felt so authentic all the time that you just accept it as part of the world. There was that scene when we were in the train car and there were ten million flies. On any other movie, I think I’d go “Ohhh! One take!” On this, I was perfectly happy to make a little mound. I sat down and ate my lunch.
Q: Francis and Christoph, with the character of August not only as part of a love triangle but also as a combination of two characters in the book, what did you do to make sure that August wasn’t too one-dimension as a villain?
Francis: For me, and I think working with Richard LaGravenese, the writer, the big thing was giving a logic to August. In a strange way, he shares a lot of similarities with the other characters in the story in that he experienced a lot of loss. He’s built a life for himself. He’s built a family for himself and built a business and he’s protecting that business and protecting that family in the way he knows how to do best. And so, you have a guy who’s doing what he thinks is the very best thing for his family at all times. The most important thing is Christoph and I never judged him as an evil person in any way and we let the audience judge the character and judge the moral decisions that that character makes.
Christoph: He said it all. (indicating the film’s poster on display next to him) You’ve got a cardboard here with a printed picture on it. You turn it around and see what’s on the other side. It’s kind of straightforward. It’s as flat as you choose it to be. And if you’re not satisfied with the flatness, well what are you going to do? You’re looking for the third dimension and that’s exactly what Francis was just referring to.
Q: For the actors, what was it like working with Francis as a director and what did he bring to the film? Were there any unusual moments on set?
Reese: I was very excited to work with Francis. I was a big fan of I Am Legend. I just thought he brought a lot of humanity to that set. We had a lot of conversations about research that he had done. It was very extensive. Also, I think it’s a big undertaking taking a very popular novel and having to tell a story with scenes that have no words. I mean, film is a very visual medium. I think he did an incredible job with that. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are ones where we don’t speak at all. We just sort of see each other from a distance and I think he told the story beautifully in that capacity and really chose those moments well.
Q: Francis, how was it directing animals?
Francis: In terms of working with animals, I’d done a lot of work with animals before and a lot of work with a dog in I Am Legend, so I learned a lot from that. I went in and started doing a lot of research based on whatever animal I had a lot of work with. I spent a lot of time with Gary, our elephant trainer, figuring out what an elephant can and can’t do, figuring out what kind of behavior the elephant is capable of, and then together Gary and I would figure out what behavior we would have her do that would help sell the emotional value in a scene or sequence. And so, if you take a scene where August is beating Rosie, what you have is Christophe is in his own performance next to her and she’s just listening to the trainer. The trainer is running her through a series and a sequence of behaviors that in the context of the scene feels as if she’s being injured when in truth she’s not even reacting to Christoph at all. She almost doesn’t even know that Christoph is there. He’s got a stick with a little ball on the end of it. She’s just listening to Gary say “Bow your head, open your mouth, do this, step to the side, duck down.” We focused a lot of attention on animal safety. We didn’t use primates. We were very conscious about our animals. That was the priority for us.
Q: Rob, you mentioned earlier about loving the era and the recreation of it was seamless. How do you become a person from another time? Is it the wardrobe, the underwear? What is it that makes it work for you?
Rob: There was a kind of comprehensive creation of the world. There was an embankment with the train track on the top and all the trailers were on one side and then there was the circus world on the other. Once you walked over the tracks, there’d be a camera and pretty much that was the only thing from the 21st century. Literally, you could stand on the tracks and look over everything and you’re in the 30s. You’re out in the middle of the desert in Fillmore and there’s nothing else around. There’s an orchard but you’re in the 30s. And Jack Fisk, the production designer, was using authentic pegs and stuff, like every single thing, the ropes, everything, which built the world that was all totally real. Authentic period underpants do actually help as well. I actually wore them every single day. Jacqueline West’s costumes were unbelievable. Almost everything was real. Every pair of jeans everyone had, those were all from the 20s and 30s. It’s crazy.
Q: Do details like that carry over into creating your character and how you move because of what you’re wearing?
Reese: Yes, certainly. I debated about whether or not I was going to wear a wig too, but ultimately after lots of discussion and screentesting and that kind of thing, we decided I was just going to cut my hair. I’m just going to dye it white. I’m just going to do it. It was really transforming for me because I didn’t even recognize myself. That’s a real gift as an actress to have people around you, artisans who are the best at what they do, creating period costumes for you and set design. It’s a very collaborative medium and you’re only as good as the people that you collaborate with. We were very lucky to have the best people in the business designing the film.
Q: Reese, the costumes were spectacular. Did you do anything in particular to physically prepare for the role?
Reese: Well I was training a lot – circus training – riding the elephant and riding horses. I was pretty busy. I’ve made a conscious effort all my career to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie and here I was in this movie wearing a leotard in the majority of it. It was horrifying. But it was inspiring to have Jacqueline West designing them and they’re beautiful. It was a different time when women loved their curves and enjoyed being voluptuous and all that sort of thing. All the costumes I think are very flattering for women in the film.
Q: There’s something special around that era. They didn’t have a lot of the things we have now. If you could go back, what would you really love about it or be glad to have that you don’t have anymore?
Francis: For me, what I liked about that time and why I think the circus was so big at that time was because people didn’t know nearly as much as we know now and they didn’t have access to everything and so there was still some surprise and magic and something exotic and beyond the borders that we’re all used to. And now, we’ve all seen the bottom of the ocean, we’ve seen the moon, we’ve seen outer space and every animal on the planet and we offer 500 channels on the internet. I think when the circus rolled into town in that time, it really brought magic and I do yearn for a little bit of that.
Reese: Sure, it’s the unknown.
Rob: It’s the wildness to it as well. I think that’s why I liked that period, because after that, then it’s white picket fences and it gets progressively more boring. It was the end of the Wild West. It’s why kids still want to be cowboys even in England.
Q: How was it shooting on location in Tennessee?
Reese: Ironically, the only part of the film that I’m not in is the part that they filmed in Tennessee. So I wasn’t there. (to the others) How did you all enjoy Tennessee?
Francis: It was about 118 degrees.
Reese: Love it! Love it! Not for a bunch of wimps.
Francis: We were covered in sweat and getting bitten by mosquitoes and hurt by poison ivy. It was really beautiful. I was glad we shot there. But boy, it was a tough couple of days.
Rob: There was an amazing moonshine day as well — one of the best days on the shoot. Drinking moonshine in 120 degrees, half of the crew was passed out after one sip. It was amazing!
Q: Do any of you have memories as a kid of going to the circus and can you remember what that feeling was like? Also, do you see a connection between the big show and mystery of the circus to what you do now as actors?
Francis: My memories of the circus are nothing like this movie. I wish that the circuses that are around now felt like they did then. They’re not quite as elegant or as magical as they used to be. I think there’s something about the old tent shows and big tops and the canvas and the lights and the sawdust and hay and the animals that’s just missing now. Now it’s all sort of urbanized and maybe a little garish. It’s not quite the same for me. The movie business and film crews are a little bit like the circus in that we travel around like a pack and we’re a big family for a finite period of time. We sort of roll into some place and cause a bunch of damage and roll out. There are some similarities.
Q: Rob, when you first see Marlena, it’s almost as if you’re mesmerized by her. Was there anything about Jacob Jankowski’s journey in the film that you could relate to personally in terms of your own journey or experiences in real life?
Rob: I don’t know. I guess I had an experience when I did a Harry Potter film years ago, and it was just when I was starting to realize that I wanted to be an actor, even though I had already finished three movies by that point. I remember being in Tokyo and looking out the window and seeing the Tokyo skyline. I just realized because it made me reflect on what had happened in my life. I was in awe of what road I had taken by accident. In terms of looking at girls and suddenly being mesmerized by them, I guess that happens.
Reese: You can say me. It’s okay. Don’t be embarrassed. I’m sitting right here.
Rob: I was actually supposed to not be mesmerized in this film but it just happened.
Reese: I was giving it out.
Q: Christoph, along with the emotional extremes that you get to portray as August, you also have those big, over the top Ringmaster scenes. Were those particularly freeing because you could be as big as you wanted to be?
Christoph: I don’t usually want to be that big. I want to be small and precise. It’s a big effort for me to do that. But it’s a Ringmaster’s work to do that. So there I find my field of interest. What is a Ringmaster’s work? And that I could do. I went back to Francis and said “What do we need? What is it that you need for the movie?” Then I went back into the ring and tried to do that. I’m not really trying to be a Ringmaster. I’m trying to be an actor.
“Water for Elephants” opens in theaters on April 22nd.