Hollywood's A-List Animal Actors: The Perks and Downfalls

Austin Hargrave
Gary Johnson with Tai (Asian elephant)

UPDATED: "The Hangover's" monkey, "Seabiscuit's" horse and the industry's hottest elephant have celebrity co-stars like Bill Murray, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson -- but there's always a younger stablemate in the wings.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Only one segment of Hollywood’s acting A-list can get away with defecating in full view of cast and crew while still receiving warm applause at the end of its scenes. That would be, of course, the animal stars of film and TV productions who not only never need to audition but, at least for now, claim most of their species’ slots for themselves when it comes to key roles.

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Tai the Asian elephant (Operation Dumbo Drop, Water for Elephants), Crystal the capuchin monkey (The Hangover Part II, Animal Practice) and Finders Key the thoroughbred gelding horse (Seabiscuit, War Horse) are the most in-demand animal actors in town. And like their human analogs, it can be a tenuous stratum, at once charmed and perilous. A unique solace includes the blissful absence of that keenest anxiety for A-listers: that one day you’ll be sent out to pasture for the next big thing. Yet threats of a younger stablemate, er, understudy, always waiting in the wings are only tenuated by the fact that the wait can be long: Squirt, a capuchin, spent 16 years patiently in Crystal’s shadow before flying solo on a 2011 episode of The Big Bang Theory when Crystal was booked elsewhere.

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Of course, behind every great animal actor is its trainer. They live and prep together, often for decades. Gary Johnson has had 45-year-old Tai since 1981. “He got Tai a little before I got him,” says his wife, Kari, Johnson’s business partner in Have Trunk Will Travel, based in rural Riverside County, Calif. As to how much a pachyderm’s paycheck is, Kari jokes, “Tai doesn’t work for peanuts, she prefers watermelon. But each film is radically different based on many factors.” (The other trainers were similarly close-lipped about financials.)

Crystal, who appears Aug. 4 on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, has slept in Tom Gunderson’s Antelope Valley bed with his spouse, Stacy, since Crystal was a baby. (“She’s a lounge monkey. She loves to get comfortable.”) Bobby Lovgren keeps Finder, as he’s known, out back of his property in the high desert hamlet of Acton. “Out here, he’s just a horse,” he says. “Not a famous horse.”

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The trainers work to create a dialogue among their animals, the human actors playing opposite them and the directors. “But if [something] isn’t working, we can’t fix it,” says Gunderson. “At the end of the day, it’s the animals’ own intelligence. They make their own decisions.”

Still, chemistry with Homo sapien stars is key; many commune before production begins. Prior to Larger Than Life, Bill Murray asked to spend some time lying on top of Tai. “We’re thinking, ‘God, what the heck?’ ” recalls Johnson. “During the last day of shooting, [Murray] says, ‘Don’t leave until I say goodbye.’ He teared up.” Christoph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson hung out with Tai before Water for Elephants (Pattinson ended up airborne, his torso held by Tai’s trunk). Meanwhile, Crystal receives postwrap visits from such castmates as Patrick Fugit, who acted alongside the capuchin on We Bought a Zoo, and Ken Jeong, who monkeyed around with her on Community and Hangover Part II. “I would like to think those guys came out to see me too, but I have to be honest with myself,” says Gunderson.

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Of course, top animals aren’t only acting with humans; they’re acting with other animals, too. Menagerie movies such as Babe and Evan Almighty are the most challenging, requiring interspecies commingling. “I worked on Racing Stripes, and it was unbelievably fun,” says Lovgren. “But have you ever tried to maneuver a rooster up close to a zebra — and to remain there? He doesn’t want to get stepped on.”

Menagerie movie vet Frank Coraci, director of Zookeeper and the upcoming Blended with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, thinks that it’s best to do CGI if the situation could be dangerous — e.g., the tiger on a small boat in Life of Pi — or when authenticity can’t easily be questioned. “It’s hard to make a CGI dog since you see that animal all the time,” he says. “But most people don’t sit and watch every motion of a lion or an ostrich.”

Lovgren notes that A-list animals endearingly have no idea they’re famous. But there are flashes of recognition. On a recent press tour for The Lone Ranger, he found his charge Silver — his real name (“It’s not such a coincidence; basically every white horse is either named Silver or Cloud,” he says) — admiring himself when a promo ran on an adjacent big-screen TV. “I couldn’t pull his head away,” he says. “He was just mesmerized by himself!”