Can Animals Act? Lead Hollywood Pet Trainer Unleashes the Truth

When working on Hollywood movies, animal trainer Dawn Barkan claims the real challenge is dealing with the human stars.

NEW YORK – “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in,” a pokerfaced Joel Coen told reporters at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

He was explaining why one of the major characters in the new Coen brothers’ movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a ginger cat whose name – which bears metaphorical and narrative significance – is not revealed until near the end. Use of the cat made it possible for the Coens to add a skeletal plot to their new effort, which will be released in Israel next Thursday. It may be a rather scrawny, abstract skeleton, but still, the relationship between the protagonist – a failed, frustrated musician named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) – and the pet that accompanies him on his journey is the main axis of the film.

The decision to add a cat to Davis’ ramblings across 1960s America may have solved various narrative problems for the Coen brothers, but it created quite a headache for the Hollywood animal trainer Dawn Barkan. Considered the premier animal trainer in Hollywood (one of her achievements was to teach the cat featured in “Meet the Parents” how to use the toilet like a human being), Barkan was hired by the Coens to teach three different cats (all of which play the same feline role in the movie) how to ride the New York subway at rush hour, flee apartments via the fire escape, and bundle up with actor Isaac when he’s running through Greenwich Village or squeezed into a rented car with other musicians.

“When I first read the script for ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ much of the action for the cat concerned me,” Barkan told me via email. “Cats are very sensitive when it comes to their surroundings, and much of the environment they had to be in was negative, from the cats’ point of view. Cats do not like to be chased or grabbed, or be submersed in noisy surroundings – all of which they had to endure. My partner Jim Warren and I spent hours replicating the scenes as best we could, to desensitize the cats and make them comfortable with the behaviors being asked of them.

“The scene which proved to be the most challenging was when the actor had to carry the cat in a subway station. The cat was keyed into the vibrations of the trains and was not too pleased with the whole situation. However, with time and patience we got the shot.”

Barkan is one of the busiest animal trainers in the American entertainment industry. She has worked with dogs, cats, horses and other animals in such films as “Ace Ventura,” “Julie & Julia,” “Ted” and “Men in Black II,” as well as in television series including “The Sopranos,” “The Good Wife” and “Law and Order.” Currently she is training animals for the series “Blue Bloods” and “The Blacklist,” and for a new film by Peter Bogdanovich, titled “Squirrels to the Nuts,” due for release next year.

In addition, she has to her name a surprising credit as “rat trainer” in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” slated to be released in the United States in August. Yet, even though quite a few recent successful films – including Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and the silent film “The Artist” – have made large-scale use of animals, the trainers, who work on and off the set for months, generally remain behind the scenes.

Asked how she chose such an unusual career, Barkan says it happened almost by chance.

“While studying behavior at the University of Illinois, I began volunteering at the local zoo in Chicago, where I am from,” she relates. “I loved working with animals and moved to Florida to train marine mammals. There I met Gary Gero, the owner of Birds and Animals Unlimited [which supplies animals and trainers to the entertainment industry], when he was working at Universal Studios in Orlando. It was while working with his company that I learned how to train animals for film. So basically, I fell into my career. I worked for B&A for 18 years.

Does casting animals for a film resemble casting actors? Are there auditions?

“Normally we will get a call asking for a certain type of animal that’s needed to do certain behaviors. What happens next can go one of two ways. First we can suggest animals that we already have that are well on their way and will only need X amount of training. Or, if the director wants something very specific, we will go out and find the animals and train them from scratch.”

Barkan makes it sound simple, but working with animals in films is exhausting and complicated. To begin with, she says, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to find a single cat or dog that will be able to do all the scenes. The solution is to cast three, four, even six animals to play one role.

“We always cast a team of cats when doing a film,” she says. “If it’s a big part for a dog, we do the same. Some animals are better at certain types of behavior than others, so we go with the animal that’s best at what’s needed. It’s not hard to find animals that make good doubles for one another. Litter mates work best. Although there are subtle differences, the audience really can’t tell.”

One hero, three felines

The furry hero of “Inside Llewyn Davis” was played by three different ginger tabbies (two others were “fired” during the intensive six-week training stage). Tiger is in most of the scenes in which Isaac has to carry the cat, Jerry turned out to be extremely effective in action scenes requiring stair climbing or other quick moves, and Daryl, the lazybones of the group, displayed total indifference to noise and other distractions, and was therefore employed in car and subway scenes.

As Barkan says, even though there are three different cats, it’s very unlikely that viewers will spot the differences. As the film follows Llewyn Davis’ touching attempt to find his place in the thriving 1960s’ Village folk-music scene, his bond with the lean, friendly cat becomes the emotional linchpin of many scenes. In a cynical, alienated world that measures music in terms of profit and loss, the cat is the perfect embodiment of love, gentleness and innocence. In contrast to the exploitative producers Davis meets, the ginger feline wants only a hug (and maybe a little food).

The Coen brothers’ revelation that they brought the cat into the script at the last minute is perfectly plausible. Hollywood has a long tradition of using animals to characterize humans and to create immediate identification between viewers and a protagonist.

An article published last month in The Guardian about animals in films noted that the fondness of directors and screenwriters for scenes in which the hero saves a street cat or pats a dog dates back to the early days of Hollywood. Illustrating the point, the article says, “In his book ‘Making Movies,’ Sydney Lumet recalls screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky moaning in the 1970s how ‘the studio always wants a “pet the dog” scene so they can tell who the hero is.’”

It’s an old trick that always works. Marlon Brando pats a cat in the opening scene of “The Godfather,” Sigourney Weaver risks her life to save the spaceship’s ginger cat in “Alien,” Clint Eastwood plays with a kitten in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and Jeff Bridges saves a wretched mule from being abused by two boys in the Coen brothers’ 2010 film “True Grit.”

Moreover, in one of the most striking cinematic sequences of recent years, the smart and loyal dog Uggie tries to save the life of the brokenhearted artist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning 2011 film “The Artist.” In 2012, a stormy virtual debate broke out when tens of thousands of surfers signed a petition demanding that Uggie be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Hazanavicius admitted that many people had told him they liked the George Valentin character because of his dog. As he told the Huffington Post website, “The character of George Valentin is not very sympathetic; he’s very egocentric, selfish, and he’s very proud … But the fact that he has a dog who loves him and follows him all over the movie, in a way it saves him because you trust the dog. You think that the dog knows, that he has instincts, so if the dog loves him, somewhere he’s a good person.” “The Artist,” the filmmaker said elsewhere, would “never have been the same movie without the dog.” He described the ecstatic Internet response to Uggie as “funny and crazy.”

Nevertheless, despite the petition, a Facebook page with tens of thousands of friends, appearances at the Golden Globe ceremony and at glittering premieres – Uggie was unable to bring about a revision of the 1930s’ regulations of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which rule out animals as candidates for an Oscar. That decision was made in the wake of a demand to nominate the German shepherd dog Rin Tin Tin (1918-1932), who starred in 23 films.

In response to the Academy’s hard-heartedness, alternative competitions for canine actors have sprung up in recent years, such as the Palm Dog Award at the annual Cannes Festival and the Golden Collar, which is awarded annually in Los Angeles.

Asked whether animals are capable of “acting” or of learning how to fake emotions, Barkan says, “Animals do not convey emotions in the same way that humans do, although they most definitely have feelings. You need to have an animal or animals that lend themselves to training, but it’s the trainer that trains the behaviors and works the animal on set to tell the story.”

Should animals be nominated for acting prizes?

“I do believe that trainers should be considered for an award for our work. It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. We work with or take care of our animals seven days a week for their whole life. We put our soul into our work and many times it’s thankless.”

What is the most significant challenge in your work?

“The challenge is in working with people, not with animals. I love the animals!! I have worked with so many wonderful animals that I never would have dreamed I’d ever even get near, like great apes and whales. It’s been a wild ride. What I find frustrating is that people expect more from animal actors then they do from human ones. If an actor forgets a line it’s cool, but if a dog misses a behavior many people act like it’s the world’s biggest hassle. I wish at times we would get a little more respect for what we do.”

Dreamstime
AP