Considering that it’s based on Sara Gruen’s bestseller set in a Depression-era traveling circus, animals were a major part of “Water For Elephants,” and their welfare was important to director Francis Lawrence. “We focused a lot of attention on animal safety. We didn’t use primates and were very conscious about our animals. That was a priority for us,” he says, noting that when the sadistic ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) beats Rosie the elephant on screen, the pachyderm was never actually harmed. “She’s listening to her trainer, who’s running her through behaviors that make it look like she’s injured, when in fact she’s not reacting to Christoph at all.”
The story follows a young veterinary student (Robert Pattinson) who, after his parents die and he’s left destitute, hops a circus train and winds up caring for animals—and for the ringmaster’s wife (Reese Witherspoon), an animal rider in the show. Pattinson’s bond with Tai, who played Rosie, “was based purely on candy,” he reveals. “I strategically placed mints. I’d stick them onto my body, under my armpits and covering my entire chest, and not tell anyone. So the elephant would be constantly sniffing me and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, she just really likes me. It’s crazy!’ But, I think she was just sniffing around for a treat.”
Witherspoon had trepidations about working with the elephant, despite get-acquainted meetings before shooting began. “The first time I met her I was terrified,” she admits, recalling screaming when Tai picked her up. “I like animals, but this was a completely unique experience.”
Pattinson, who has “always had a bit of an affinity for that era,” found the set to be uncannily authentic. “I’ve never worked on anything so detailed. There was an embankment with a train track on the top. All the trailers were on one side, and then the circus world was on the other. Once you walked over the tracks, the camera would be the only thing from the 21st century. We were out in the desert and there was nothing else around. We were in the ‘30s. Everything used to build the world was authentic.”
“Water For Elephants” is in theaters Apr. 22.