Setting a moving love story during the Great Depression might prove quite a challenge, especially considering it unfolds in this whole mysterious world of a traveling circus, no less. But director Francis Lawrence turns Sara Gruen’s acclaimed novel into a sweeping, cinematic drama for the silver screen, and one that promises to take its audience into a world beyond the thrill of the circus and into the life under the Big Top.
“Water for Elephants” follows the story of Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame), whose world changes dramatically after his parents die in a car accident. Boarding a train out of town, he soon realizes he inadvertently joins a circus train where he meets equestrian star, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
The love that develops between Jacob and the married Marlena is compelling, and Lawrence is grateful that his main cast has truly been up to the task. In casting Witherspoon in the role of Marlena, Lawrence says, “Reese was the first person I cast in the film and she was a great creative partner in the early days when we were putting this project together.”
But Witherspoon holds an allure that Lawrence describes as “a timeless beauty.” As Marlena, Witherspoon also has to work with a graceful elephant and Lawrence thankfully notes, “She loves animals and has no fear of trying anything. [But] also, Marlena is a bit tough and hardened. She isn’t a victim and Reese… she is very strong.”
Opposite Witherspoon, Lawrence cast Pattinson, a decision he’s made after sitting with him for just a couple of hours. “I thought he was naturally perfect for Jacob Jankowski. It was tough to try and find a young man of 23 or 24 who didn’t feel like a boy—and Rob was already becoming a man. He is thoughtful, intelligent, emphatic, strong and confident while still being a bit uncomfortable in his own skin.”
In order to play the two roles well, both actors had to understand the nature of the relationship between Jacob and Marlena. “There is a nice slow burn to their growing passion,” Lawrence notes. “I think Jacob falls instantly for Marlena… but she is guarded, and doesn’t trust many people. Through his actions in the movie, Jacob starts to break through that wall and she discovers that he is unusual and quite exceptional in this world of the circus. I think she falls for his morality.”
So the bond that forms between Jacob and Marlena is the core of the movie, and it is crucial that his two leads are believable in this world. Lawrence admits, “Chemisty is always something that one worries about, but the worries went away in rehearsal. I saw it immediately.”
And more than the chemistry with each other, Witherspoon and Pattinson also had to worry about acting with the circus animals. Lawrence reveals, “We worked with quite a lot of animals and our actors were going to be around them a lot, so I thought that it would be a good idea for them to spend a lot of training time with them and getting comfortable with them.”
Witherspoon, in fact, had to have the most training, because “she had to perform with the animals as well. She needed to rehearse the horse act and the elephant acts. It was a lot of work for her but she really worked hard and it paid off."
On the whole, when asked to name his favorite scene in the movie, Lawrence says he has a lot. But aside from Jacob’s scene alone in the forest when the train arrives, the director notes, “I love the scene when the circus is setting up for the first time and I love the dinner sequence where Jacob and Marlena dance for the first time.”
And it is these interactions between his leads and the reactions people get from watching scenes like this that Lawrence hopes would resonate with viewers. “One of the reasons I wanted to make this movie was that it has hope, magic and beauty. I really hope people respond to that,” Lawrence says.
"Water for Elephants" opens locally in May.