New 'Water for Elephants' Article in New York Post


There’s a ton of buzz about Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson’s chemistry in their new film, “Water for Elephants,” out Friday.

But if you’re under the impression this is “The Notebook” under the Big Top, think again: For both actors, the sizzle is between them and Tai
the elephant.

“You know how there are just some people that people
are attracted to? She’s like that with people and other elephants,”
says Kari Johnson, co-trainer of Tai, the pachyderm who plays the
movie’s eponymous star. And she had some big shoes to fill, even for an
elephant: Rosie, the character in Sara Gruen’s Depression-era novel upon
which the movie is based, is a scene-stealer with a nose for mischief
who likes to swipe hats, drain lemonade tanks and indulge in the
occasional bucket of gin and ginger ale.

In Pattinson’s first scene with the elephant in the film, she gropes
and nuzzles the “Twilight” star with her trunk. “Is this the way
elephants flirt?” Pattinson asks Tai, as Witherspoon giggles in the

Pattinson’s character, Jacob Jankowski, becomes a
circus vet after his parents’ death leaves him penniless. As the
protector of the scrappy Benzini Bros. menagerie of performing animals,
many of his scenes take place with the elephant rather than the rest of
the cast.

And for an actor who’s been dogged nonstop by hordes of
screaming girls and women since he got famous in 2008, Pattinson seems
to have found it a tremendous relief to spend three months in the
company of this giant, silent, nonhuman co-star.

Before he ever signed on to the project, the movie’s director, Francis Lawrence, says
he learned of Pattison’s interest in elephants. “I asked him to come see
the animals,” says Lawrence, “because it might help seal the deal. So
Rob and I drove down to [trainer] Gary [Johnson]’s place and hung out
with [them] for a while.”

Pattinson was instantly enchanted, says Lawrence. “I think everybody is kind of in awe and wonder when you meet
an elephant for the first time,” he says. “Most of the time we see them
only in zoos, or on TV, so to be able to touch and interact with them is
a pretty great experience — especially for somebody who really likes
animals, which Rob clearly did.”

Though Witherspoon is the one who does the on-camera stunts, Pattinson learned a few of his own just for
kicks. “He got picked up by her trunk and rode around on her. And she
picked him up with her mouth. It’s a circus trick — you lay on a drum on
your side, and Gary gives the cue, and she opens her mouth and kind of
bites down across your hips. Because the molars are way in the back,
they sort of gum you. And she lifts you up and you’re hanging from her

On the final day of Tai’s two months of shooting, “I cried,” Pattinson admitted in a recent Vanity Fair interview.
She was the best actor I ever worked with in my life.” (He has not
said the same of Witherspoon, who previously played his mother in the
2004 movie “Vanity Fair.”)

So who is this tearjerking elephant?

Tai, middle-aged at 42, grew up at a wild animal park in Florida until she
was 8, when she was purchased by the Johnsons. The couple runs a
business called Have Trunk Will Travel. Along with five fellow
elephants, Tai lives on a ranch in Perris, Calif. (outside LA) where she
eats 150 pounds of oat hay, and drinks 50 gallons of water, a day.

She’s appeared in countless films (“Operation Dumbo Drop,” “George of
the Jungle”), music videos, TV shows and live performances. In one of
her earlier movies, a famous co-star got misty as well: “We did a film
with Bill Murray called ‘Larger Than Life,’ and on the last day he actually teared up, too,” Gary says.

She’s a charmer, says Kari. “They have all have really different
personalities, and Tai is the sweet one who loves everybody, and
everybody loves her.

“She likes to take naps, and the other elephants come and moon over her and lay their trunks on her while she’s sleeping.”

When she’s on set, Tai lives like any other pampered star, in her own
private trailer — a custom-made, 48-foot-long one, in her case. The
8-foot-8, 9,000-pound performer gets baths every day, and pedicures once
a month (filing and trimming elephant toenails is no small task). Her
typical show rider might include carrots, apples, jellybeans and
coconuts, which she just discovered and immediately figured out, on her
own, that she could smash under her foot to get at the meat.

There’s no mistaking it — she’s a smart cookie, says Gary, like the rest of her
species. “They are very intelligent animals,” he says, “and that really
comes through.” (In a recent study published in Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, elephants even beat humans in a series of
problem-solving exercises.)

Like any showbiz professional, she knows how to conduct herself on set. “She’s big, so she’s conscious of
where to step,” says Kari. “She knows to step over the electrical cords
and not bump into cameras. She’s really cognizant of that.”

Cast for her immense size, her freckled look and her aptitude for picking up
new tricks, the seasoned showbiz vet came to the set already familiar
with all the standard circus stunts. “But she had to learn how to swing a
stake, and then put it back in the ground,” says Kari. “And she had to
try to take a champagne bottle when Rob and Reese were trying to pour it
— she was supposed to be fiddling with it.”

Witherspoon spent a month catching up to Tai’s skill level before shooting began, to learn
the acrobatic stunts she’d perform in the ring. “She had to learn to do
the mounts, that’s what they’re called, on Tai, and she was just
amazing,” says Kari of Witherspoon. “She jumped right in there from the
first day.”

It’s clear Witherspoon developed a real bond with the
elephant. “I think she got very comfortable around Tai,” Gary says,
adding that her performance in the film is a real reflection of her
friendship with Tai. “A lot of that was genuine.”

Her trainers maintain that Tai’s an old hat in the biz — they have been working with
her for more than three decades now, and she knows the drill. And so,
they say, one person looks just like the next to her. “Gary told us all
very early on that she wouldn’t be affectionate with any of us, and that
we were kind of props,” says Lawrence.

But, in his opinion, the elephant developed genuine feelings for Pattinson — making her just like
every other girl on the planet. “There would be times when she and Rob
were together,” says the director, “and you would swear she actually had
some warmth toward [him].”

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