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 background.
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 mouth.”
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