In the romantic drama “Water for Elephants,” Robert Pattinson plays a character that is caught up in a love triangle that is very different from the love triangle that he has in the “Twilight” movie series. Set in the Depression-era 1930s, “Water for Elephants” (based on the Sara Gruen novel of the same title) tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student at Cornell University whose life takes a drastic turn when his financially bankrupt parents die in an accident, leaving Jacob homeless and forcing him to drop out of college.
After struggling to find a job and a place to live, Jacob finds work at a traveling circus, where he falls in love with the circus’ star attraction, Marlena (played by Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon), who is trapped in an increasingly unhappy marriage to the circus’ owner, a possessive and abusive man named August (played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz). As Jacob and Marlena become closer, and August becomes more volatile, choices are made that forever change the lives of the people in the love triangle and those who work at the circus. Pattinson, Witherspoon, Waltz gathered for a Los Angeles press conference to share behind-the-scenes stories of making “Water for Elephants.”
Reese and Rob, was the most powerful impression you got from reading the book “Water for Elephants” that made you want to make this movie?
Witherspoon: I liked the structure of the book. I like how it was book-ended all through the book with this man’s remembrance of his life and his life experiences. One of my favorite parts of the movie, too: Hal Holbrook’s part of the movie where he’s reminiscing. I thought that was great.
Pattinson: I think I’ve just always had a bit of an affinity for that era. I always wanted to do a movie around that time. And, I think it was just very solid, how she [“Water for Elephants” author Sara Gruen] created the world there. So I think I just wanted to be a part of it.
What was it like to work with Tai the elephant (named Rosie in “Water for Elephants”), especially on the first day you worked with the elephant?
Witherspoon: Francis [Lawrence, the director of “Water for Elephants”] and I went out and visited Tai, probably three or four months before shooting, and he brought a camera. I was like, “Why did you bring a camera?” And he took pictures of me, every moment of the first experiences I had of meeting her and her picking me up …
And then he sent me the pictures and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” I really have this memory of the first time I met her. I was terrified. I looked terrified, basically.
Witherspoon: I was terrified. I screamed! I like animals, but this was a completely unique experience.
Pattinson: I wasn’t scared at all. There was only one moment, when we first saw the whole pack of elephants, the herd together and Gary [Johnson], Tai’s trainer said, “Sit,” literally as if he were talking to a dog, and it sat down in exactly the same way a dog would. Just seeing that, it’s totally incomprehensible when you see it.
I basically decided to do the movie at that point. I hadn’t read the script or anything. It’s very powerful to think that you can have a relationship with these huge beasts.
What about you, Christoph? What was your first experience like with the elephant?
Waltz: This animal has one relationship with a human being only. One — and that’s her trainer. And the rest of us are just there. I didn’t work with an elephant. I worked next to an elephant. And considering that she can step on your toes, it’s a good idea to keep a certain distance. It’s also a good idea to befriend the trainer. In this case, it just so happens that the trainer is one of the most extraordinary people you could meet. So I did what he said. I thought it was a good idea to do exactly what he tells me to do, and refrain from any further endeavors.
Robert, is it true the elephant took a liking to you? How does an elephant flirt?
Pattinson: I don’t know who started this [rumor] … It sounds really disturbing. [He laughs.] Flirting with the elephant …
I think I had a relationship with the elephant based purely on candy. I strategically placed mints, like you suck a peppermint for a bit, and stick it onto your body, like under my armpits, like covering my entire chest all the time, and not telling anyone. So every single time, the elephant would be constantly sniffing me, so she just really likes me. It’s crazy! [He laughs.] I think she was just sniffing around for treats.
Rob, your Jacob Jankowski character lies about being a veterinarian to get a job in the circus. Have you ever lied to get an acting job?
Pattinson: Oh yeah, all the time. I don’t know if there’s the same thing in America, but there’s a thing called the Spotlight Form in England, where you have all your talents and accents and everything. You just tick these boxes saying what you’re capable of as an actor. I just tick everything. I can do any accent in the world. I can literally do any technical skill. I can do it. I think it’s still like that, I think. I can do Lithuanian accents fluently.
Reese, have you ever lied at an audition?
Witherspoon: Of course you lie! That’s the whole point. They want you to lie. They want you to tell them that they can trust you, and that you’re going to take some of the responsibility away. They like that. That’s what they buy.
Reese, what was it like to have to do the kissing scenes with Rob Pattinson, who is so much taller than you are?
Witherspoon: What’s it like to kiss a tall guy? I don’t know. In the movies, they put you on a box, and then you kiss the tall guy.
Pattinson: It was really easy for me. I’ve got quite bad posture …
Witherspoon: We kind of meet in the middle. He sort of slumps over.
Pattinson: Yeah, I’ve got a big, heavy head, so I just slump down, and then she was in the right spot, naturally.
Rob, how was it to do the scenes where you have to shovel the animal poop?
Pattinson: I don’t mind working with poop at all. I have a natural propensity to work on big piles of poop. I’m very familiar with it. I don’t know why I wasn’t grossed out by it at all.
Because the environment, everything felt so authentic all the time, you just accept it as part of the world. The scene where we were in that train car, there were like 10 million flies. On any other movie I think I’d be like, “Ugh! Let’s just do one take!” But I was perfectly happy. I made a little mound and sat there and ate my lunch.
Christoph, what did you do to not make a two-dimensional cardboard villain?
Waltz: It’s kind of straightforward. It’s as flat as you choose it to be. And if you’re not satisfied with the flatness, well, what are you going to do? You’re looking for the third dimension …
What was it like working with “Water for Elephants” director Francis Lawrence?
Witherspoon: I was very excited to work with Francis. I was a big fan of “I Am Legend.” I just thought he brought a lot of humanity to that film. We had a lot of conversations about research that he had done, which was very extensive.
Also, I think it’s a big undertaking: taking on a very popular novel and having to tell a story with scenes that have no words. Film is a very visual medium, and to tell a story in scenes with no words, and I think he did an incredible job with that. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are ones where we don’t speak at all. We’re just seeing each other from a distance. I think he told the story beautifully, in that capacity, and really chose those moments well.
How did you become a person from another period of time?
Pattinson: There was a comprehensive creation of the world. 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, there would be a camera. That was the only thing from the 21st century.
Literally, you could stand on the tracks and look over at everything, and you were in the ’30s. We were out in the middle of the desert in Fillmore, and there was nothing else around. There was an orchard. You were in the ’30s.
Jack Fisk, the production designer, used authentic pegs and the ropes. Every single thing which built the world was all totally real. And authentic period underpants do actually help as well. I actually wore them every single day. Jacqueline West, the costume designer, was unbelievable. Almost everything was real. Every pair of jeans was all from the ’20s and ’30s. It was crazy.
Reese, did your costumes also help you develop your character?
Witherspoon: Yeah, certainly. I debated about whether or not I was going to wear a wig. Ultimately, after lots of discussion and screen testing, I decided, “I’m just going to cut my hair. I’m just going to dye it white. I’m just going to do it.”
It was really transforming for me. I didn’t even recognize myself. It’s a real gift, as an actress, to have people around you, artisans that are the best at what they do, creating period costumes for you and set design. It’s a very collaborative medium. You’re only as good as the people that you collaborate with, so we were very lucky to have the best people in the business designing the film.
Reese, was it tough to wear such body-conscious costumes? Did you do anything to physically prepare for it?
Witherspoon: Well, I was training a lot with the circus training, riding the elephant and riding horses, so I was pretty busy. I’ve made a conscious effort, throughout my career, to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie, and here I was in this movie, wearing a leotard for the majority of it. It was horrifying!
But it was inspiring to have Jacqueline West design them. They’re beautiful. It was a different time, when women loved their curves, and enjoyed being voluptuous and all that sort of thing. All of the costumes are very flattering for women in the film.
If you lived in the 1930s, what do you think you would love most about that period of time?
Witherspoon: The unknown, I think.
Pattinson: There’s a wildness to it as well. I think that’s why I like that period. After that, it’s just white picket fences. It just gets progressively more boring. [He laughs.] But it’s the end of the Wild West. It’s why kids still want to be cowboys, even in England.
Reese, how was it filming “Water for Elephants” in your home state of Tennessee?
Witherspoon: Ironically, the only part of the film that I’m not in is the part that they filmed in Tennessee, so I wasn’t there … It’s not for a bunch of wimps. Mosquitoes! I love it! They were emailing me going, “This is horrible!”
Pattinson: There was an amazing moonshine day. It was one of the best days of the shoot. Drinking moonshine in 120 degrees, half of the crew was passed out after one sip. It was amazing!
Rob, was there anything about Jacob Jankowski’s journey in the film that you personally could relate to the most? And have you ever been mesmerized by a girl the way Jacob was mesmerized the first time he saw Marlena?
Pattinson: I don’t know. I guess I had an experience when I did a “Harry Potter” film years ago, and I was just starting to realize that I wanted to be an actor, even though I had already finished three movies by that point. I remember being in Tokyo and looking out the window and [seeing] the Tokyo skyline. I just realized that I could reflect on what had happened in my life, and I was in awe of what road I’d taken by accident. In terms of looking at girls and being by them …
Witherspoon: You can say me. Don’t be embarrassed. [She laughs.]
Pattinson: [He says jokingly] I was actually supposed to not be mesmerized in the script. [He laughs.] It just happened.
Witherspoon: Exactly. I was giving it out.
Christoph, since August is at times very over-the-top and extreme, how did you feel about being so grandiose in your portrayal of him?
Waltz: I don’t want to be that big. I want to be small and precise. It’s a big effort for me to do that. It’s a ringmaster’s work to do that. So there is where I find my field of interest: What is a ringmaster’s work that I could do?
So I went back to Francis and said, “What do we need? What is it that you need for the movie?” And then I went back into the ring and tried to do that. So I’m not really trying to be a ringmaster. I’m trying to be an actor.
For more info:
“Water for Elephants” website
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