For the past seven years, superstars and Oscar winners have left behind their Perrier water, makeup artists, designer clothes, cell phones, luxury Winnebagos and overattentive publicists to get up close and personal with some of the most amazing animals in the wild.
Ever since PBS' "Nature" presented "In the Company of Wolves With Timothy Dalton" in 1993, Anthony Hopkins has communed with lions, Debra Winger and her son Noah ventured to China to witness pandas in their native habitat, Goldie Hawn went to India to visit with elephants, and Julia Roberts fell in love with gentle, quiet orangutans.
Now Roberts travels to the steppes of Mongolia in central Asia to ride the only true wild horses that still exist. "Wild Horses of Mongolia With Julia Roberts" kicks off the 19th season of "Nature" on Sunday.
(Several of the celebrity-driven documentaries have aired on PBS' "In the Wild," a spinoff of "Nature").
The cameras catch Roberts, who has been passionate about horses since she was a youngster, as she spends two weeks with a nomadic family living exactly as the family does in a one-room transportable abode called a "ger," that has no bathroom, running water or heat. Though she and her family don't speak each other's languages, they talk with smiles and gestures. She quickly bonds with their children, engaging them in games and roughhouse wrestling.
Unlike any other culture, the nomads rely on the horse for everything from fermented mare's milk to transportation to races that are an integral part of the culture and religious festivals. One of the wild horses that is being broken for an upcoming race is chosen for Roberts to ride.
"I'm really actually scared," she confesses to viewers. "It's like a blind date to just get on a horse you don't know. And as we all know, blind dates can be disastrous. So I'm hoping there's, you know, like a Benjamin Bratt (Roberts' boyfriend) in a horse outfit out there somewhere; be nice, give me a fun day. Don't buck me off; that would be terrible."
Producer Andrew Jackson says the actors never have their guard up when they do these documentaries. "They come to us as normal people," he says. "The thing is they don't come with hundreds of people and limos. The first time Julia stepped off the plane in Indonesia, she was in an ordinary pair of jeans with a little knapsack."
Jackson says it's been increasingly easier to get such high-profile talent to do the specials. "They all know each other," he says. "I know that before Julia Roberts said that she'd do it, she spoke to Goldie Hawn to ask, 'What are these guys like?' "
Once a star agrees to do the documentary, they are asked what animal they would like to encounter. Of course, says "Nature" executive producer Fred Kaufman, the animal has to be interesting enough to support an hourlong documentary.
"As documentarians working in the natural history field we have a pretty good idea what animals are worthy of trying to have an encounter with," Kaufman says.
Roberts had such a good time on "Orangutans" two years ago, she told the producers during the filming she would be willing to do another one. Jackson thought nothing would come of it. But, he says, "she was true to her word. She rang us up."
Mongolia was chosen because it is the home of the prehistoric horse. "Plus the fact that the whole society revolves around the horse," Jackson says.
"There is no other society that still has the horse as such a central part of their whole life. It gave us the opportunity to slightly change the angle of the film. Julia went to see more of a lifestyle and a place, as well as the horse, because the horse informs the lifestyle."
Finding a nomadic family for Roberts to stay with wasn't as hard as one would imagine. "It's a smaller world than you think," says Kaufman. "Documentaries are now filmed everywhere so there is really a network of people and contacts."
"We had a researcher who went out to [Mongolia] for 4 1/2 weeks and visited with four different families" says Jackson. Jackson then chose the one family he thought would work best. "Then she went back out and sorted it out for us."
Only four people comprise the team that films Roberts--the cameraman, the assistant, the soundman and the director. "We try to keep those moments as intimate as possible," Jackson says. "Then there are four of us in the background in terms of a friend of Julia's who came with her, myself and two assistants."
Shooting these documentaries are always difficult because of transportation problems inherent with isolated locations. "But this one was particularly difficult because of the wind," Jackson says. "They have a term for the wind we discovered that loosely translated means a lazy wind. Instead of going around, it goes straight through you."
* "Nature: Wild Horses of Mongolia With Julia Roberts" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on KCET and KVCR.