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WORKING HOLLYWOOD

'Water buffalo' on their resumes

Shawn Weber and Scott Davis, wranglers for 'Tropic Thunder,' got a 1,500-pound cow ready for her close-up.

August 24, 2008|Cristy Lytal | Special to The Times

WHEN Shawn Weber and Scott Davis first arrived in California, neither suspected that two decades later they would be spending their nights and weekends with a 1,500-pound water buffalo. Both had experience with animals of a more domestic stripe -- Weber, a former vet tech, has worked as a trainer on films including 2007's "Underdog," 1999's "Stuart Little" and 1998's "The Parent Trap," while Davis, who came to California with the rodeo, began wrangling horses and cattle for films such as 1999's "Wild Wild West" and 1994's "Maverick." But for Ben Stiller’s new comedy, “Tropic Thunder,” in which actors making a war movie find themselves in peril in the jungles of Southeast Asia, the experts, who work closely with the American Humane Assn., needed to contend with a different kind of beast.

Plucked from the herd: While many of the top-billed actors were shoo-ins for their roles, the water buffalo was one member of the cast that was absolutely required to audition. Director and star Stiller selected her from a lineup of three animals. "She had the best horns," says Weber. "Their horns vary. Some are really huge, and some are not as big and not quite as pretty. He picked the right one, that's for sure. I remember one time on the set, it started raining and we had her out there, and we had these tents. And she just walked in there like a dog. 'Hey, how you doing? Pet my ears.' She's really, really good."

Sliding off into the sunset: Although, during more than a month of training, Weber and Davis worked with the water buffalo to get it to allow film costar Jack Black to ride her for one sequence, the comedian did take one small tumble. "They're a little bit more roly-poly to ride on [than horses]," says Davis. "You don't exactly have a saddle to ride in or anything. You're trying to keep your balance there, and if she slips a little bit in the mud . . . It was a nice, slow slide, but it was quite a buck-off to Jack -- so we just let him go with that. And as he was sliding off, his stunt double was catching him on the way down. But we just let Jack go with his [version]. Jack's story sounds much more interesting than ours!"

You have a point there: Robert Downey Jr., who was responsible for leading the water buffalo by a rope during much of the movie, forged a more affectionate relationship with the animal than Black did. In a campfire scene, the water buffalo began licking the back of Downey's neck. "And I'm sure there will be outtakes of one of the first shots we did where he's coming around a bend," Weber says. "It's just really slippery in Kauai. It's all muddy and stuff. And she slid and got a little goofy, and her horn went, let's just say, up his derriere a little bit. [He stayed in character] while he was swearing. Obviously, to watch him do it was very funny."

Birthday surprise: In contrast to most animals, water buffaloes don't show when they're expecting -- so when the star animal gave birth, it was a surprise to the entire crew. "I came in one morning, and I'm like, 'Um, gee, that's a very large pile of poop. Why does it have ears? Why is it moving?' So we were shocked as much as anybody. But he was healthy and great, and we named him Little Jack. He had to come to the set, and he was walking around with Mom, and he actually had a really good time."

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