On the last day of shooting "Water for Elephants," Reese Witherspoon was so upset that she broke down in tears. She hadn't been that saddened by a movie wrapping in years, the actress said, but she had become particularly attached to one costar: an 8,800-pound elephant named Tai.
"The day I had to say goodbye to her, I wept all day," Witherspoon admitted. "It was one of the most extraordinary filmmaking experiences of my life. You work with actors and directors, but to have this nonverbal complete relationship with an animal that we were all very connected to was very magical."
Based on a bestselling historical novel released in 2006, the film, due out April 22, centers on a former veterinary school student named Jacob ( Robert Pattinson), who falls for circus performer Marlena (Witherspoon). Because of the characters' shared affinity for the big top, both actors had to be comfortable interacting with a variety of animals — horses, camels, and, of course, elephants.
Before production began, director Francis Lawrence planned a meeting with the stars and Tai at the 10-acre Perris, Calif., elephant ranch where she lives.
"I'll be honest — I did use a trip down to see the elephants as a bit of bait for the actors," Lawrence joked.
It worked. Witherspoon felt so at ease with Tai that she quickly attempted an elaborate mount, in which the elephant lifted the actress with only its trunk.
"They had her pick me up, and I just screamed," she said. "She could crush you, but she knows the exact amount of pressure to put on you."
On set, though, some of the other animals made her jittery.
"There were a couple of really scary moments on the movie. A couple of zebras broke loose while we were shooting a scene and started bucking and kicking, and we all ran for cover," she recalled. "Camels bit people and spit at them. But the funny thing is that Tai was the most consistent: a calm, just easygoing presence. She was just this incredible spirit."
Interestingly, the elephant's owner, Gary Johnson, was reluctant to allow Tai to perform in the film because it includes scenes of animal abuse.
"We had really mixed emotions about even doing this film because it's pretty graphic with the elephant, and there's some so-called beating scenes in there. We didn't want to send a wrong message," said Johnson, the co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel.
After speaking to the film's producers, Johnson came on board. Visual effects created the impression that Tai is being beaten in one scene; in another, fake wounds made from silicon were attached to the animal.
Johnson says he often encounters animal rights activists who don't think his elephants should be performing, but he believes Tai's participation in "Water for Elephants" will allow audiences to better understand the animals.
"You can feel the intelligence with them. They're so massive but yet they're so graceful," he said. "It's just something about them. I've done this for over 40 years now, and still one of my favorite things is at the end of the day being in the barn, just watching them eat, sitting on a bale of hay watching them interact with each other. It's just very relaxing."