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I Was… An Elephant Trainer on 'Water for Elephants'

Water for Elephants
Fox

"Water for Elephants" isn't just a fancy name. There's a living, breathing elephant in the movie, and she also happens to be a bonafide movie star.

Tai is a 42-year-old Asian white and a veteran of many films, including "Operation: Dumbo Drop," "The Jungle Book" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop." She's worked with people like Bill Murray and Brendan Fraser, and she probably remembers her experiences on set better than any of them.

Tai worked closely with "Water for Elephants" stars Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz while being directed off-camera by her trainer Gary Johnson, who told NextMovie what it's like keeping four tons of animal cooperative during a long shoot.

Tai’s been in the trained elephant game for 34 years… We actually acquired her from a park in Florida. This was a long time ago, when we got her. Elephants were a lot easier to get back then. Nowadays it's virtually impossible to get an elephant, especially an Asian. They are endangered, there's only about 35,000 Asian elephants left in the world today. She wasn't trained or anything when we got her [from] a drive-through wild animal park.

Convincing an elephant to do what you want isn’t as hard as it seems… Training is training, whether it's a dog or a child or an elephant. I've done this for over 40 years now and it seems like it keeps going back to the most important thing, which is to be consistent, day-in and day-out. With Tai doing so much and being with us for so long, she pretty much understands that we're going to teach her something new. We'll use a piece of carrot or a jellybean or something like that to let her know that's exactly what we want.

Tai is pretty pampered on a movie set… She gets a bath every single day, whether we're home or on vacation. She gets a certain amount of exercise every day, and obviously water and plenty to eat. Most of their diet is hay, and then they get a little bit of grain and a little bit of fruits and vegetables, and obviously some vitamins and minerals. She likes apple and carrots and bananas. One of her favorites is watermelon. They eat most fruits and vegetables.

Water for Elephants
Fox

She still had work to do though… Usually our call would be around 7ish, depending, so we would have her all ready to go. They would rehearse a little bit and then she'd have a little break, and then they would start shooting. It was a very nice location. It was several hundred acres of open ground, and there was nice grass there. They planted some corn and Tai could have a certain amount of that. Depending on what was on the schedule for that day, it was how much she worked.

Christoph Waltz immediately figured out the best way to work with Tai… Christoph said it very plain, "Tai will do what she needs to do and I'll do what I need to do and we'll be fine together.” And I said, "Exactly, you have it right there."

He didn’t actually abuse her though… Some of the stuff with Christoph, he was supposedly abusing her. Which he didn't, he never touched her. But he had to make it look like he was and she had to react to it. Mostly it was Christoph and he would take his cue from her. She would do something and then he would. It actually worked out very well. He is such a terrific person, and I think he's a great actor too. He got it right away, so did Rob and so did Reese. I don't think the production could've picked three better people to play the roles, for us.

Robert Pattinson was always willing to spend time with Tai… Rob, if we needed to rehearse something, he was more and more willing to accommodate. I just can't say enough nice things about him, because he was great. He's a big deal. To me, being a novice, he seemed to work very hard on this. I think he gave 110 percent. And he's just the nicest person, not one ounce arrogant or anything.

Reese had a tough time saying goodbye to Tai… The last day Tai shot, we were getting stuff ready to go back home. Reese came by and got out of her car to say goodbye, and she actually got pretty teary-eyed and pretty emotional about it.

Tai’s elephant memory brought some recognition when she reunited with her “Elephants” co-stars a few months after the shoot… After we finished shooting "Water For Elephants," a couple months later, we wound up doing stills with Rob and Reese. It seemed like she kinda knew who they were. They both came over individually when we arrived to say hi, and I think she had a little recognition of them.

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