How to Act With Animals

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In the summer of 1976, recent high school graduate and aspiring actor Bill Berloni was working as an apprentice at Connecticut’s famed Goodspeed Opera House as it prepared to host the pre-Broadway run of a new musical called “Annie.” When the theater’s producers realized that they couldn’t afford a fancy New York trainer to work with the title character’s dog, Sandy, Berloni volunteered. He rescued a dog from an animal shelter, trained him to be Sandy, and together the two transferred with the production to Broadway.

Decades on, Berloni estimates he’s worked with nearly 300 rescued animals in 27 Broadway shows, and on hundreds of TV shows and films, so he’s well-trained, as it were, to offer some insights on how to work with nonhuman costars.

If you’re not an animal person, don’t audition for a role that requires you to be around them.

Imagine some actor doing a scene with you who has no desire to touch you, or get to know you, or even learn your language. Imagine a costar who won’t even talk to you or shake your hand. If you don’t know how to give a treat to a dog, and just drop it on the floor, an animal is going to recognize that. Why would you expect the animal to listen to you? There have been some cases where I have had to go to the director and say, “Well, you have to diminish the behaviors you expect from the animal, because this actor’s not qualified to do it.”  

Trust the animal trainer.

People might be afraid that a cat can scratch you, or a horse can step on your foot. And maybe with a dog, they might think there’s the occasional nip. An actor should realize that a trainer would never bring an animal to a set that couldn’t deal with the stress or be able to not bite if someone stepped on its paw. That’s how well-balanced performing animals have to be.  

Be the calm.

If your body language shows that you’re anxiety-ridden inside because it’s opening night, the animal is going to be nervous. If you’re angry at some ex-lover, and you carry that anger onstage, the animal is going to be afraid of you. So we say to all the actors, you’re in charge of their welfare. You have to be the center of calmness so that the animal will feel safe. Because the minute you’re out of control, the animal feels unsafe. 

Build trust with your animal costar.

There’s a rule of thumb for actors working with an animal in terms of how much time they should spend bonding beforehand: It’s about 20 hours. If you have an eight-week rehearsal period, that’s a half-hour per day. In film and television, sometimes we can fake it; I can stand behind the camera with a treat, and the actor doesn’t necessarily have to do anything in regards to the animal. But in theater or live performances, we can’t use camera tricks. And either way, any actor interacting with or petting a dog should have already established a connection. Otherwise, why would a dog go up to a perfect stranger and give its devotion and love?

Channel your inner trainer.

In theater, I have to train the actors to be as good a trainer as I am. Dogs listen to us trainers 100% of the time. We actually turn our actors into trainers so they’re giving the commands onstage with the same accuracy that we are offstage. I remind actors that they’re responsible for that animal’s performance.  It’s like being a ventriloquist; you’re actually controlling the animal and telling it what to do, and then acting as if you didn’t know what it was going to do. And let me tell you, 10-year-old girls playing Annie do it much better than adults. Because it’s fun. To them it’s a game.  

Know your boundaries.

Don’t come up to a dog and go, “Hey, buddy,” and grab its face. How would you like to be molested by a stranger that you don’t know?  Every dog has triggers. Every dog has favorite places, favorite treats. And the trainers will share that with you. Don’t assume that you know anything about this animal just because you have a dog. You might think, “Well, my dog did it this way.” Well, my ex-wife did it this way—do you think my new wife would like to hear that?

Keep up the good work.

Sometimes after opening night, people can start getting lazy about working with an animal. But it’s important to take time to warm up every night. In theater, there’s the “fight call,” where Actors’ Equity permits rehearsals before half-hour call for any stunts or falls, or work with animals—anything where there might be a safety issue. So 15 minutes before we open the house, our actors come in. We go over notes from the night before, but basically it’s for the actor and animal to reacquaint with one another. The actor gets the chance to say to the animal, “Want to have fun again tonight? Come on, let’s do this!”

Don’t distract your costars.

The rule is that only the actors who are working with the animals are allowed to touch them. A dog can only have so many masters. If everybody’s petting him backstage, it makes it harder for the animal to know who’s the one who cares the most.

Sidle up to the scene stealers.

If you’re going to be in a show with an animal, be the one standing next to him.  Get the role of the person who’s handling and interacting with that animal, because everybody else onstage is going to become invisible. In “Legally Blonde,” the producers originally wanted Bruiser the dog to be in Elle’s bag onstage the whole time. And I had to dissuade them, saying, “Everyone in the audience is going to look at the dog, who’s going to upstage the scene.”

Don’t be afraid to fall in love.

I tell all my theater trainers, if the actor doesn’t cry closing night, you haven’t done your job. And there are so many people I’ve worked with who I consider family because they took care of my animals.… On “Legally Blonde,” the actress Orfeh fell in love with the understudy Chihuahua. In fact, on the first day of rehearsal, she declared, “I’m going to take this dog.” I was thinking, “Oh no you’re not!” But over the course of our three-year run, I saw how much she really loved [him]. All the animals I use are rescues, and so ultimately, Orfeh and her husband, Andy Karl, did adopt him. Talk about a happy ending!