Rene Russo plays an eccentric animal lover in the film


For a moment, it could be a garden party. The manicured grounds look like those of the swank Los Angeles country club that once stood on the property; writer-director Caroline Thompson is wearing a navy blue blazer, a crisp white shirt, and khakis; and visitors who pass onto the set of Buddy under the trellises of lavender and pink bougainvillea are discreetly handed guidelines entitled ”Rules for Human Behavior.”

But pop an antihistamine and take another gander: The guests at this gathering are a sextet of screaming, diapered chimpanzees, several yakking parrots, a pack of barking briards, a flock of geese, a couple of cats, several rabbits, a horse, 18 animal trainers, and one very good sport of a movie star.

”Am I making the biggest mistake of my career?” asks Rene Russo about her starring role in the family comedy Buddy, based on the life of animal activist Gertrude Lintz, who adopted and raised the title character — a gorilla — in her New York home during the 1920s. Trying to ignore the parrot making himself comfortable on the shoulder of her silk Art Deco gown, the actress begins to move slowly through the portico of the peach stucco home that is doubling as her character’s grand estate, taking care not to ruffle any feathers. ”People say, ‘What are you doing?’ When I tell them, you can see they’re thinking to themselves, ‘Well, there she goes.”’

Russo, 43, has palled around with Mel Gibson in Ransom and Kevin Costner in Tin Cup, but unless they smelled like a sweaty locker room and were always trying to crawl into her lap, she’s never had an experience quite like this. Nor has she been involved in a modest, midsize movie (costing around $40 million, including marketing) that’s attempting to go up against summer’s heavy hitters — the kind of movie she usually makes. ”I thought it was really a sweet story,” she says with a shrug.

Russo is joined by some recognizable humans — Scottish actors Robbie Coltrane (A&E’s Cracker), as her husband, and Alan Cumming (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), as her assistant. But most of her day is spent interacting with a man in a gorilla suit so soundproof that all questions must be addressed to his animatronic technician, who relays the information via headset. (The man in the monkey gear is a pro, however — Peter Elliott has been playing and coaching ape parts since 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.)

But nothing can compete with the diminutive cast members who have become the center of attention on the set. While the backbone of the story is Lintz’s relationship with the gorilla, the plot seems an excuse for chimpanzees to dress up in smocks and frocks, don roller skates and stilts, and ride horses (in real life, Lintz, who died in the mid-’60s, treated her animals like heirs apparent). During their downtime, the chimps torture a crew that has been ordered not to look the animals in the eye — an act that might be interpreted as aggressive. It’s a challenge, given that the chimps spend many of their free moments trying to engage in staring contests.

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