In The Art of Racing in the Rain, Milo Ventimiglia joins the fast and furriest as he headlines a film about a race-car driver’s special bond with his dog.
“You build relationships with people you work with, and you say to them, ‘I’m going to know you for the rest of my life,’” the actor tells EW. “That’s what it felt like with Parker.”
Parker is the 2-year-old golden retriever who plays Enzo, his costar in Racing in the Rain. Voiced by Kevin Costner, the canine is the best pal of Ventimiglia’s character, Denny.
How good was the chemistry? The pair were so tight that during one emotional scene, Parker’s trainer worried that the dog was getting “stressed” by the actor’s energy. Says Ventimiglia, “It demanded more communication because when you’re working with an animal, they can’t tell you how they’re feeling.”
Besides Parker, it took a company of canines to cover the span of Enzo’s life in the film: Butler, 9; two auxiliary dogs, Solar and Orbit; and 8 to 12 puppies. To coax great performances out of the pooches, Ventimiglia bonded with them off camera and was liberal with the petting. (And don’t underestimate the power of a tennis ball with a piece of chicken in it.)
Ventimiglia needed no bribes: “I made a new friend. If Parker didn’t have a home, I’d [have brought] him home with me.”
To get the details on why Ventimiglia was willing to break the cardinal rule of acting (never work with dogs or children), EW called him up to talk about his furry costars, whether the film is more tear-inducing than This Is Us, and who would voice his thoughts if he were a dog.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The famous quip is to never act opposite dogs or children. Here, you do both. What made you decide to take that “risk,” and did you prefer one to the other?
MILO VENTIMIGLIA: I know, right? I’m kinda f—ing crazy… I’m not one to be afraid of a role, and actually when roles are a bit frightening, that’s where you can find the most truth in the character and the story because we’re pushing ourselves. We’re pushing our boundaries. It was a very human story, kind of like This Is Us, where you have real-life stakes that were happening to this guy — his career as a race-car driver, his life with his family. It’s so deeply human, and the angle where you have a dog who happens to be an elevated soul and is watching his owner go through the trials of life, it felt like a unique story. It had magic without it feeling like it was trying to push the magic.
Can you tell me more about the dogs playing Enzo and what working with them was like? How many were there, and what was the general process on set?
We had Parker, who was 2, and we had Butler, who was 9. The film spans about 10 years of Denny’s life and the dog’s life, so we had to age up and age down… It wasn’t as challenging as people imagine it to be. [Dogs are] reading and picking up off of our emotions and emotional state because they’re instinctual animals. It was just communicating with trainers and making sure we were always aligned. The one thing I said to our lead trainer, Teresa, I said, “I know you can probably train this dog to walk from here to there, and get from point A to point B, and bark and grab the remote control in its mouth, but what I really need is an acting partner, so if we can figure out ways to where these dogs will feel and respond to me like I’m truly their owner, I’m willing to work on it.” That’s pretty much what we did. I spent a lot of time with the dogs before we started filming. When we were on set, I was the only one who was allowed to give affection and play with the dogs aside from the trainers because we needed that familiarity.
They both had different personalities. Parker is a 2-year-old, [and] he’s the most zen soul I’ve ever seen in my life. So calm, so sweet, so relaxed. Butler is kind of like a teenager; he has this energy about him, even though he’s 9, where he just doesn’t know what to do with it.
Is there one in particular you bonded with more than others?
Parker. There were moments where he would pick up on what I was feeling. If Parker didn’t have a home, I would’ve brought him home with me. I’d made a new friend and a close friend, and someone I wanted to be around until the end. Unfortunately, though, Parker did have a home, he had a mom and dad, so it was like, “Oh okay, great, Milo can’t just adopt you, got it.”
Your character is obsessed with two things: dogs and cars. We know you’re already a big car guy, but did this movie make you fall more in love with dogs or change your thoughts on pets?
I’ve had dogs in my life, but I know I travel around way too much to have the responsibility of having a pet right now. I feel like they’d be hanging out at my parents house or at a doggy hotel more than they’d be with me. So I know what my life is, and having room for a dog is tough. But it was great for three months every day to have a furry little buddy hanging out with me on set.
Your fans have already watched you play a character on This Is Us who basically ends up dying because he goes back to rescue a dog. Should we be worried Enzo might inspire similar devotion in this character? Are they going to have to add Enzo to their sh— list with the Crock-Pot and Kate’s dog?
No, no, I think in this case, it’s Enzo who saves Denny. Which is really beautiful. There’s a lot that the audience is going to learn from Enzo’s point of view. But Denny has to just soak up like a sponge the emotion and support and the love he’s getting from this dog. But he still has to intellectualize everything for himself. He’s not having conversations with Enzo, but Enzo is directly talking to the audience. It’s companionship and it’s love and it’s understanding, but at the end, it’s Enzo who saves Denny.
How did your experiences working with a dog on this set differ from working with the dog on This Is Us? Could you sense a clear difference in breed or temperament?
There was a very clear difference [in] just how active the Enzo character was versus our dog on This Is Us. Our dog on This Is Us runs in and out of the room. There wasn’t a whole lot of interaction that I had with that pooch. But on the film, we really had to be mindful of the fact that we had animals on set. There’s safety, there’s concern, there’s making sure they’re getting enough rest, and it’s almost like working with kids. You just have to be very aware of how long you have them on set because you can’t have them on set too long. And also, you’ve gotta keep it fun, you’ve gotta keep it light, you have to be able to have a good time at the same time as make the work very efficient.
How does a scene on the page with a dog differ when you’re bringing it to life, and is it a similar or very different experience from that jump when you have a human scene partner?
With a dog, you have your rehearsal process. You’re definitely making sure there’s an architectural structure to the scene because a lot of reactions they get from the dogs are prompted by food. They have to listen to their trainer, so they’re kind of being tricked into moving the way that they’re doing, but the moments we were trying to capture emotion — it’s crazy. Parker and Butler settled right into it, and they just knew. The opening of the film is Enzo almost at his oldest, and he’s laying in the house kind of in a puddle of his own making. Butler, like I said, he had the energy of a teenager, and this moment where he couldn’t have any of it, for some reason Butler knew. He had to hang limp in my arms when I pick him up and carry him. There were moments like that where we had to communicate instinctually, as opposed to just going through the architecture of it. I always needed a scene partner.
If you were a dog and people could hear your thoughts, who would you choose to voice them?
Oh, me? If I were a dog, and I want to pick someone to voice my dog’s thoughts? That’s easy, me. [Laughs]
What will make people cry more: a Jack moment on This Is Us or The Art of Racing in the Rain?
People will have to look out for what Enzo and Denny have in store. It’s definitely going to move some people to tears. When I saw the film, there were a bunch of moments where I was crying just like everybody sitting next to me.
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