With the new film Beginners, director Mike Mills creates a delightful and very personal love story. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, who navigates not only his father’s final years (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) but also a burgeoning love affair (with the effervescent Mélanie Laurent) in the company of his father’s Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur—portrayed by the charming Cosmo. You’ve heard of on-set romances where the stars fall madly in love … well, such was the case with McGregor and Cosmo. Though Cosmo was destined to return to his companion, animal trainer and guardian Mathilde De Cagny, this story has a happy ending: McGregor finds his own canine soul mate.
Bark editors sat down with the McGregor and Mills to talk about their new film, and dogs.
Bark: Ewan, we understand that after you finished filming, you got a dog. Was that something you’d been planning, or did the role create the desire for one?
Ewan McGregor: I grew up with dogs but hadn’t had one since I left home. On the set, I fell for Cosmo and so loved being around him and working with him that it was hard to know I’d have to say goodbye to him. My wife’s allergic to dogs and cats, but when she came to visit on set and saw us together, she could tell that there was something missing for me and that maybe it would be nice for me to have a dog. Toward the end of the shoot, she said, “If you can find one who won’t make me sneeze, then go for it.” And I did.
Mike Mills: I just remembered something that happened when we first met. You sent me an email saying, “Maybe we should rescue a Jack Russell, and I could keep him!” And I thought to myself, “I love this man!”
McGregor: Anyway, after my wife’s comment, I started thinking, Well, okay, hypoallergenic dogs. On one of the last mornings — it may have been the last morning of our shoot — I googled “dog rescue” near my post code and this little place came up, the Lange Foundation, on Sepulveda and Santa Monica. The first face I saw was Sid’s.
Bark: Did you name him?
McGregor: Yeah. He was called Ziggy in the rescue center, but they had no idea what his real name was. I like short British names — Bob and Fred, Will, Sid: short, British- sounding names. It’s Sidney when he’s naughty.
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Bark: Mike, as the writer/director, what inspired you to include a dog in the film?
Mills: I inherited my dad’s 13-year-old Jack Russell, and he was there while I was writing [the screenplay]; it was very easy to start a conversation with that guy. I also have a Border Collie mutt, Zoë, and I talked to both of them a lot. I think that’s something from my family. I grew up with a Standard Poodle, and later, we got a Collie mutt at the shelter. We always talked or sang to them as a way of acknowledging them. When I’m talking to the dog, I’ll also do the dog’s reply, saying what I think the dog would say. So that was one of the reasons I decided to include a dog in the story.
Bark: Sometimes writers go too far with that approach, but you didn’t. How did you avoid it? You did have Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) talk with Arthur.
Mills: Well, personally, I hate talking dogs. It’s obviously an anthropomorphization that usually proves how little people understand animals; I feel it’s a kind of rude thing to do. But it was a good way to show Oliver’s loneliness — you know he’s projecting his own feelings onto Arthur. When you see the dog staring back at him, it’s easy to think that the dog’s saying to Oliver, “We’re in the same pack.” You know, “We are together.” That’s what I thought was happening, at least.
Bark: The dog-park scene gave us great insight into the other characters. How did you work out that one?
Mills: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I’m a very humble writer, and I think I’m lucky if anybody likes anything I’ve written, but in this case, I really felt like I nailed something and am glad I got to include it in the movie. Oliver’s very curious about Arthur, and he’s studied Arthur’s background and he learned his parentage. And I think what he’s trying to explain to the dog is what all the human characters are going through: they’re trying to find themselves in their history and their story, and trying to wake up from the unconscious story that’s guiding them or controlling them. So he’s trying to explain to him that “you’re basically designed to hunt foxes, but you don’t hunt foxes anymore. You’re basically cute and charming and you’re chasing tennis balls because that’s as close to a fox as you’re going to get.” I think all the humans in the story have a similar fate, and they’re trying to uncover their history and trying to figure out how they became the people they are and trying to negotiate a better version of themselves.
Bark: Did having a dog in the cast create any challenges?
Mike: It was pretty easy, actually. Mathilde and Cosmo are both so good, and Cosmo’s a really a loving guy; he’s very attentive and quick to engage. Everyone calls him the love bug because he jumps into laps and is very cuddly. I recall saying a couple of times, “My god, his eye line is perfect! How’s that happening?” Then I’d realize, oh, Mathilde was doing something that I didn’t see. On one or two occasions, I asked Cosmo to do something kind of complicated, but it wasn’t difficult; it just involved the trainer working it out. What the dog brought to the set was a kind of party atmosphere. Mathilde has this beautiful Collie named Lincoln, and some Chihuahuas and Cosmo’s stand-in, JR, were also there. There were three or four dogs around the set all the time, just hanging out. That made it feel much more loose and not like work. Dogs’ ambiance, the ambiance they help create, really shifts things in a positive way.
Bark: Ewan, tell us about your dog Sid.
McGregor: He’s two, maybe two-and-a-half. He’s Poodle, mainly, mixed with something — we don’t know what the something is. He travels with me all the time, unless I’m working somewhere that I can’t take him. He’s great company; I generally go on my own, without my wife and my kids. With Sid, I’m not on my own anymore.
Bark: Has Sid been to the UK?
McGregor: He’s there now, in fact, because I’m working in the UK at the moment. He’s microchipped and has a passport. Before we leave, he has to be treated for fleas and ticks and I need to provide proof that was done. Britain’s ridiculous, really. Like we don’t have fleas in Britain. But if it’s been done more than 48 hours or less than 24 hours before arrival, they’ll turn the dog back. They’re really insane.
Bark: Do you takes trips with Sid just for fun?
McGregor: I like riding motorcycles, and after I got Sid, I got a sidecar. I quite like to knock about with him, but I don’t want to be limited to just traveling in cars. He has doggles and a two-point harness, so he can’t jump out. It’s the ultimate head-out-the- window experience for dogs. He’s literally outside. He’s just in heaven.
Bark: How about when you guys are at home. Does having another male in the house change the dynamic?
McGregor: Well, when I’m not there, he steps up and becomes the male of the house, and is apparently much more protective — more barking at strangers and patrolling the perimeter of the house. He’s a good lad. Mainly, his work consists of making sure the squirrel is not in the trees. We have a squirrel that lives down in the garden, and he hates the squirrel.
Mike: Zoë too. I wake up every morning to a squirrel in a tree looking in my window. He’ll make that sound — like keche-chech — and Zoë’s just [slaps hands] poof! Can’t help herself.
Bark: Did Cosmo change the way you approached the role?
McGregor: It’s the same as working with another human actor. Occasionally, it has to be manufactured — Mathilde would be behind me making him look for something, for example. But when things were happening naturally with him, and when I was speaking to him and he was looking at me, it was a really lovely feeling. And when he’s looking slightly behind your ear, because Mathilde’s there ... [laughs]
Bark: Do you talk to Sid?
McGregor: I do — I mean, I don’t question whether he understands me or not. That’s not really the point. I just talk to him because he’s there. Mike: Half the time when I’m talking to Zoë, I’m trying to speak in Czech, partly just for my wife’s benefit, so she doesn’t have to constantly listen to me rattling on. I feel like I can say whatever I need to.
Bark: Do either of you have a passion for dog rescue?
Mike: Yeah, but full disclosure: I got Zoë from a pet store in Santa Barbara. It was a weird place — they had mutts and the dogs were running around loose; they weren’t in cages. Zoë was from a farm in San Luis Obispo. My mom had just died and I went in to get some free puppy time. Zoë was on a shelf, back tucked in. I scooped her out and was just sort of overwhelmed. That was that. When I was growing up, one of my favorite family rituals was when we’d all go to the animal shelter and find a dog. There are so many dogs in really bad situations, and it’s out of their control. They’re living in our world. We have a very interconnected relationship with them — we’re their stewards, at least in the cities and suburbs. So anything I can do to help, I’m excited to do.
Bark: How about dogs in other films … who do you admire?
Mike: Well, I love dogs who don’t feel like professionals. But I loved Lassie, and he really was a canine actor, as was his son, who later played the Lassie [role]. I also admire the way Kelly Reichardt used her dog in Wendy and Lucy. It’s really just her dog cruising around with Michelle Williams. I think that’s real and honest, and I hope it feels like that in my movie; the dog’s part of the story. So many humans have relationships with animals; how can you exclude them in a movie?