Celebrity Pup

12.05.11

Hollywood's Top Dog: 'The Artist' Star Uggie

The career of a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Uggie was almost over when he bit a goat. But now he’s the hottest pooch in town, thanks to one of the most memorable performances of the year, in The Artist. Ramin Setoodeh explores the mutt’s Method acting.

The list of this year’s breakout movie stars includes Elizabeth Olsen of Martha Marcy May Marlene; Felicity Jones from Like Crazy; and Pariah’s Adepero Oduye. And then there is Uggie.

Uggie isn’t a starlet. He’s a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier who steals the show in The Artist, a film most Oscar pundits consider a frontrunner in the 2011 Academy Awards race. The movie is a throwback to classic Hollywood, shot in black and white, with no sound. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a silent-screen legend. He flirts with a female co-star, Peppy (Berenice Bejo), but the real love of his life is his dog. Uggie accompanies him everywhere, wags his tail adorably, and, in one pivotal scene, saves him from a burning building.

The last pooch this heroic on the big screen was Lassie, or perhaps Benji. Uggie won the Palm Dog Prize after this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, if not for an old Academy rule that prevents animals from being honored. According to Hollywood legend, at the first Oscars in 1929, Rin Tin Tin scored the most votes, but the award for best actor went to Emil Jannings instead. Still, that hasn’t stopped Movieline from launching a campaign on Uggie’s behalf (#ConsiderUggie). Although Uggie does not speak English or use a phone, he does have his own Twitter account.

Last month, Uggie attended the premiere of The Artist, and he walked the red carpet in a bowtie, but he didn’t receive the full celebrity treatment. He wasn’t allowed to sit with the rest of the cast and watch the movie. An employee at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood explains that dogs aren’t permitted inside—unless they are seeing-eye dogs.

Uggie comes from a humble background. At 7 months, he was living with a family that was going to send him to the pound after he did something no dog should ever do. “He had bitten a goat in the garden,” says Omar von Muller, Uggie’s current owner, who adopted him when he heard the story. “Most of the time, when there’s a nice dog with a lot of potential energy, I hate for them to go to the pound. I groomed him to be a performing dog.”

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Uggie’s film credits include the straight-to-DVD romantic comedy Mr. Fix It with David Boreanaz, and Water for Elephants, opposite Robert Pattinson. He is also a member of an international dog show that features him doing stunts like riding a skateboard, a trick he performs in downtown Santa Monica.

Uggie landed his role in The Artist at the recommendation of his trainer, Sarah Clifford. ”When I got the script, they were like, we need a good Jack Russell for this French movie, and I thought, ‘I’ve got the dog for this role!’“ says Clifford, who runs Animal Savvy, a company that provides animals for movies. In the script, there’s a lot of live-action performance. There’s a lot of playing and running and spy-movie stuff—for the movie within a movie that George Valentin is starring in. ”Uggie has so much energy and he’s such a showman. He does really cool things that are similar to his character,“ says Clifford.

She adds: “A lot of dogs in the film business are overtrained. They have a repertoire of 100 tricks. Uggie has just 20 tricks. He doesn’t have all the things that movie dogs have, which is why he’s so natural.”

After he was cast, he was such a Method actor, he went to live with one of his co-stars for three days. Dujardin took him for regular walks and ate lunch with him. He learned the cues to get him to speak, sit, and beg, and he also learned Uggie’s secret obsession: hot dogs. “Jean said he had to go into the sausage business because he had so many on him to keep Uggie’s interest,” says the actor James Cromwell, who plays the chauffeur, Clifton, in the movie. “If you don’t have sausages, you are no more interesting to Uggie than a lamppost.“

Did he carry sausages? “I did not,” Cromwell says. “If I did, we’d have a different relationship.”

On the set of The Artist, Uggie slept in crates, since he didn’t have his own trailer. The role is actually played by three dogs, but Uggie performed 95 percent of the scenes because he so outshone his understudies, Dash and Dude. To get Uggie to look like the other two dogs, handlers bathed him in a dye that turned his coat white for several months. He also had to undergo one other physical alteration.

In the movie, you can see he has three little spots next to his butt, says Muller. “That’s totally made up. One of the other dogs had it, so we had to put it on him, too.”

Despite all the critical acclaim, Uggie is facing retirement. At 9, he doesn’t have any other gigs lined up, and he spends most of his days lounging by the pool or playing with Muller’s 6-year-old daughter. “His health is good, but he has a bit of a shaking syndrome that white dogs get,” Muller says. “People will think he’s nervous or cold, but it’s a neurological thing.”

“If you don’t have sausages, you are no more interesting to Uggie than a lamppost.”

While he won’t be at the Oscars as a nominee, Uggie could still be invited as a guest or a presenter. Maybe he’ll even get the chance to mingle with Cosmo, the other hot Jack Russell terrier of the year, from the Christopher Plummer dramedy Beginners.

Cromwell, for one, thinks the Academy should revise its rules to recognize nonhuman performers. “I wish there was an award, whether it was an Oscar or not, that demonstrated the contributions that animals make in the telling of a story,” he says. “In the Q&As we have, everyone says, ‘Where did you get that extraordinary dog?’”