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Get to Know the Real Star of Water for Elephants, the Busiest Pachyderm in Show Business

Photo: David James/TM and ? 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. ?All rights reserved. ?Not for sale or duplication.
Photo: David James/TM and ? 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. ?All rights reserved. ?Not for sale or duplication.

Water for Elephants arrives in theaters today, ostensibly starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. We say ostensibly, because are either of their names in the title? No, no they’re not. The true star of this film is an elephant whose real name is Tai. She is a 45-year-old elephant who has appeared in 24 films, 38 TV shows, 51 advertisements, and a handful of music videos over the course of her prolific career. Her credits include everything from Operation Dumbo Drop to an episode of The Hills to an ad for Prevacid. Given Tai’s incredible, largely unsung résumé — over 100 appearances, and less name recognition than Marcel the monkey! Where is the justice?! — we thought it was high time she received the consideration, and praise, that is her due. So please, take at look at the ten highlights of Tai’s long and glorious career.

Actors win accolades and awards when they manipulate their personal appearance for a part — losing weight, gaining weight, forgoing makeup, wearing a fake nose, etc. etc. — because it shows their commitment to their craft. How can you doubt Tai’s commitment when you see what she is wearing, and what she has done to her eyes, for Big Top Pee Wee?
As an animal, it’d be easy to get lost in 1994’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: There are so many of them! But by virtue of her impressive physicality, stellar trunk work, and — never to be discounted— total adorability, Tai proved herself here to be an inveterate scene stealer.
Here, we begin to get a hint of Tai’s graceful physicality. In the video, she not only stands on her hind legs, she flaps her ear on cue and shows off her copious, alluring, under-trunk beauty marks (please, those aren’t freckles). In a related video, a promo for MTV’s VMAs, she elegantly lifts one leg in the air. Also observe in the “Circus” video how Tai generously shares the screen with another elephant (her real-life roommate Rosie).
Two skills Tai has in abundance are distilled to their essence in this ad: her impressive physical grace (further demonstrated in the Black Eyed Peas video. See slide No. 6) and her uncanny way with a deadpan reaction, which would reach its apotheosis in Bill Murray’s Larger than Life (See slide No. 4).
In this music video, Will.I.Am sits on Tai’s back, in a saddle made to look like the cockpit of a spaceship, as Tai trundles across the surface of the moon. Tai’s work is notable for a number of reasons: Not only does her slow, methodical gait subtly reference the moon’s limited-gravity atmosphere, she wears her costume — bracelets, face mask — with a quiet dignity. Plus, a less professional pachyderm would be inclined to launch Will.I.Am into space.
Though her screen time on this episode of The Hills was limited, the work that’s done here is really impressive. When the likes of Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt, and Lauren Hill try to convince you that the events in their reality show aren’t 100 percent staged, you can maybe sort of believe it when they’re sitting around having boring conversations. But the very presence of an elephant should expose their claims for the lies they are — why would an elephant, especially an acting elephant, show up at some random birthday party Heidi was planning unless everything was staged? And yet, here is Tai, showing these unprofessional actors how to put something over, giving Heidi a ride, picking up that random dude with her trunk, like she’s just working some regular party. A bravura show of naturalism.
There are plenty of human actors who can’t hold their own against Bill Murray, especially when he’s in “zany” mode, but in the 1996 buddy comedy Larger than Life, Tai, playing an elephant called Vera who needs to be transported across the country, more than holds her own. Admittedly, her size helps, but what’s really impressive here are her deadpan reactions — a Murray specialty — and her dismissive, precise retorts of actual hot air.
To play the abused elephant Rosie, Tai not only had to learn some specific skills — how to pick up a stake and put it back in the same hole — and undergo hours of makeup to create the illusion of serious injuries, she also had to convey the animal’s very specific dual nature: loving and sweet to the characters played by Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and dangerous and menacing to the cruel ringmaster. She nails it. Plus, as you can see in the photo at left, she has more chemistry with Pattinson than Witherspoon does.
One of an actor’s greatest challenges is not getting typecast: Everyone always wants to put you in a box. 1995’s Operation Dumbo Drop was key in establishing Tai as a dramatic, not just comedic, performer. Yes, the film, which co-starred Ray Liotta and Danny Glover, was ostensibly a comedy, but it was also based on a true story and set in 1968 war-torn Vietnam. Playing Bo Tat, an elephant the U.S. Army is trying to deliver to a Vietnamese village, Tai handled the comedy well, as always (see in particular her skydiving), but it was her aplomb with the material’s darker notes that makes this performance special.
There is just so much great stuff going on in this tour de force performance. Standing on front legs, sitting down, dexterous trunk movement, controlled destruction of a picket fence, all in the service of an adorable, tear-jerking story. To paraphrase a Hollywood cliché, this is the elephant that all the girls want to be best friends with, and all the boys want to break stuff with.
Get to Know the Real Star of Water for Elephants, the Busiest Pachyderm in Show Business