Hours after long-haired guinea pigs Oscar, Lucas, and Encore made their screen debut in the premiere of the second season of House of Cards, the character they played, Cashew — devoted pet to hacktivist Gavin (played Jimmi Simpson) — became a meme and secured a seat in the canon of beloved onscreen animals. The casting, training, and handling of the trio fell under the purview of Carol Rosen, the Maryland-based owner of Positive Dog Training and Animal Actors. Rosen, who has been with House of Cards since season one (she worked with Slugline’s office collie and Raymond Tusk’s parrot, to name a few of her non-human clients), spoke with Vulture about the guinea pig show circuit, ensuring poor Cashew’s safety during the cringe-inducing squish scene, and how he got big in Asia.
How did House of Cards first approach you about the Cashew story line?
The props master said, “Hey, we’re looking for a long-haired guinea pig.” They wanted three that looked very much alike so they were basically indistinguishable. What they wanted was a really calm, laid-back, easygoing guinea pig that loved to be held. I found a couple that were really, really nice; however, a few of them were solid black, and it’s hard to use animals with solid black facial features because you can’t see any of the expressions. My friend Tina’s guinea pigs were just amazing, just so cool. I passed on photos and they selected those three [Oscar, Encore and Lucas]. And so the main one that we used for 90 percent of the scenes was this particular guinea pig, Oscar. He was much larger than the other two and he was older.
How did the process differ from casting other animals?
I learned so much about guinea pigs. I’m trying to remember what breed Cashew is — I think he’s a Silkie. But if you look online and you see them for show, their hair extends like maybe a foot out on either side of the body. There’s no way they can actually walk without having their hair up in curlers and things. You can’t put a guinea pig that you’re going to show in a competition in with any other guinea pigs, especially the babies, because they’ll nibble on the coat, and if the coat is in any way damaged, even if it grows back, they’re no longer eligible to be shown. So Oscar had been in with babies because it keeps him happy, and he had his hair chewed off. Because of that, we could trim him and it would be okay because he couldn’t be shown. It’s a whole world I didn’t know even existed.
How did you prepare them for their scenes? Is it even possible to really train a guinea pig?
They told me the behaviors that they needed the guinea pig to do, and they weren’t very difficult behaviors. One of them was the guinea pig had to run from point A to point B. At that point, I didn’t know that point A was underneath the foot of the FBI agent and point B was Gavin. And he had to be held while Gavin did that barking scene. And then most of the time he just had to sit on Gavin’s shoulder or chill next to Gavin’s keyboard and nibble on a carrot, or just be relaxed and hanging out with Gavin. But there was definitely training involved. Obviously, with guinea pigs, it takes a lot longer and they’re a little bit more limited in what they can learn; however, they’re still trainable.
Were you and Oscar nervous about the squish scene?
I was not upset or nervous because they had spent a couple of days having an effects guy design this safety device for Cashew, which a lot of time and effort went into. When they first selected Oscar, we had to send all these detailed measurements of his body so they could come up with a little harness to fit him properly and also so that he would fit inside this angular safety device. And so he would get in his little harness and that would be attached to the safety device. It had little bars that kept him from being pushed on. So you could put the full body weight of a person on it and it would not move. The effects guy who built it and the props master were fantastic about it.
Were the guinea pigs popular on set?
The day before we shot for the first time, their owner gave them all a haircut so they would match and be identical. It was the most adorable haircut; they looked like Alvin and the Chipmunks. And everybody just couldn’t believe how cute they were. When they’d say, “We’re ready for Cashew,” we’d bring him out and, as we’d walk in — it was just amazing, I’d never seen anything like this — everybody would stop. You’d hear total quiet and you’d hear people say, “Oh, Cashew, oh, it’s Cashew, oh you’re so cute! Cashew!” He had that effect on everybody. They make this little noise. It’s the lovliest sound. It’s a [makes a trilling, cooing noise], I can’t even do it. And it’s so, so cute.
Jimmi Simpson is truly playing opposite Cashew. Did he feel comfortable acting with Oscar?
Oh, absolutely. Between each shoot, I would take him from Jimmi and a lot of times Jimmi would just wave me off and say, “It’s all right, I’ll just hold him.” It was a natural bonding with him. There’s a scene where he pulls him up and kisses him. That was genuine.
Were there any instances of mischief or diva behavior?
The very first time we brought him in, we didn’t know that if you want them not to wiggle and squiggle a lot, and kind of chill, it’s better to give them food so they’re full. If they’re not full, then they’re foraging around looking for food. And so we had [Oscar] sitting on the computer table next to the keyboard and Jimmi was stroking him. I was standing next to the director and he kept muttering something and I said, “Is there something you need?” And he said, “Yeah, I want Cashew to stand totally still.” It was one of those seconds where everybody stops talking so his voice carried all the way across the room and at the second he said it, Cashew just stopped completely and didn’t move for a full 20 seconds. It was as if he was like, “Oh, I’m sorry!”
Is Cashew’s mom Tina really proud to be living with America’s most famous guinea pigs?
Oh my gosh, she’s so excited. She’s still sending me links. One of the websites had a list of 15 things that Cashew did. There were quite a few articles about Cashew and how fabulous he was and how cute he was and this and that, and how people couldn’t stand the squish scene because they couldn’t watch it. Oh, and he had his own Twitter page. But I sent her [his owner] an email a week later, saying it looks like things are calming down with Cashew, I haven’t seen anything new. And then she sent me a couple more links. She said that apparently in China he’s really a hit.