With apologies to John Magaro and Orion Lee, the human performers at the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful 19th-century buddy movie First Cow, the film might not work nearly as well without the equally soulful turn by the actor in the title role: Eve the cow, who plays the earliest dairy cow ever brought to the Oregon Territory. It’s a layered performance loaded with symbolism — her appearance sets off a milk-thieving scheme that underlines the skullduggery at the heart of the American experiment — but it’s grounded, too. She may be the first cow, but she’s also, you know, just a cow. The result is an udderly charming screen debut, an animal actor taking an opportunity and grabbing it by the horns.
Most of the time when cows are cast in movies, they are essentially extras, standing around in the background to lend a touch of rural atmosphere to a shot. Not here. “This is our first leading-cow role,” says Lauren Henry of Talented Animals, a Pacific Northwest business that trains animals for Hollywood productions. The first cow in First Cow makes a triumphant appearance riding down a raft one misty morning; later in the film, she acts one-on-one with Magaro during the milking scenes and is even responsible for helping the movie’s third-act turn play out. For an animal role, it’s pretty high steaks.
What makes for a good movie cow? In the original binder full of bovines she gave to Reichardt, Henry highlighted cows she knew could be successful on-camera. “They were all already super-happy, loved people, had a very strong sense of themselves, were very trusting,” Henry says. Since the cow would primarily be acting alongside Magaro, who is not a gigantic man, Reichardt wanted the smallest cow with the biggest eyes. After taking stock of her options, the director went with Eve. “She’s very petite,” says Henry. “She does have big eyes. She was commanding onscreen without being overwhelming, like, Whoa, there’s a cow.” Aesthetically, Eve’s muted-brown color turned out to match the film’s palette. And best of all, her personality made her a natural performer. “This particular cow loves people and loves anything to do with people,” says Henry. “She thrives on the attention, the affection, the focus being on her.”
“Compared to horses, cows are very practical animals,” Henry says. “They don’t get upset about things.” Still, to prepare Eve for the hustle and bustle of a working set, Henry set up a gradual period of acclimation. Eve was slowly introduced to all the things she would encounter on the shoot: lights, props, a generator, a fog machine. “We put them through those environments little by little, until it becomes what will look like a real set to them,” the trainer says. “It’s not something they’re afraid of when they see it for the first time. It’s all been positively associated with good things happening in their lives.”
It also helped that Eve is, as Henry puts it, “very food motivated.” She loves apples and oats and carrots, too. (Upon learning of Eve’s tastes, a local farmer showed up on set with a case of apples for her.) To forge a healthy working relationship, Magaro made sure to keep a supply of apple-oat cookies in his pocket for Eve. “The good thing with a cow is, as long as you have treats to bribe them, they’ll pretty much love you no matter what,” he says.
Both trainer and co-stars praise the vibe Eve brought to the set. “When there’s any interaction between her and [Magaro], it’s genuine,” says Henry. “You can feel it. It’s not like she’s checked out and things are just happening around her. She’s involved in those scenes, and she’s involved with him. She’s almost ignoring everything else that’s going on around her.”
Magaro had to milk Eve himself — no stunt doubles here. “It’s like riding a bike,” he says; once you get a hang of the motion, you don’t forget it. Otherwise, the only major instruction for acting opposite a cow was not to stand behind her. After that, “they were like, ‘You’re on your own now, kid,’” he says. Despite the old adage warning against acting with animals or children, Magaro had a wonderful time with his silent co-star. “Something about her energy was really calming,” he says. “You could just sit there and look her in the eyes, and you felt really at ease being next to her. There’s something about being that close to an animal that big and feeling safe.”
Surprising everyone, Eve also brought a professional “yes, and” spirit to the gig. In her biggest scene, she was supposed to warmly greet Magaro at a crucial moment. During rehearsal, he approached on her right side, but when it came time to frame the shot, it was changed so he came up on her left. “I was like, Oh no, she’s pattern trained now. She can’t understand that we just switched it,” Henry says. Except, once the camera started rolling, Eve nailed it anyway. She found Magaro and nuzzled him like an old friend. “She absolutely understood what that scene required,” Henry says. “She tried really hard to figure it out: You guys can’t fool me. He’s over here now.” Magaro was so impressed he figured she must have been improvising. “How could you have ever planned for her to be constantly nuzzling against me? It became a lot more than what it could have been.”
When I spoke to Henry and Magaro, it was early March. First Cow was about to hit theaters, and Eve was relaxing at home on the 20-acre farm she shares with alpacas, goats, and other livestock. She had given birth to a calf, named Cookie after Magaro’s character. Henry says Eve hasn’t retired from the movie industry. “She actually physically picks up items and brings them to us, just always trying to elicit more attention,” she says. “I’m hoping another job shows up for her soon.” The pandemic may have disrupted the movie’s release schedule — after spending barely a week in theaters, the film is now hitting VOD this weekend — but it appears not to have changed Eve’s routine much. (Though A24, always in search of a whey to make an animal go viral, has set her up with a Cameo account.) Otherwise, the biggest news in her life is about seasonal fruit: Because it’s summer, this food-focused cow has been happily munching on watermelon.