Plenty of first-time actors would give an arm and a leg (and perhaps a few fingers) to work with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. After becoming an irresistible onscreen pair in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges in 2002, this autumn the trio reunite for The Banshees of Inisherin — a similarly biting story about two old friends whose relationship comes to an abrupt end when Colm (Gleeson) decides he no longer wishes to entertain Pádraic (Farrell) or his inane small talk. The accomplished Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan round out the cast, but there’s one more actor who was decidedly less impressed by the caliber of Irish talent assembled: Jenny the miniature donkey.
Within The Banshees of Inisherin, Jenny is Pádraic’s best friend. Barely as tall as his waist, she follows him around the island dutifully, keeping Pádraic company and providing comfort once it becomes clear that Colm’s decision to end their friendship is permanent. With a tinkling bell around her neck, her presence provides a softness to Pádraic’s character as well as much-needed moments of comic relief. Not since the likes of Evie in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow has a farm animal demonstrated such a natural onscreen presence, though as Farrell recounted on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jenny didn’t always prove the most obliging scene partner: “She gave me a good old clatter on the knee,” as he recalled.
Call it the price of raw, untapped talent — this was Jenny’s first film set. “I met Jenny for the first time when she was only three years old, and she was green. She knew nothing,” explains Rita Moloney of Fircroft Animal Actors, located in County Kildare, Ireland. A veteran animal trainer for the screen, Rita has been in the business since the 1980s and scouted Jenny for Banshees (her Border collie, Morse, plays Colm’s dog). “Martin McDonagh, the first time he ever saw her, he just fell in love with her. She was a miniature donkey, but she was different, because she was very petite. As a breed specimen, she wasn’t great. You wouldn’t show her, and she wasn’t capable of doing much work.”
But acting proved to be something Jenny could do — at least, with a little encouragement from the donkey hired as her screen double, Nosy Rosie. Jenny required a lot of training before she was ready for her close-up, but having another donkey around meant she didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed by her human co-stars. “It was exceptionally hard to try and find a match for Jenny,” Rita says. “She was absolutely petite and absolutely perfect. She had the donkey attitude, more diva than any of the actors or actresses. And she knew she was different. When Rosie arrived from England, she was a totally different kettle of fish. Rosie was used to being around people. It was amazing to see the difference.”
The humble donkey might not command the same level of cinematic reverence as their leggier cousin the horse, but sweet Jenny’s presence in The Banshees of Inisherin speaks to Pádraic’s gentle character. Noble men have horses, but good men have donkeys, and while his best friend writes him off because of his lack of intellectual rigor, the fact Pádraic cares so deeply about his little donkey friend — an animal too small to be of any real use in their harsh, rural environment — speaks volumes about his priorities.
“Donkeys are fabulous animals,” Rita says. “They’re lovely but because really nobody gives them much attention, they know nothing. A donkey is a donkey is a donkey. For many years, they were used as just a working beast, and they were never taught how to learn. They existed and led a life where they just did their job and that was it.” Rita could just as easily be talking about Pádraic, who has existed peacefully in a humble life with his beloved sister, caring for his small gaggle of animals and whiling away the hours down at the local pub, chatting and drinking with Colm. The film uses their breakup as an allegory for the Irish Civil War, with the two men’s “piddling differences,” as Condon’s character Siobhán puts it, widening into a deadly chasm. There’s a fundamental loss of innocence for Pádraic, whose belief that it’s enough to be kind and good clashes with Colm’s existential crisis and his need to create something that will live on after his death — something loftier than just a sweet friendship with a donkey.
But what of Jenny’s on-set behavior and that kicking she gave her famous co-star? “It wasn’t malicious or anything like that,” Rita is quick to assure us. “We were doing a scene, and it was the first time that she was in close proximity to Minnie the pony. Colin was hand-feeding both of them,” Rita explains, and Jenny “got a little ‘me, me, me.’ So when Colin was walking behind her, she said, ‘Well, stuff you,’ and gave him a little kick. She tried to give Minnie a little kick too. But it wasn’t aggression towards Colin. It was a natural animal reaction.”
Farrell doesn’t feel that the incident affected their relationship, though he admits Jenny perhaps wasn’t a natural actress. “A film set can be an intimidating environment, and the best way to feel like you belong there is to know exactly what your purpose is,” he tells Vulture. “Whether you’re the sound guy, you’re making the sandwiches, delivering the lines — if you know what your purpose is, you’ve got a chance to be comfortable. Now Jenny … I’m not sure she knew what her purpose was. She didn’t know what a piece of tape on the floor meant.”
So how does one motivate a baby donkey with no acting experience to hit her mark? “Food motivation has its perils,” Rita tells me. “Because they can learn to bully, and believe you me, they can bully, no matter what animal you’re working with. If the only reward is food, that reward then becomes so important to the animal, they’ll demand it. So then we have to teach her that bullying for food doesn’t give her a reward any faster. We use something called ‘random reward,’ where it could be food, play, or praise, and we mix it up, so they never know what to expect.”
Certainly, Rita — along with fellow Banshees animal handlers Mary Owens and Kenny Gracey — pulled it off. Jenny is part of a fine animal ensemble, including a dancing dog, a good-natured pony, and several serene cows, and Farrell speaks fondly of working with her. “She was amazing. There’s a scene where she comes in and starts nudging the box on the table with her nose — and there was nothing in the box to entice her. That was pure instinct. I was a big fan of some of her acting choices.”
After her performance in Banshees, Jenny could probably have her pick of plum donkey roles — but happily for her, Martin McDonagh was so enamored of his star, he ensured her early retirement. “Martin fell so in love with her that he never wanted her to work again,” says Rita. “He asked if she could just do this movie, and then retire. Now she’s just a happy donkey running with other miniature donkeys. I only saw her about three weeks ago down in County Carlow, and she’s looking fine, fit, and healthy. She’s just living the dream.”