Red Dog sounds like it could be an ‘80s action movie about an underground pit fighter or street racer, or secret agent code named “Red Dog.” It’s actually the true story about an Australian dog that touched an entire mining town. In the movie, a canine biopic of sorts, Josh Lucas plays John, the American who came to Australia and became Red Dog’s (played by “Koko”) de facto owner. We got to chat with Lucas about his passion project, and he was quite open about his Hollywood experience in the Poseidon days as well.
CraveOnline: In Red Dog, you really have to form a relationship with the dog that’s the same as you’d have with any human costar in a movie, right?
Josh Lucas: Absolutely. That was very much the challenge and the joy of the film and I say definitely both because I love dogs and I did this movie probably because of my relationship with my dog. He’s a rescue I’ve had that kind of best friend kind of experience with for many years. But it’s a little different when you’re working with a dog. It’s a little bit like that thing that happens when you work with an actress for the first time and you have to play like you’re wildly in love. There’s a real feeling out period, a real trust that has to be built up. Koko, to be totally honest, was not a dog that loves acting at all. He was very much a diva in the sense that he would do it right once and then he was like, “I don’t need to do it again, I already did it right.” [Laughs] And he would just take off running. I mean, he would run as hard and fast as he could from set. So part of it became that I had to create a relationship that he trusted me and felt like I was kind of one of his trainers, where he had enough respect for me to behave I guess is really part of it, because a lot of the times, with many of the rest of the crew and cast, he just didn’t want to be there and didn’t want to do it at all and he would just leave.
Had you ever done anything like that in acting before?
No, not really. I’ve definitely worked with difficult co-stars but partly what I find oftentimes with difficult actors is that they’re the ones who are challenging you in the most interesting ways. That makes them the most exciting acting or the most exciting on-screen chemistry that happens. I would say that Koko had that with me, where Koko is so present. He’s such an obviously incredibly intelligent animal and I definitely felt quite quickly that I couldn’t trust that he was going to respond to his trainers correctly because he just felt like, “I don’t want to do this.” So I had to establish a relationship with him which was a little bit as if he was my dog for that short period of time. I liked and cared about Koko a lot. There were a couple different dogs that did different pieces of the movie as usual, but Koko was really the magic on screen.
Do those difficult costars know you consider them difficult?
[Laughs] I think most difficult actors know that they’re difficult. It’s one of the things that they do. It’s funny, there are two kinds of difficult actors. There’s the ones who are insecure who are doing it because they’re scared, and then the ones who are doing it because they’re kind of creating fire in a way on screen. I’ve got to say, look, Russell Crowe is a difficult actor and he’s one of my favorites I’ve ever worked with. Sean Penn, the same thing, an actor who I just find remarkably electric to work with because he brings such passion and a lot of people can equate that to being difficult but it’s very much a different thing if someone’s difficult because they want a bigger trailer or they want more personal treatments.
Was John the real owner of Red Dog, or a creation of the film?
No, that’s what happened. John showed up and Red Dog for no apparent reason almost immediately adopted John. Actually, from what I understand, John didn’t really warm to Red Dog for quite a while, unlike the rest of the people. It’s kind of that thing of the way Red Dog chose him was confusing to everyone because everyone pretended or wanted to have a specialized relationship with Red Dog. It’s kind of interesting. You meet miners to this day who’ll come up to you, older men who have these photographs of laying in bed drunk with Red Dog and they put a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his paw. Red Dog is like passed out on his bed but it’s just kind of remarkable weird stories about how if you’d come home and Red Dog was in your bed, you didn’t move Red Dog. It’s like what? Why didn’t you move the dog? “Oh no, because Red Dog was too special.” [Laughs] So everyone had this really remarkable thing with this dog. Then when John showed up, for whatever reason, he just stayed with John and they became really, really close. I think Red Dog helped John warm into the community because John was an outsider a little bit like what’s portrayed in the movie and then it took a while for people to let him in which is quite common for the tougher outback parts of Australia I would say. I’ve experienced Australia quite a bit that way and it’s quite consistent that it takes a while for people to warm up to you that way. Red Dog was very much a catalyst to allow that to happen and John became deeply loved in the community, particularly after what happened.
As a pet owner, you might have some insight to this. Why do you think animals in film have an ability to touch our emotions in a different way than even the best human characters can?
I think it’s sort of similar to the way that they do in life. I think that in life, it’s just so impossible not to be totally compassionate to a dog. Dogs have this loyalty inside of them and this depth of soul I would say. For some reason, it’s unquestionable. Most everyone I know who has a dog has just this best friend and the deepest love for their dog. Some people say they’re closer to their dogs than they are their own children or their own family. I think what it is is that translates to film where you know the dog’s not lying. You know the dog’s not doing it for any reason other than love in a way because you can’t pay a dog really. You can only give it better food. Fame means nothing to dogs and career means nothing to dogs. It’s all about loyalty and love and I think that that just somehow translates across the screen.
I found it amusing you’re in two films called Stolen within three years.
I’m stunned by that too. In fact, they just changed the title of the Nic Cage movie to Stolen. It was called something different originally but I thought that was strange as well.
What kind of cool character do you get to play with Nic Cage?
You know, in that movie, it’s funny, Nic Cage actually said this to me. He said, “You have the Nic Cage role in this movie.” There was a funny joke from “Saturday Night Live” recently which is the ultimate Nic Cage movie, everything’s on fire and every single line is either whispered or screamed. I actually in that movie am the one who’s setting everything on fire and screaming the lines. It was just pure chewing on the scenery absolute fun. It’s funny, Nic obviously does two kinds of movies: the Charlie Kaufman deep soul movies and then these kind of big playful action movies. He really loves them. He’s, of every actor I’ve worked with, one of the most consummately professional, prepared guys who’s just got this kind of quiet, compassionate soul and he’s such a treat to work with. It’s interesting to then go be the big, big, gnarly bad guy in one of his movies which is kind of what he seems to do in many of them these days.
There was a time when Hollywood wanted to put you in the big star vehicle movies like Stealth, Poseidon and even Glory Road. How do you look back on that period?
Sort of with, how do I put this, tepid feelings of great moments and moments where I feel like not just did I make mistakes, but did I fall into certain traps of what I think, not to name drop, but Alec Baldwin said when you fall from the movie star tree. He said every actor in their period of life go through, if they’re lucky enough to be in a position where they’re working in Hollywood for a long enough period of time and be the lead of big Hollywood movies, Hollywood puts a very hot spotlight on you in a way that can be absolutely thrilling for some people and overwhelming for others and uncomfortable for others. For me it was a mix of all that. I loved the work of it, particularly a movie like Glory Road, while a movie like Poseidon I just felt beaten and exhausted at the end of the day, in a way that I was working on like a coal mine. It was dangerous, I was burnt and hurt and in and out of the hospital. I was just beaten by it. I didn’t have a lot of love for the experience of it I would say. So that kind of changed my essence in like what did I want to do? A lot of it was to go back and make movies that I love just the story of. Glory Road was a great movie that way which is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie that allowed that to happen, but Hollywood is a beast. It’s a fickle beast and more and more these days I’m just grateful to be a part of movies that I love that get some audience, like Red Dog. It’s obviously been remarkably successful throughout the world. I think it’s a different story here because the marketing and money that has to go behind a movie oftentimes doesn’t necessarily support the good movies. It supports the corporate commercial movies. I guess I’ve had that big transition not feeling as much love for those.
What were your good experiences in Hollywood?
You mentioned two of them, Red Dog is absolutely one of them. Glory Road is one of them. I do have a warm place in my heart for Sweet Home Alabama because it partly has been so successful and such a movie that people really loved. A lot of the smaller movies I’ve made that have been deeply personal journeys that you hope get a little bit of an audience, I’ve been sad that they’ve sort of dissipated into the ether of movies that I think are pretty good. Yet every once in a while, someone will come up and be like, “Wonderland is my favorite movie.” I think Wonderland is a fascinating, excellent movie, as is David Gordon Green’s movie we did called Undertow. It’s just these little gems that you have that kind of disappear into a kind of shelf oftentimes is what makes the Hollywood journey such a difficult one sometimes because you pour your soul into it and no one ends up seeing it. That’s why something like Red Dog, I’m really happy it’s big in Australia. I’d love it if people go see it here because I think it’s something I haven’t yet shown that movie to anybody here who didn’t go, “Oh, that was wonderful.”
I’m hopeful for the VOD audience. That could help it reach people.
Yeah, that totally changes the game.