Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) come together through their compassion for a special elephant named Rosie © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Reese Witherspoon has created unforgettable characters that have connected with critics and audiences alike, winning an Academy Award for her performance as June Carter Cast in Walk the Line.

In her new movie Water for Elephants, based on Sara Gruen’s popular novel which spent 12 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, she portrays Marlena, the star of the Benzini Bros Circus. Set in the 1930s, Marlena is married to the circus’s tyrannical ringmaster and owner, August (Christoph Waltz), who trained her to be a horseback performer.

When a young veterinary student named Jacob (Robert Pattinson) joins the circus, he falls in love with Marlena, and attempts to persuade her to leave her dangerous husband.

Just before the press conference for the movie began, I saw Reese Witherspoon and her two children visiting with Tai the elephant, who plays Rosie in the film. The animal instantly recognized her and it was a lovely reunion.

Were you a fan of the book?

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and a special elephant © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

It’s a wonderful story of love, hope, redemption, second changes and finding happiness. I got so pulled into the world Sara created.

I liked the structure of the book. I liked how, all through the book, there was this man’s remembrance of his life and his life experiences.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is Hal Holbrook’s part of the movie, where he’s reminiscing.

I thought that was great.

The screenplay re-invents Marlena’s and August’s back stories, can you tell us about that?

Marlena was an orphan who was working as a seamstress in a dress shop where August discovered her when his circus visited the town.

He became infatuated with Marlena, invited her to come along with the circus and became a kind of Svengali, training her as a horseback rider and performer.

August is a brutal man, what was it like working with Christoph Waltz in that role?

He really got to the bottom of August’s darkness. He just does an extraordinary job of playing the character’s contrasting sides.

Did your costumes and look help you in finding this character?

Against all odds, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) find forbidden love © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Yeah, certainly. I debated about whether or not I was going to wear a wig. Ultimately, after lots of discussion and screen-testing, I decided, “I’m just going to cut my hair. I’m just going to dye it white. I’m just going to do it.” It was really transforming for me.

I didn’t even recognize myself.

It’s a real gift, as an actress, to have people around you, who are artisans that are the best at what they do, creating period costumes for you and set designs. It’s a very collaborative medium.

You’re only as good as the people that you collaborate with, so we were very lucky to have the best people in the business designing the film.

How was it to wear such body conscious costumes? Did you do anything to physically prepare for that?

Well, I was training a lot, with the circus training, riding the elephant and riding horses, so I was pretty busy. I’ve made a conscious effort, throughout my career, to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie, and here I was in this movie, wearing a leotard for the majority of it.

It was horrifying! But, it was inspiring to have Jacqueline West design them. They’re beautiful.

It was a different time, when women loved their curves and enjoyed being voluptuous, and all that sort of thing. All of the costumes in the film are very flattering for women.

What was it like to work with Tai the elephant, especially in the beginning?

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) find love in a magical place © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

(Director) Francis [Lawrence] and I went out and visited Tai, probably three or four months before shooting, and he brought a camera. I was like, “Why did you bring a camera?.” He took pictures of me, every moment of the first experiences I had, of meeting her and her picking me up.

Then, he sent me the pictures and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” I really have this memory of the first time I met her. I was terrified. I screamed.

I like animals, but this was a completely unique experience.

I’m not very big and Tai is not very small. I had to learn how to step on her trunk and hurdle myself on top of her. It was very complicated, but I finally got it.

It was one of my greatest accomplishments!

What was Francis Lawrence like as a director?

In a train boxcar, forbidden passions are ignited for Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I was very excited to work with Francis. I was a big fan of I Am Legend. I just thought he brought a lot of humanity to that film. We had a lot of conversations about research that he had done, which was very extensive.

It’s a big undertaking, in taking on a very popular novel and having to tell a story with scenes that have no words.

Film is a very visual medium, and I think he did an incredible job with that. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are ones where we don’t speak at all. We’re just seeing each other, from a distance.

I think he told the story beautifully, in that capacity, and really chose those moments well.

Why do you feel this movie will appeal to audiences?

People have always wanted to have their ‘day at the circus’ – a joyful moment taking them outside their every day lives.

I hope that’s what we’ve done here: create something that people will enjoy.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane