Zookeeper - Rosario Dawson and Kevin James
Kate (Rosario Dawson) and Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

It’s practically a first for Rosario Dawson – an out-and-out comedy. She’s starred in an array of dramatic movies in Seven Pounds, Grindhouse, Unstoppable, Sin City, Eagle Eye and Kill Shot – also appearing in the fantasy comedy, Percy Jackson, Clerks 2 and the darkly funny Men in Black 2.

In the new family comedy Zookeeper, she portrays Kate, a veterinarian on loan to the Franklin Park Zoo, where she meets the zoo’s caretaker, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James). Keyes is about to leave his job, feeling it isolates him from people. But the animals he works with have other ideas – they won’t let him leave and they tell him so … literally, breaking their code of silence to talk, with such stars as Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Adam Sandler and Nick Nolte providing the voices.

At the press day for the movie, Rosario Dawson spoke of her role and the magic of talking animals.

Can you tell us a little about your character in this?

Zookeeper - Ken Jeong, Kevin James and Rosario Dawson
Venom (Ken Jeong), Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) and Kate (Rosario Dawson) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

I play Kate, a guest veterinarian. She’s coming to the zoo to put up an eagle enclosure and along the way she’s befriended Griffin. That friendship ends up becoming an alliance in trying to help him get the girl of his dreams. So she plays his wing woman and lots of shenanigans and insanity [ensues] as you can imagine.

There was so much going into it and as the process was unveiling it was wonderful to find these moments that we always kept very sincere and really sweet. We never did some overt, sexual or sensual thing, where we looked at each other longingly, and then went, ‘No, but we’re on a different path.’

We never made it like that, because I don’t think real life is like that. I think most times when you actually have that moment that’s when you make a change.

To put it in any earlier in the film would be like they were denying themselves something, and I really think that that’s not what it was. It was just all of us enjoying each other.

You got to work closely with Sydney, the eagle, in this. What was that like?

Zookeeper - Rosario Dawson
Kate (Rosario Dawson) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

She’s a wedge-tailed eagle; she’s such a beautiful creature. It gave me a lot of respect and awe for her power.

I was fascinated by watching her and playing with her, watching the little spot in her chest where she hides food, how long her legs are, how strong her claws are. Seeing that, I could imagine why my character loves what she does so much.

This is a different sort of role for you.

I’ve been acting for 15 years and I’ve never done a lot of comedy.

I like that you can be doing something for 15 years and still be learning and growing. On a comedy like this one, you never just have your lines, you have your second take jokes, third take jokes, fourth take jokes, all to give the director more options in the editing room.

I’ve never been a part of that before, and it turns out there’s a whole rhythm to it. You’ve got to keep up or you can be caught off-guard.

I was really grateful to Kevin – he was game for helping me along the way.

He really coached me in a really cool way, and I didn’t feel totally stressed out and nervous. Kevin would be making up a joke and it was really nice to feel like this complete permission to just go there, because Kevin was so ridiculous and over-the-top most of the time.

Everyone was really challenged to bring it and Kevin brought it, he’s a producer on this, he’s a writer on this, and he’s just a great actor and has the chops, all the timing that he’s learned from his career. And he was super generous about sharing that with us.

Frank [Coraci, the movie’s director] was a great guide too – any time I went too deep with my character, he’d say, ‘Remember, it’s funny.’

Did you get to hear the voices of the animals before you started shooting?

We had the table read and we had everything already recorded.

They had gotten everyone into the booths to record them, so we got to hear Cher and Sylvester from the very beginning, so that once we went into the movie, they weren’t there, but we had a sense of their personality and of what we were actually creating.

What was it like working with the animals?

The animals were actually really surprisingly amazing to work with, because they always say [don’t work with] animals or children. And I thought they were really remarkable, they had to be fed the entire time.

I remember there was whipped cream involved with the bears, which I never would have thought. They love really sweet things. They were all about little marshmallows. It was really interesting and really odd to see these creatures eating these things that you’re so used to and seeing that that works.

Then you start really watching [what they’re doing with the animals] because you’re wondering what we’re going for, what they’re trying to create. And suddenly you start to see what the director and everyone’s going for, a swat move feels like he’s  going, ‘Aw, come on.’

It’s a weird subtle twitch of an eyebrow that you know you can make into this amazing moment in the movie. It was just remarkable to see how everybody worked together.

Judy Sloane

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