Mad about the dog

Fri, Feb 17, 2012, 00:00

Koko, the star of Red Dog,took a professional approach to playing the real-life hobo pup who journeyed across the Australian wilderness. ‘He’s the Russell Crowe of the dog world,’ co-star Josh Lucas tells TARA BRADY

EVEN BEFORE he tells us about his love of throwing tennis balls for a special furry someone, Josh Lucas gives himself away as a dog person. “I have an incredible relationship with my dog,” gushes the boyish 40-year-old. “I got him in a rescue centre in Harlem a long time ago and he’s been my best, best friend for many years.” Already a confirmed canine fancier, Lucas couldn’t believe his luck when the screenplay for Red Dogcame his way. The famous kelpie-cattle dog cross is not a household name on this side of the planet but he’s well known Down Under as the real life hobo pup who journeyed across the forbidding western Pilbara region during the 1970s.

There is a statue in his memory in Dampier, one of his favourite watering holes, and favourite Red Dog anecdotes have been collected by various authors including Nancy Gillespie and Louis de Bernières.

Lucas, proud Husky companion and the star of Stealth, The Lincoln Lawyerand incoming TV blockbuster The Firm, did not require much persuading to sign on for Red Dog, the biographical motion picture.

“Sometimes you have to go out and talk about a movie and it’s not at all fun because you don’t love the finished film,” admits the actor. “It’s just part of your job. But I got 20 pages into Red Dogand thought it was the most fantastic script I’d ever read. I’m thrilled with the finished film.” The shoot was, he says, a boy’s own story in its own right.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work in Australia three times. And I’ve travelled around pretty much the entire country. But where Red Dogwas shot is basically inhospitable. There’s no reason for people to be there because there’s no water. There are really sad moments out there. You see kangaroos off in the distance dying from thirst. The land is just ore, like walking on metal. It’s red and hard and forbidding. It’s beautiful but it’s one of the most intense environments in the world. Even the miners who work there come for two weeks then go back to Perth about 2,000 miles south.”

Unsurprisingly, given the terrain, the miners, some surviving Red Dog acquaintances, were drafted in as extras. “You’d constantly meet these miners who had amazing stories about Red Dog. They’d show you photos of Red Dog living in one of their little miners’ tents passed out with a cigarette in his mouth. They were usually complaining that Koko, our dog, wasn’t as cool as real Red Dog.”

Lucas, of course, is no stranger to roughing it. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas to doctor Don and midwife Michele, the young Joshua Lucas Easy Dent Maurer moved early and often. By 13 he had lived in 30 different towns with his nuclear activist parents.

“We moved every six months because my parents were very active against nuclear power and nuclear proliferation,” recalls Lucas. “They put themselves forward and they moved from city to city organising protests. It was an unusual way to grow up but I’m so proud of what they did.

“When they had me there was a lot of talk about the Doomsday Clock and they felt someone had to assume responsibility for their kids’ future. My father actually chained himself to railroad track at one time to try to stop a military train carrying plutonium. It was beautiful activism.”

They might have been hippies but his parents were still concerned when the teenager announced his intention to give Hollywood a whirl right out of high school. Early Lucas TV appearances in Life Goes Onand Jake and the Fatmandid little to bring them around.

“For many years they were very skeptical,” says the actor. “My father sat me down at 16 to talk me out of it. It wasn’t that he thought what I was doing was a joke by any means. It was totally the opposite.

“They loved cinema. They were worried I wasn’t going to take it seriously enough to make a career out of it. He gave me this speech that I always remember: ‘If you’re going to do this then you need to approach it the way I approach being a doctor’.”

Lucas landed his first prominent movie role on the 1993 cannibal survival drama, Alive. He’s scored plenty of mainstream brownies since – in Sweet Home Alabamawith Reese Witherspoon, in Ang Lee’s Hulk, in Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon– but has pointedly plumped for quality, character driven cinema when given the choice. It has to be this way, he says: “Projects not done for love or personal interest never work out for me.

“The longer I do this the more I think I have to have some kind of personal connection with the material. I wanted to do Lindbergh in J. Edgarbecause my grandmother was one of the first female pilots in America with Amelia Earhart and she was fascinated by Lindbergh. So the part meant something to me right away.”

Still, the indie sector isn’t always kind to its contributors. Many of Lucas’ best onscreen performances – as basketball coach Don Haskins in Glory Roador the murderous Deel in David Gordon Green’s Undertow– have been stifled by inadequate distribution.

“To be honest that’s one of the things I grapple with most,” says Lucas. “Those two films you mention in particular – Undertowand Glory Road– nobody saw those films. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little devastated. You pour your soul into something and the reviews are good and the people who do see the movie really like it and they come up and ask you: ‘What happened?’ And you don’t know. There’s almost a perfect storm required to ensure a movie gets out there. Red Dogcaught on fire in Australia but it’s only now getting to Ireland and England and it still hasn’t opened in the States. It’s a mystery.” Red Dogdid indeed catch fire on its home turf earning seven out of nine nominations at last year’s Inside Film Awards including best picture. A box office smash, the film has taken more than $21 million in Australia alone and turned Koko, its Kelpie star, into a YouTube sensation.

“He’s the Russell Crowe of the dog world,” says Lucas, who played opposite Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. “He’s brilliant and he’s really terrific to play off because he’s so instinctive. I love Koko but his professional attitude was ‘I did it once. If you didn’t get it on camera that’s your problem’. And he’s basically bolt and run as hard as he could from the set. We were constantly chasing him. He lives with our producer now who retired him on the last day of the shoot. He’s just a bit too wild for acting.”

In keeping with the outdoorsy theme, Lucas has just essayed Neal Cassady in Michael Polish’s long awaited adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel, Big Sur.

“It was fascinating and it was great to have all these first-hand sources at my disposal,” says Lucas. “It goes back to what my dad told me. ‘Research like you’re going into surgery’.”


Red Dogopens Friday 24

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