It’s a Dog’s Life for Piper
by Paul Fischer
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Beautiful Piper Perabo seems to have come full circle: she made her film debut opposite Rocky and Bullwinkle and in her latest film one of her co-stars is a Beverly Hills Chihuahua. After graduating college, Piper Perabo moved to New York and was later cast in a short film called Single Spaced (1997). Her first big role came after that, where she played the girlfriend of a wannabe rapper in Whiteboyz (1999). In 2000, she was cast in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000) as FBI agent Karen Sympathy. However, the role that really got her recognized was in Coyote Ugly (2000), in which she played Violet Sanford, a.k.a. “Jersey,” who moves to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a songwriter. In 2001, she starred in an independent Canadian movie called Lost and Delirious (2001), playing a boarding-school student who falls in love with another girl. The next year, she starred as a French exchange student in Slap Her… She’s French (2002). In 2003, she had a small role as the oldest daughter in Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), which also starred Steve Martin, Ashton Kutcher, and Bonnie Hunt. She has also appeared in The I Inside (2003), Perfect Opposites (2004), George and the Dragon (2004), Edison (2005), The Cave (2005), and 10th & Wolf (2006). The actress returns to the theatre later this year, and spoke to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: What, for you, was the attraction of taking this on? Was it because it was the idea of doing a family film, which I guess are very few and far between? Or did you just like the idea of working with a couple of chihuahuas?
Piper Perabo: I took the film because when I was a kid, I watched Disney films. Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Lady and the Tramp were all films that were really important to me as a kid. And—even before I knew I wanted to be an actor, I really enjoyed these films. So as a grown-up, to sort of get an opportunity to be in one seemed sort of fitting.
PF: What were the particular challenges of working not only with the human side of the story, but I guess with the animals?
PP: I think it requires a lot of patience, working with the animals. You know, even though they’re trained to know how to do everything that they’re supposed to do, you still have to keep a very quiet set, and not distract them. Even with petting them and hugging them and being kind to them, you have to create an environment where you can do your scene, and also leave space for them to sort of have their concentration.
PF: Do you like dogs?
PP: I like dogs, yeah. I don’t have one of my own, but I like them.
PF: When you got the script and you looked at it, what was your first reaction? I mean, did you know what the story was about before you actually read the script, or did you come across it and go, “What is this?”
PP: I didn’t know what the story was about before I read the script. Usually—I mean, my desk is like, a pile of scripts. And I sit there and go from one to the next. And—yeah. But I read this, and I sort of really responded to it. I like that it’s kind of a road adventure movie. And I like how the people’s relationship sort of corresponds with the animals. I thought it was really sweet.
PF: So the first couple of pages, you’re reading that and you’re not going, “Oh, I don’t know about this!” Because my first reaction is, “Oh, I don’t know about these dogs talking.” And then all of a sudden you get into the story—like you’re saying, the road picture and everything. And really, it’s great. You’re glued to it.
PP: I do think there’s a concern. You know, if you haven’t seen how the animation’s going to look—obviously, I’ve done other animated films, and I know that it can be tricky. And if it looks bad, it pulls you right out of the story. And it’s distracting. So until I saw the final film, even, I had reservations about that. Because you want them—you want it to look real, and it can’t be too much. And it’s tricky. You don’t really know until you see—hopefully Disney knows what they’re doing, though, do you know what I mean?
PF: Can you identify with this sort of self-absorbed girl?
PP: Yeah. I feel I understand her perfectly. [laughs]
PF: What aspect of it could you relate to, if anything at all?
PP: I can relate to the sort of feeling of over—when she gets to Mexico and she’s lost this dog, and you’re on your own in a foreign country, and you need help. I can sort of understand that. I traveled a lot doing films when I was young—you know, in my 20s, in Romania and Luxembourg and places that I didn’t know about. And if I got lost, I didn’t have anybody to help me. And I don’t speak Luxembourgish or Romanian. So I can relate to that feeling of sort of feeling the kind of culture shock, and overwhelmedness. And I could only wish that a guy like Manolo would walk up to me and be like, “Oh, are you lost? Could I help you? I have a dog, too.” Like, “Let’s figure this out.”
PF: It must have been hard to work with such an unattractive leading actor.
PP: I found it very easy. [laughs]
PF: How was it working on location?
PP: Location was amazing. I’d never been to Mexico before, and so we shot all over the country. We were in the Senor Desert, and in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, everywhere. Not everywhere, but a lot of places. So it was fun to get to see the country in that way.
PF: Did you take advantage of any of the social life that some of these places have to offer?
PP: I saw some of the social life. We were social.
PF: Can you talk a little bit about working with Jamie Lee Curtis?
PP: Jamie is amazing. She’s so beautiful that I think it requires that she have the personality that she does. She’s so stunning when she walks onto a set, that at least to get people to remember what they’re here to do, besides stare at how beautiful she is— she has this kind of bright, open energy. And she’s amazing. It’s very easy to work with her.
PF: Piper, you’ve had a very interesting career. Very different kinds of films. Do you find it difficult to find stuff that really interests you? And how tough is it for you still at this particular point in your career, to compete with every—you know, I mean, obviously there’s a lot of competition out there for all these great roles.
PP: Yeah. I mean, I think it will probably always be difficult to find the roles that really speak to you. I think that’s part of the craft, actually, is choosing what interests you, and turning down what doesn’t. I did my first off-Broadway play this summer in New York.
PF: Which play?
PP: It’s Neil LaBute’s new play, Reasons to Be Pretty. And for me, that was really—the roles you choose, I think, is part of your craft as an actor.
PF: Do you get cynical about the business? Disillusioned?
PP: I think that’s, like, a little—it’s not that simple, you know? Obviously it’s a strange business, and it has a lot of strange priorities. And I think the important thing is to just hang onto yourself. And how the business treats you is not as important as how you look at yourself and your own career.
PF: So what do you do to try to deflect what goes on in Hollywood? I mean, do you kind of—are there other creative things that interest you besides acting?
PP: Well, really, acting is what interests me, and not the other things of Hollywood. And I think that’s how I keep my focus on my work. I live in New York. And I try and keep my focus on the acting, and not all the other stuff that goes on around it, if that’s possible. At least I try to.
PF: Do you think that is possible?
PP: I think it is.
PF: When you see this movie put together, and you see all the voices of the dogs, and the interaction with you after it’s all been said and done, how surprised are you by all of that?
PP: Pretty surprised, because when we’re doing our scenes, we leave space for the dog conversations. But obviously they’re not talking. So it’s fun to—it’s fun when you see it in the theatre, to kind of hear what they do. And when you have actors like George Lopez, you know he can write for himself, and sort of make the dialogue so amazing. And like, they work on the jokes. And it’s really exciting. It’s like seeing a second half of the movie that you don’t know is there.
PF: Originally this movie was called South of the Border. Roger was saying earlier that there were some things that were taken out. Were you involved in any of that? And do you think that it’s disappointing, in a way, that the more spiritual aspect of the movie had been excised?
PP: I don’t think so. I mean, I think—when you make a movie, for me, it’s like—when you finish the acting on the film, I try very hard to let go. You can’t have any control over the end product. At least not as the actor. And so I think my job is to do my scenes. And then you have to really try to let go of it. And otherwise, if you think you can control it, you’re bound to be disappointed. And I’m happy with the work that I did, and the people that I worked with. And so I’m happy with it.
PF: Piper, do you read reviews?
PP: I actually don’t read reviews of my work. I agree with Manolo about—it’s a sort of search to do good work. And I think if you’re trying to work from the outside in, it can be a little distracting. I mean, I think one of the things about acting is really listening to your impulses. And so working to try and please other people, I think, is going to make it difficult.
PF: Do you have a thick skin, do you think?
PP: I hope not.
PF: Really? Why?
PP: Why do I hope I don’t?
PP: Well, when you’re acting, I think the most important thing is being able to listen. And so if you have a thick skin, and you don’t feel how people talk to you, it only inhibits your acting.
PF: What are you doing next?
PP: The play that I did off-Broadway is moving to Broadway. And so I’m doing Neil’s play on Broadway this winter.
PF: Are you excited? Nervous?
PP: I’m very excited, and very nervous. [laughs]
PF: And the movie—you’re not obviously taking on anything else.
PP: Well, not at the moment. The Screen Actors Guild—we’re on strike so, you know.
PF: No! I haven’t heard. I’ve been at the Toronto Film Festival. So I have been out of the loop. So everyone I’ve spoken to didn’t think it was happening.
PP: It’s happening.
PF: Has the SAG strike started already?
PF: How does it affect publicity and promotion?
PP: It doesn’t. It’s just for—this isn’t considered—like, you can’t work on screen.
PF: But you can do still publicity.
PP: Yeah. I know, amazing, huh?
PF: Are you shocked?
PP: We’ve been on strike for weeks. I’m shocked you don’t know. We went on strike July 30.
PP: Uh-huh. I guess I know—everybody speaks about it so much between workers, that I—maybe it hasn’t been in the press as much as I thought it was. But definitely—yeah. It’s major.
PF: When is the Broadway show starting?
PP: We start rehearsals in January, and then we’ll open in late Feb.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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