GOING TO THE DOGS:
UNDERDOG’S STELLAR CANINE CAST
The real key to transforming UNDERDOG into a live-action adventure would lay in the hands – or rather, the paws – of the film’s canine actors, who become the true heroes of the story. To take on the task of scouring pounds, kennels, rescue societies, breeders and dog parks for photogenic pooches, the filmmakers recruited Boone Narr, whose work with animals is legendary, taking him from dozens of smaller productions all the way to the epic PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. Narr was thrilled to hear about the production. “I just couldn’t resist the idea of helping to create a dog hero,” he confesses.
Narr’s first big test would be finding the main dog to play Underdog. His mission was to find a dog that not only bore a physical resemblance to the original long-eared, flesh-colored cartoon character, but had all his qualities. The story of how Leo the Lemon Beagle was ultimately cast rivals discoveries such as Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drug Store.
At first, Narr wasn’t even sure what breed best suited Underdog. Narr recalls, “I initially looked at about twenty different breeds. We wanted our dog to look right away like an ‘underdog,’ so we felt he had to be a smaller dog who might not be able to defend himself, kind of like a canine Clark Kent. Prompted by the cartoon character, which kind of looks like a Beagle, I contacted Beagle Buddies, a Beagle rescue in Orange County, CA. And that’s when I saw a photo of Leo.”
The picture exuded charm, comedy and intelligence. Or so Narr thought. “It was a bit like a bad blind date – because when the dog showed up at my door he looked nothing like the photo! He was overweight and as round as he was long, and he was completely out of-control,” laughs Narr. “But, to his credit, he had a great little personality and we decided to see if we could whip him into shape.”
Leo now had his big chance to prove he had the right stuff and went to a “boot camp” where, like Underdog, he started out a little worse-for-the-wear and transformed himself into hero material. “Leo turned out to be an amazing little guy,” Narr muses. “He’s cantankerous and independent, with an attitude, but when the camera is rolling his personality just shines.”
While Leo was the main canine actor playing Shoeshine/Underdog, there were actually four Beagles who helped to play the part. “Leo’s got the mug but he also needed some stunt doubles that do a lot of the running, jumping, and those kinds of things,” Narr continues. “They came from across the country; one from Alaska, one from Texas and one from North Carolina, each similar in looks to Leo.”
Narr went through a similar process in looking for Polly, but now compatibility entered the mix. The two dogs needed to have that ineffable “animal chemistry.” “We put a lot of different dogs beside Leo to find out who would make the most beautiful couple,” the animal trainer explains. “We definitely didn’t want to go the Poodle route – and we wanted a breed you haven’t seen a lot in movies. Ultimately, we came up with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, which has a very soft, pretty look.”
Ultimately, Narr choose Ginger, a Spaniel who hails from San Diego and boasts not only a silky cinnamon coat but an unusually outgoing personality that matched the character. “Ginger just had those great looks – and she and Leo looked gorgeous together,” Narr recalls. “The Cavalier King Charles is often a shy breed, but Ginger came running up to us and we knew she was the one.”
Sealing the deal was the fact that Ginger and Leo had their tails wagging for one another right from the get-go. “They had real on-screen chemistry,” notes Todd Arnow. “They have a scene where they were supposed to put their paws on one another and not only did they do that but Ginger put her paw right on Leo’s shoulder. They really liked each and performed so well together.”
Meanwhile, to play Riff Raff, Narr found three tough-looking Rottweilers in city shelters and sprung them to become pampered canine stars. Contrary to their commanding size and presence, Narr says that the Rottweilers were the sweetest dogs on the set! In fact, all the dogs made such an impression during filming that many of them were adopted by members of the cast and crew when the production wrapped.
Ultimately, some 25 dogs were cast for the film – and like any actor preparing for a part, they each went into intensive training, learning all the complex actions and expressions they would need to bring their characters to life. Narr, who has worked in the business for more than 30 years, was amazed by the talent and skill of this particular cast. “I’ve trained dogs before who seemed great but when they got before the camera, they just froze. But all of the dogs on UNDERDOG just loved performing,” he says. “They loved their jobs and being in front of the camera and it shows on screen.”
One of Narr’s initial challenges was turning the kids, Alex and Taylor, and their respective dogs, Leo and Ginger, into instant best-friends, with the kind of bond that usually only years of companionship can build. “Trying to get a dog to act like he belongs to a specific person is one of the most difficult things you can teach,” Narr explains. “You have to build a relationship between the actor and the dog in a short amount of time.
Throughout the entire production, the American Humane Association had an on-set representative who assured that both the animals and humans were safe in all their scenes together. Not only did American Humane analyze the script and storyboards to ferret out any potential trouble spots, but AHA rep Marisa Bellis was present for every single scene that included animals. “This movie has been quite a remarkable experience,” she says. “The trainers have been extraordinary. They're very safe. They're some of the safest trainers I've worked with--they don't take any chances.”
American Humane was also enthusiastic about the underlying themes of UNDERDOG. “One of the reasons I’m so excited about this film is that American Humane is a big believer in the idea that films can be a great tool to show the power of the animal-human bond,” says Jone Bouman of American Humane. “UNDERDOG is about a hero dog who positively affects a family. That’s the kind of message we think is outstanding and it got all of our support.”
LOOK UP IN THE SKY: MAKING UNDERDOG FLY
From the beginning, director Frederik Du Chau knew that UNDERDOG would hinge on creating a real dog who appeared both to be able to speak and to fly supersonically, albeit not entirely under control!...