HBO raced to finish filming several scenes of True Blood last month. This time, their deadline wasn’t about a strike, rewriting, budgets, actors’ schedules, or air dates. They needed to wrap the episodes before the wolves shed their winter coats: “We had to work on their timeline,” says executive producer Gregg Fienberg. A lighter summer coat would make the 120-pound gray wolves, cast in werewolf roles, look smaller and less menacing. “We can’t suddenly have wolves that look different.”
The popularity of the vampire genre, which all of a sudden has embraced werewolves, has some productions learning to deal with wolf actors. Big-budget movies can afford to craft expensive computer-generated werewolves (every few seconds of screen time for the growling giant werewolves in the coming movie “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” took a team of as many as six visual-effects experts up to six weeks to create), but TV, with its smaller budgets, must often rely on the real thing. “In our world, werewolves are shifters who turn into wolves. They don’t turn into giant wolves the size of minivans. They don’t turn into human-looking wolves,” says creator Alan Ball. The cost of live wolves varies, but they typically rent for under $500 a day, plus the cost of trainers. Since the animals prefer to travel in packs, six or seven additional wolves may accompany a wolf actor, but producers don’t have to pay for the rest of the entourage.
But working with live animals has other advantages besides lower production costs: wolves can help bring out actors’ animal side. Brit Morgan, who plays sultry werewolf Debbie Pelt on “True Blood,” shot a scene in which she kicked open a door as two hybrid wolves jumped on either side of her. One got excited and snapped at her hand. The director yelled “cut” and she says she heard someone say, “Um, you almost became lunch.”
But the scene is one of her best yet, she says. “It felt so primal and the energy was so strong.” (A wolf has an estimated biting capacity of 1,500 pounds per square inch, compared with about 750 pounds for a German shepherd, according to the International Wolf Center.)
Wolves, even if raised in captivity, pose a special challenge, because they look like their cuddly canine cousins. Actors must be warned repeatedly not to pet the animals, and have to sit through frequent safety seminars. Perfume and cologne disturb the wolves and are forbidden on the set. Food must be cleared from the immediate premises, as per rules provided by the American Humane Association’s Film & TV Unit.
Before he was cast as werewolf Alcide Herveaux on “True Blood,” actor Joe Manganiello had little experience working with live animals—just a couple of scenes with a penguin on a CBS pilot. A live wolf required some adjustments. On a recent break on a set in West Hollywood, the actor had to rush through a crowd of extras and off the sound stage after crew members spotted him eating turkey. “All I heard was ‘Are you out of your mind? The wolves are coming,”‘ he recalls.
Skittish by nature, wolves must arrive on the set a day or two before a shoot and have private time to sniff around and get comfortable. There are air-conditioned trailers, with separate compartments for each wolf, where they rest between scenes. Each wolf eats three to four pounds of raw meat and high-protein food daily and needs frequent breaks. “They’re worse than children,” says director Michael Lehmann.
Wolves can be trained to stand on a mark or jump on cue for a treat of red meat. But unlike dogs, their faces don’t exude much expression, directors say. Some scenes require a “hybrid” body double. These mixed-breed dogs are three-quarters wolf and have a more agreeable demeanor. Rugby, a 100-pound perky hybrid, had his cream-colored coat dyed brown so he could stand in for chocolate-colored wolf Shadow for a scene in which a person jumps in front of a bullet to save a werewolf.
Like human actors, some wolves are better at certain scenes than others. If a scene requires a wolf to stand still for a long period of time, Steve Martin (owner of Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife, which provides the wolves), may recommend Thunder (a golden timber wolf with amber eyes), typically his steadiest wolf. Frankie is a happy, outgoing wolf whose head bobs up and down when he tries to stand still. Cody gets nervous with indoor objects overhead, so he’s better for outdoor scenes. Shadow is fast and can do scenes that require a werewolf to run through the woods.
Animal actors, like the human variety, experience career highs and lows. A wolf could land several roles and then face a dry spell, says Mr. Martin. And species-wise, he is keeping his options open. Also in his stable are trained reindeer, a bear named Brett, porcupines and an elephant (upon request). “Right now it’s wolves,” he says. “Next year it could be cheetahs.”