What do you do when you’re an actress filming a scene in which you are required to discuss the probing of a small tortoise’s private parts and there’s a reporter on the set? Do you (A) throw yourself down on a prop bed during a break, invite the reporter to lounge with you, and chat volubly about the ludicrousness of moviemaking? Or do you (B) eschew an interview, commune with your on-call acting coach, and eventually send the reporter out of the room because probing a tortoise’s private parts is deemed too delicate for foreign eyes?
If you chose A, you’re Janeane Garofalo. If B, Uma Thurman. And this story is not so much about the truth about tortoises as it is about The Truth About Cats & Dogs, a romantic comedy starring Garofalo, Thurman, and British actor Ben Chaplin. More specifically, this story is about different ways of being a movie star. The tortoise, though, is a crucial prop.
Cats & Dogs is about a Los Angeles veterinarian named Abby (Garofalo) who is short, funny, smart, and successful — she hosts a popular call-in radio show — but so insecure about her looks that when she’s asked out by a charming caller (Chaplin), she gets her friend Noelle (Thurman) to appear, Cyrano de Bergerac-style, in her stead. The tortoise scene takes place when Noelle as Abby meets a little girl whose pet is sick. When the reptile refuses to stick its head out, the real Abby instructs the faux Abby on the fine art of coaxing. No biggie.
Just a big difference in styles. While shots are lit and Humane Society personnel assembled, Garofalo, 31, opens up, divulging that the stress of being scrutinized every day has led to teeth grinding. ”There are a lot of eyes watching the dailies. This has been one of the more major learning experiences for me — I’ve had to get a bite plate!” To unwind, she smokes cigarettes and shadowboxes each night. ”I’m not cute,” she says. ”To me, cute doesn’t equal comedy.”
Meanwhile, Thurman, 25, withdraws to a private corner, where her personal hair-and-makeup assistant attends to her angelic blond tresses and forest-creature eyes. She holds her cellular phone in one hand and a pack of Marlboros in the other while she looks over playbacks of her scenes. She retreats.
How does a director coordinate the work of two such different cats? ”Janeane and Uma are probably as different as the two in the movie,” says Michael Lehmann, a kind and gentle man who also directed Heathers, Hudson Hawk, and Airheads. ”Janeane, who comes from stand-up comedy, thrives in a situation where spontaneity is the order of the day. She likes to play a scene a little looser. Uma, who’s extremely studied and prepared and really goes by the text, likes to know where we’re going before we start. So you just pull your hair out and hope for the best.”
The reporter meets Chaplin, 26 — who is about to get mighty known in America — in a hotel suite in New York.
”Janeane’s never carried a film before, so she found it very difficult,” he says in his yoicksy London accent, looking rumpled and friendly and cute as a pint of beer. ”It’s a miserable thing to have a huge lead — you just think you’re bad.” The movie’s tone, Chaplin says, was being closely monitored by Twentieth Century Fox, which was intent on retaining a PG-13 rating and an upbeat feeling. ”There were people who didn’t have any faith in what we were doing,” he goes on, ”so she had that against her, too. And she did it brilliantly. She has keen instincts.”