Hollywood heartthrob Jason Momoa is a hulk of a man. At almost two metres tall, the star is massive in both size and stature. So it only makes sense that he should be the attention stealer of every room he walks into.
But on the set of his latest film, DC’s Aquaman, it might have shocked Momoa to find out that no one was looking at him. In fact, all attention was redirected elsewhere, to someone a lot more lap-sized.
That special someone was none other than the jack russell superstar Mr Big.
“From the moment we arrived, everyone went ‘Mr Big! Mr Big!’ and all the extras came over immediately. We were definitely the most visited people on the film set,” says Mr Big’s trainer and proud mum, Bente Dubnitzki.
As animal actors, Dubnitzki’s four dogs: Mr Big, MacGyver, Dudley, and Nelson, have garnered a pretty impressive résumé, starring in everything from Hollywood blockbusters such as Aquaman, to local hits such as ABC’s Harrow and NiTv’s The Grace Beside Me.
But if you think that animal actors live lives as glamorous as their human counterparts, you’d be gravely mistaken. As Dubnitzki is quick to point out, animal acting is, in more than one way, dog’s work.
“When I first started, I thought it would be way easier,” Dubnitzki admits.
“My dogs really behave well, but being on a film set is a totally different thing. There’s lots and lots of things going on: the camera is in their face, there’s so many people, it’s hot, the microphone looks a bit like a toy and it’s fluffy and the dogs always want to keep looking up to it. Yeah, it’s a lot different to what I expected,” Dubnitzki says.
Shooting is also anything but short. On filming days, Dubnitzki has to wake up at dawn, usually giving her dogs a bath and blow-dry before she even hits the road, which for her – a Brisbaner – can often mean travelling to the Gold Coast or locations as far away as Beaudesert. And shooting can last anywhere between half a day to a couple of weeks, all for scenes just a few seconds long.
That waiting is what Action Animals talent agent Suzanne Richards calls the most challenging part of the process.
Luckily, Dubnitzki is more than up for the challenge.
From an early age, Dubnitzki always knew she wanted to train dogs. It was an obsession not easily accepted by her mother who was deathly afraid of canines. But Dubnitzki wouldn’t give in until she finally got her first rescue dog at eight years old. And it was from there that her future really began to take shape.
“He [the rescue dog] had so many problems. He was always biting and barking lots and he didn’t really listen. But that’s what mum remembers best, is me, as an eight-year-old, setting up a whole obstacle course in the backyard. I made him jump over little broomsticks and hay bales and jump through hula hoop rings. Even then, I was totally into training dogs,” Dubnitzki says.
Dubnitzki went on to study as a trainer and animal behaviourist. And that was enough for her, until, through signing her dogs up for doggy dancing (a bizarre offshoot of obedience training that involves trainers and dogs jumping and grapevining for prizes of up to $500), Dubnitzki came across the world of animal acting.
“I signed Mr Big up [to doggy dancing], and the trainer there knew a film agency who was looking for little scruffy white dogs, and she basically said, ‘why are you not putting him up?’ I did, and then they picked him, and that was our first job, working on a RACQ ad.”
Pretty soon after that, the rest of Dubnitzki’s four-legged family caught the acting bug too. Now, Dubnitzki trains her dogs specially for all sorts of film tricks, from stunts as easy as begging to those a lot harder to teach such as staying still while co-stars drop food and scream at a football match.
And despite the patience all that training entails, Dubnitzki still says the feeling of seeing her dogs on-screen is worth it.
“I am the most excited person about it. I just can’t wait. I’m also the person who finds them first, I’m always looking [for them] in the film. I’m always really really excited about it.
“Sometimes I can be a bit disappointed if they’re only in it for a second, because the filming can take a couple of days and they can be really good in one take, or one trick, and I’m always surprised at how little they take at the end,” Dubnitzki says.
As Dubnitzki’s mixed reaction hints at, even the cute and cuddly are not exempt from the challenges and competition of the cutthroat industry.
Unlike their human colleagues, animal actors aren’t paid big bucks for their work. In fact, according to Enews’ Leslie Gornstein, the average pay rate for animal actors is a few hundred dollars per day, and most work excludes residual payments. As well as this, Australia’s low tax offset for international filming (16.5 per cent compared to 25 per cent in New Zealand and 30 per cent in the US state of Georgia) often means that Australia is passed in as an option by Hollywood bigwigs. And even when Aussies are chosen, more often than not, producers choose to shoot in NSW or Victoria over Queensland.
Dubnitzki herself admits work can vary for each dog. In fact, Dudley, who was purchased and trained exclusively for film work, has yet to have his film debut.
“We don’t get many jobs up here. I have a friend in Sydney and she gets all the jobs down there. Sydney and Melbourne is where all the real work is happening… Brisbane is a little neglected.”
Dubnitzki also notes she is not immune to regular run-ins with those who oppose animal acting all together.
Animal activists are known for being vocal against the profession and its treatment of animals. For example, in 2017, a video showing a dog being forced into churning water on the film, A Dog’s Purpose, was sent around the globe and the film faced widespread condemnation, despite the fact that the footage was later discovered to be misleadingly edited by a group trying to discredit the film.
And while Dubnitzki agrees she’s heard stories of animal cruelty on set, she has never personally experienced anything of the sort.
“I’ve never come across these things, but I imagine they occur. I know what kind of pressure directors are under and how much a day of shooting can cost them. There’s so many things that could go wrong… that I can imagine it could be like that. But in personal experience, at Aquaman, there was a woman who flew in from Los Angeles and she was only there to follow us and check that the dogs were really well looked after.”
While there are currently no formal unions or guidelines in place for animal acting, RSPCA spokesperson Michael Beatty agrees that experiences like Dubnitzki’s are the majority these days, despite unregulated sets.
“We do get enquiries, but there haven’t been any real causes for concern, at least in my opinion. I think, in fairness, we’re not going back to the 50s where they were using large numbers of horses to chariot race and that sort of thing. I think most people are a lot more aware now about how animals have to be treated on a film set,” Beatty says.
Still, it is these types of hidden challenges and misconceptions that lead a lot of people to underestimate Dubnitzki and her craft.
“I get asked quite often ‘I have a good-looking dog can you get a job for him?’ and I don’t think people understand that it’s not about a good-looking dog. It’s really about the dog being stress resistant more than anything.”
Indeed, Richards believes an animal’s success can sometimes lie solely in its owner.
“Nine times out of ten I can tell what an animal is going to be like by their owner,” Richards says.
“The owner’s nature is in the animal. It sounds really weird, but if you’ve got an anxious person, you will find that dog will be so much into its owner that it won’t work well with other people.”
If, by that measure, animals are an indication of their owner’s personality, then Dubnitzki’s pooches speak volumes about her.
In the short time she has been sitting down, all four dogs have eventually come to lounge around her. It is a humid day and despite the little shade the patio gives, they are content enough near her to endure the harsh heat. On her lap, Mr Big yawns and snuggles down. She smiles as MacGyver snores and Nelson bangs his tail against the deck’s floorboards.
Her biggest trouble on set sometimes, she says, is getting them to wake up.
For Dubnitzki, animal acting is more than just a job. Her dogs are both her livelihood and her life. And despite all of its challenges, Dubnitzki wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I love it so much. I really really love it. I could do it every day.”