May 15, 2017
One of my favourite moments from the current series of Modern Family is when Stella and Joe ride through the Prtichitt house in a motorized kiddy car. Jay raises a hand to stop and reprimand them and then carefully places a crash helmet – on Stella’s head! As ever, she carries off the scene with deadpan aplomb, confirming her status as TV’s Top Dog!
Is Dogstruck a thing? I certainly felt in awe of the paw when I met Modern Family’s famous Frenchie Stella – real name Beatrice.
The smokey-eyed beauty (now 7 years-old) was the special guest of Ruff Puppies – an artisan dog collar company based in Colorado but visiting Las Vegas to display their bling-iest wares, like this Loveland number with silver hearts and pink Swarovski crystals… (Stella/Beatrice is a fan and has sported their designs on the show!)
Bryan and Jess of Ruff Puppies introduced me to the owners of Stella/Beatrice – Guin and Steve from Good Dog Animals. As well as having a good ole chat about behind-the-scenes life on Modern Family, Guin gave me some fascinating insights into the world of animal training for TV and movies as the pair of them have been in the biz over 25 years, supplying furry and feathered stars for shows like Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D and Pretty Little Liars and films like Trumbo and Dumb & Dumber To!
But let’s begin with chatting about STELLA from MODERN FAMILY
I was impressed to learn that most of your dogs are rescues, but Beatrice is the exception to that rule…
Yes, in her case we were asked for a specific dog for the role. The best news was that she was going to be there for the duration – I did Desperate Housewives for years and every one of those characters got an animal for an episode and then you never saw it again! We had a running joke that the animals lived with all the dead people on the next street! It’s very different with Modern Family, the character of Stella has proved she now has her own following and fan base!
Does Beatrice get her scripts ahead of time, like the other actors?
It depends – if she’s simply lying around in a scene, it’s fine for us to just show up because Beatrice knows to follow the dialogue naturally (so it appears as if she’s engaging with the conversation). But if they are requesting a specific gag they’ll send us an outline as soon as they come up with the concept. The only snag is that each scene goes through multiple drafts and is forever changing, right up until the day of filming, so we have to let them know on the day how much time we need to make the adjustments and get her ready.
Have you ever seen the script go in a new direction because of something you’ve suggested?
Yes, but it’s typically a variation on our original idea. For example when it came to the scenes with Stella in the swimming pool, I pitched a storyline with Jay taking her to swimming class because he’s afraid she’s going to drown and so he’s in the water with all these kids and he’s annoyed, but instead they wanted her to repeatedly jump in the pool to rescue her toy and Jay mistakes this for her being suicidal on account of Gloria’s screaming! I had to let them know it wasn’t safe for her to be struggling in the water without a lifejacket so we had a period of ‘How are we going to do this?’ and then came up with the solution of having a life vest made and painted to look exactly like her coat!
How is Modern Family’s patriarch Ed O’Neill (who plays Jay Pritchitt) with Stella/Beatrice?
Ed O’Neill is in love with her! It’s very easy working with him because he brings Beatrice treats like popcorn and always looks out for her – like we’ll be doing scenes in the backyard by the pool and in between takes he’ll say, “Would you please get Beatrice an umbrella, she’s in the sun!”’
And Sofia Vergara (Gloria Prichett), does she like dogs?
Not at all – the character is true to form about how she is! She’s from Colombia so dogs are dirty to her. She wasn’t that thrilled when Stella was put introduced to the show so we respectfully keep our distance!
Perhaps not a trailer, but does Stella have a quiet area to chill on set?
We teach and promote crate training because that way the dog always has a den where they can rest and relax so yes, in between takes, we always put Stella in her crate, otherwise she’d be running around the set and then be panting wildly for her scene and we’d have to take extra time to calm her down! Of course the crew loves to play with her when she’s out and about because she’s so fun and clowny. She really is one of the family!
ANIMAL ACTORS & SHOWBIZ
As we mentioned earlier, you always try to choose rescues to train into stars…
Yes, even when we are asked for a specific breed, we still go to the purebred rescues first. I once did a movie requiring five Briards (large, shaggy-furred herding dogs from France) and they are pretty rare here in the United States but we managed to find three rescues for the group.
How can you tell if a dog has got what it takes to be a performer, or is it all in the training?
It’s kind of like a talent agent has a sense of who might be that shining star – after years and years of rescuing animals you get a sense of what might work. But you’re not always 100% right so once we get them, we put in the time training them and start taking them everywhere with us. For some dogs the lights and the cameras and the crew is too much and they would be better suited to a quiet environment and a single family home and if we see that, we rehabilitate the animals and find great homes for them, which in turn opens up the door for us to rescue another dog to become a star! So it’s a win-win.
Do you have a list or a resume of the tricks each of your dogs can do?
We do have a training book at our ranch for all of our animals that we are constantly updating because their whole lives they are learning and developing. If a job comes in looking for a dog that can do a leg lift or a carpet crawl we can look through the book and find a match!
You’ve met all the major showbiz players but do you find there are still people who can make you a little starstruck?
Yes, we all have those people! Steven Speilberg was a particular honor for me but I always find it interesting when you meet someone and they are different to your expectations, like last year we were on the set of Trumbo with Bryan Cranston (famous as the science teacher turned ruthless drug lord in Breaking Bad) and he was just phenomenal – one of the best people we’ve worked with in terms of how he understood the animal. Really, everything about him was great!
Are there any downsides to working in entertainment business?
Well, it’s a hard business. For all of us ‘below the line’, we’re worker bees and even the animals in our industry are considered more props than talent. There’s some people who don’t treat them the way they should and others who complain, ‘Why can they just do their trick?’ not realizing that they are like actors in that they need time to rehearse a trick in position. Fortunately, I have to say, Modern Family are wonderful people – everyone from the very top down. It really is a great show to work on, as well as watch!