When she was 9, long before she wrangled wolves for Twilight or pit bulls for Straight Outta Compton, Lauren Henry had an orange tabby cat and an Australian shepherd.
"I'd put on little shows," says Henry, now 48, who as owner of Talented Animals is the most sought-after animal trainer in the Pacific Northwest. "The cat would ride in a basket that the dog would pick up and bring to another point. There were obstacle courses. They'd open the mailbox and deliver the mail. My grandfather would say I was going to train animals for the movies, but, of course, my parents wanted me to go to college and get a degree. Well, I did go to college. I did get a degree. And then I went on to train animals for the movies."
Henry currently lives on a sizable piece of property southwest of Salem, where she and partner Roland Sonnenburg keep "eight dogs, six of which are working movie dogs (two are retired), and then two cats, horses, goats, a donkey and another couple of Northwest natives—a skunk and raccoon." If a film was made in Oregon and there was a live animal in it, chances are it hired Talented Animals, a company the pair founded in 2005.
Henry's first gig, in 1999, came about entirely by accident. She was on her way to becoming a veterinarian when she noticed an odd request forwarded to all members of her Listserv group. "An email went out for a dog that looked like a wolf and could work with an actor and pull somebody on skis," she says. "I had that dog."
On set in Canada for a TV movie about a wolf, she then caught the eye of an animal coordinator who needed a border collie. Turns out, she had that dog, too.
"Things snowballed," she says, and after that second project she eventually dropped out of grad school to work full time in movies. "This pursued me!"
When Henry and Sonnenburg are contacted by a film producer, they either work with their own pool of animals or they find a freelance trainer whose animals are suited for the job.
"If we don't have a particular animal, we're very, very fast at bringing one along, building a rapport and trust, and then successfully polishing that behavior for set," says Henry. "For an episode of Big Brother, we trained a guinea pig to spin a wheel that matched up the people that were going to live in the house together, and we trained a hamster for this Amazon Pet Alexa commercial."
She has also trained tortoises, snakes, llamas, rats, badgers, parrots, owls and crows. "A lot of insects are CGI'd these days," she says, "but we do maggots, earthworms."
On set, Henry is equal parts choreographer, acting coach and stage mom. And even if her animal is well-prepared, there's always the human element to consider. Jennifer Aniston halted production on Management rather than disturb a puppy that fell asleep in her lap. "During the shoot for Gone, Amanda Seyfried fell in love with a baby lemur that we had on set," Henry says, "and it was really hard to get her to go back to work. She just wanted to sit in our truck and play with our lemur."
Not all stars feel the same about all animals. And so Henry earned her Screen Actors Guild card for those instances when safety issues or phobias necessitate stunt work. Under presumably heavy makeup, Henry played Vivica A. Fox's body double for a Junkyard Dog attack scene, and waded into a cottonmouth-infested pond during last year's Portland-made Sundance champ I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore. In another case, she says, an unnamed actor was afraid of goats, and the filmmakers had to shoot the scene in split-screen and stitch it together.
"The actor could not be in the same room as the goat," she says. "That was interesting."
One feat of technical wizardry is a source of particular pride. In 2010, Chicago band OK Go—known for filming their music videos in intricate single takes—needed Henry's help. The video for "White Knuckles" required 12 mismatched pooches to synchronize steps without any of the camera angles and editing trickery that's become stock in trade for animal trainers.
Henry and Sonnenburg coordinated magic in a Corvallis warehouse, spending weeks orchestrating the movements of a dozen dogs and their trainers through more than a hundred attempts. "White Knuckles" earned 2 million views in a couple days, eventually collecting more than 23 million, and entered the viral pantheon. Last year, top-rated Japanese television show Q Tube asked the pair to recreate the feat in a warehouse in Albany, arriving with a full crew.
Henry clearly relishes the storytelling aspect of her work as much as the technical side. Horses, she says, are best at comedy. Dogs are great at drama.
"It's the most amazing thing," she marvels, "but dogs that do movie work regularly somehow figure out the personality we're going for that day."
Henry recalls her work on Green Room, the 2015 Cannes standout starring Patrick Stewart against neo-Nazis in the Oregon backwoods, "This pit bull was supposed to go through bodies and find his mark near the actor playing his owner, who'd just been killed," she says. "The training was very specific, but when we go to shoot, the dog starts walking super-slowly over to the actor, curled up next to him, looked at the camera, and closed his eyes with a deep sigh, as if he was dying alongside his owner. Everyone behind the camera was choked up. The director said this would be the saddest psychological thriller ever. We were all so moved because he just put so much angst into selling the scene—you know, like he was in character."