Dogs on movie and TV sets usually belong in one of two separate categories: actors’ dogs or dog actors. Spencer, the Golden Retriever–Labrador mix at the heart of the digital series Heirloom, is a little bit of both.
“He’s not trained to be a film dog,” explains Spencer’s human and co-creator of Heirloom, Paten Hughes, but “he’s almost qualified to be one.”
Paten describes her canine co-star as a super friendly “attention whore” who was born to play himself in the nine-episode series currently streaming on Vimeo.
It makes sense Spencer would be a part of the series inspired by Paten’s real-life experience as an actor turned tomato farmer. In the show, Paten’s character, Emily, takes up tomato farming in an even bigger way than she did in reality after inheriting some farm land.
Written by TV writer Bekah Brunstetter of NBC’s This Is Us, Heirloom follows Emily as she starts a new life after a series of disastrous auditions. The relationship between the woman and her dog was part of the original script for the series, but the condensed production schedule of a digital show meant there would be no time for dog do-overs on the fast-paced set. According to Paten, that’s why director Michael Melamedoff initially wanted to write Spencer out.
“Michael read the script and was like, ‘I love it, but we have to cut the dog.’ Even though we’re really good friends, he hadn’t met Spencer yet.”
Paten promised Spencer would be great, and the Golden-Lab was given a chance to prove that he could be a good boy on set. His naturally friendly, people-pleasing personality soon elevated the amateur actor to semi-pro status.
“He responds to commands really easily,” Paten explains. “Even if it’s not me, even if it’s a PA, he listens.”
Even when he’s not commanded to act cute, Spencer just is. His personality shines through the series, and his lack of on-set experience makes his character seem more genuine in a way.
“There were a lot of moments that were just priceless in terms of him just doing his own thing and having it work out pretty well,” says Paten.
The last scene of the season is a great example of that. An emotional conversation between Emily and another character is made even more compelling because of the dog at their feet.
“We were going to have Spencer run off camera, but he just plopped himself down and it made the scene so perfect because it’s like a little child in between the two parents,” Paten explains.
Listening skills and talent for improv aside, shooting with Spencer did present some challenges. Unlike trained Hollywood film dogs, Spencer doesn’t know how to hit a mark or stay in frame. Paten unconsciously toned down her physical interactions with her dog (which typically include two-minute-long face-licking, leg-chasing greetings) in order to keep them both in the shot. As a result, her character’s relationship with Spencer looks a bit different from her own.
“The first time I watched the cut with the director I was like ‘where are all the moments where I’m petting Spencer?’ I actually thought Emily was a little distant in terms of the sort of affection to Spencer,” she explains.
The duo isn’t as physically connected on screen as they are in real life, but the emotional connection is intense. According to Paten, Spencer is an important part of the show because he is the only character — besides Emily — on the series throughout season one.
“Emily talks to Spencer, thinks out loud, and asks him questions about life.” says Paten, whose real-life relationship with Spencer is less verbal (he prefers hikes and canoe trips to conversations).
“He’s the one kind of constant companion through the chunk of her life that we see.”
Paten says we can expect to see more of Spencer in Heirloom’s planned second season. The shows creators are working hard to move the story forward, and Paten says they intend to focus on Spencer a little bit more in future episodes.
“He’s just such a beautiful dog, especially the way our cinematographer shot the entire series. Maybe this is just because he’s my dog — but your heart kind of leaps when you see him.”
Heirloom is now streaming on Vimeo.