With Duke, a Hallmark Movie Channel Original making its world premiere Saturday, April 28 (at 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m. C), we get a real celebration of one dog’s power to transform a person’s life. The movie tackles a tough issue that has touched many American families: What happens when a husband and father returns from active duty in the armed forces with PTSD and a disabling injury, unable to cope with the stress of readjusting to family life?
Marine Sergeant Terry Pulaski (Steven Weber) arrives home from the war in Afghanistan too damaged to return to combat; the emotional blow of being ordered to take a medical discharge, in turn, sends him into a tailspin.
Seeing Terry through even the toughest times is his faithful dog, Duke, who touches the heart of everyone he meets. Duke is played by two talented Border Collies, canine actors Zeek and Tanner. However, as the four-footed performers were somewhat closed-mouthed about this movie, Dogster brings you the next best thing: a chat with Duke‘s busy two-legged star.
The actor may be best known for his long run in the TV series Wings, plus his bravura turn in the 1997 TV miniseries remake of The Shining. But this film shows Weber as we’ve never seen him, playing a difficult role for any actor as he ages 10 years before the audience’s eyes, and experiences very dramatic reversals of fortune. Weber got the job done — not surprising, considering he’s an Aries — and, as you’ll see, he had lots of support from his canine castmate, whom he graciously describes as “brilliant.”
Dogster: Wasn’t the movie Single White Female the last time audiences saw you with a dog onscreen? Have there been other memorable canine co-stars in your filmography?
Steven Weber: Yeah, there was a cute pup in Single White Female who came to a rather unfortunate end. Obviously, the actual pup was unharmed during filming and was actually a distraction to everyone who could not work as efficiently due to falling in love!
Other than Single White Female and now Duke, I have not worked with animals, other than Tim Daly [Weber’s Wings co-star]!
You seem like a natural around dogs; did you grow up with a dog?
We had a sweet mutt when I was about 11 years old. Her name was Gloria. For some reason she did not live that long; I’m not sure my family knew her history or breeding background. In fact, I’m sure of it, and quite soon she was diagnosed with an illness and we lost her. I was pretty destroyed and it was my first real contact with that kind of loss. My Mom still has photos of her, though.
What was it like working with Zeek, the dog who plays Duke? Please share one or two fun stories.
Zeek was brilliant. He was amazingly patient and obedient, and his trainers were never harsh or overly insistent, even when time was an issue. Zeek’s well-being came first and that was how the production wanted it. (Actually, Zeek had a stand-in in case he got tired or became distracted.)
Obviously, in all films where an animal is a key player, the trick is getting the audience to believe that he or she is not being coached in any way offscreen and to make Zeek’s actions seem utterly natural. So, most of the scenes had the trainer just beyond frame pitching commands (hopefully in the gaps between the dialogue). There was some challenge in maintaining concentration, especially in emotional scenes. But in one particular scene, my character Terry is having a violent and disturbing PTSD episode which results in his shutting himself away in a toolshed. Awash with tears, I was huddled in a corner, and Zeek was supposed to sit by me and (hopefully) nuzzle me.
The scene began and I became pretty involved, crying, shouting, etc. And when I was finally in the corner, Zeek — with absolutely no prompting — sensed my anguish and independently came over and began to comfort me. Everyone was stunned and moved, and luckily the cameras caught it all. It’s in some measure a compliment to me that Zeek thought I was really suffering at that moment — and I’ll take it!
What happened when you first met the dog? Was there some ritual the trainer/handler made you go through at that first meetup?
Initially, our meeting was very friendly, as Zeek is very friendly and outgoing. But the key was to start building a bond as soon as possible, and that was accomplished by spending as much time with him as I could, establishing me as a source of rewards, i.e., treats (which the trainers used to motivate Zeek’s actions).
Were you impressed by Zeek’s professionalism? How does he rate as a co-star?
He was great. Obviously, people have to make some concessions for animals on a film set, which is an utterly unnatural environment for them. But then again, there are many human actors who require a lot more patience than Zeek ever did.
Did Zeek ever try to upstage you or step on your lines? Did he do anything funny that maybe caught you by surprise?
There were occasional small moments when Zeek strayed from what he needed to do at that moment, which in turn forced me and the camera operator to improvise here and there. But for the most part (and in tribute to his trainers) he hit his marks.
The bond between you and the dog is impressive; how much time did you spend with Zeek offscreen before shooting, to achieve that? What did the two of you do together during that bonding time?
As I said before, I tried to spend as much time with Zeek as I could, but due to other demands it wasn’t always possible. And again, Zeek is a smart dog; he knew his job and knew what he had to do. So when the time came, we at the very least “appeared” bonded.
Did he ever stay overnight with you in your trailer?
I think under the circumstances, such a “method acting” approach would have only slowed things down. The reality is that most onscreen bonds, whether between humans or interspecies, are, well, fake and mostly accomplished by creative editing. That’s not to say Zeek and I didn’t get close, but making a movie is extremely technical with many time considerations, so any bonding had to be mostly between scenes.
Also, Zeek’s world, however cool we think being a movie star dog is, is essentially one of perform, reward, exercise, rest, etc., and his trainers had to tend to his needs to keep him happy and healthy during shooting. Sure, Zeek was warm and attentive, but he was also extremely professional!
Did you have to do any special preparation with Zeek, apart from your normal preparation for a role?
I would say that Zeek (“Duke”) became a part of my preparation, as would have any other character with whom I had contact. Duke is [my character] Terry’s closest companion, and as such it was necessary to embrace and incorporate the special qualities of a beloved family member — even if that family member is not human! The only adaptation to my normal process was not being able to go out to dinner [with Zeek] after shooting was over for the day!
Does your family have a dog? If not, do you think starring in Duke might change that — i.e. will your children pester you for a dog, or have they started already?
We do not currently have a dog. My two boys (ages 9 and 11) are, of course, eager to have one. But between my schedule and that of my wife (who is incredibly busy), along with the fact that my boys are in school, not to mention the other fact that they are not yet understanding the responsibilities required in owning and caring for a pet properly, we have not made the leap. But I can feel it happening soon. And certainly after working with such an amazing animal as Zeek, it made the desire to become a dog owner that much stronger.
Do you think dogs deserve to be recognized with awards for their work on screen, just like human actors are?
Aside from honoring heroics (Balto comes to mind), that’s a funny question and one that highlights, for me, a kind of extreme people go to in regards to dogs. It’s unnecessarily anthropomorphic in a way and is more of a projection of vanity, something dogs don’t possess. Will the dog who wins an award put it on his or her doggie mantel? I think the best reward a dog can receive is the devotion and love of its owner.
While dogs are not people (lucky for them!), they are in a way purer versions of people, able to love, able to protect, able to heal, able to serve without reservation. In many ways, pets — and dogs in particular — are what people need to aspire to, emotionally speaking. They are loyal, attentive, and unreserved in their affection. So many of these essential human qualities are lacking in people’s lives so a dog can provide what has often, sadly, been lost.