By Layne Saliba
HALL COUNTY - Imagine a dog in the middle of a war. He’s scraggly with a pretty thin build. He’s dirty. Army soldiers are all around him searching for the Taliban.
That’s what Gru’s first day on the job was like. Except it wasn’t real; it was on a movie set.
Things are pretty much the same now for the four-legged, sport-breed dog who lives in Gainesville. Appearing primarily as a stray without a home, he’s been in films like Marvel’s “Black Panther” and TV shows like Netflix’s “Ozark.”
“He’s an amazing athlete, which is comical because all of his movie parts are these pitiful, stray dog parts,” said Jen Dean, Gru’s owner and a professional dog trainer. “He looks like he’s a starving, stray dog. But he’s not. He’s actually a super athlete.”
Greg Tresan, owner of Animal Casting Atlanta, found Gru after another dog’s owner mentioned him. The casting agency needed a dog that could pass as a stray and because of Gru’s mixed breed of Jack Russell terrier, border terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, border collie and whippet, he fit the part perfectly.
But not every dog is cut out for show business.
“No dog is absolutely perfect,” said Tresan, who has provided animals for movies and TV shows like the new “Game Night,” “The Hunger Games” and “Stranger Things.” “Every dog does have some kind of star quality. It’s just whether or not all the other things that go along with it make it accessible.”
And for Gru, those things were accessible because of his training and obedience. So he was chosen for the part, but not before he got a little makeup. Dean said they usually use a mix of color dust and petroleum jelly to make his hair look “gnarly” and make sure he passes as a stray.
“We go home and he gets several baths to get it off,” Dean said. “But he still looks a little dingy for another week.”
She said Gru is pretty good at acting. She’s been impressed with how quickly he’s picked up on some things he’s asked to do, especially when she can’t control the atmosphere on set and it isn’t what she expected.
“I still get a little nervous when I go because you never really know exactly what they want and what the situation is,” Dean said. “They might have told you generally what they want, but then they want you to be 40 feet away, or there’s a crowd carrying suitcases between you and your dog.”
A lot of the time it’s simply a matter of Gru going to a specific spot on set, looking at something or someone and barking or growling. Dean said filming usually takes about one day, so Gru has to get those things done quickly, which he doesn’t have a problem with. Most recently he had to bark, growl and snap during the scene of a movie she wasn’t allowed to mention.
It took him a little bit to understand it all because there were a lot of people walking around in the background of the scene. But Dean said once Gru figured it out, he was able to do it perfectly over and over again.
Sometimes, the camera angles don’t allow Dean to get close enough to Gru during the scene, so she has to teach someone who is actually in the scene to give him his cue. In “Black Panther,” someone in a tree cued him to look up. In “Ozark,” an actor sitting next to Gru gave him the cue. But even when all of that works out, it’s still not an ideal situation sometimes.
“It’s a little hard training situation because you can’t reward right away all the time because the scene is still rolling,” Dean said.
There’s a rule on set that no one is allowed to pet animals without permission. Dean has never had a problem with that, but that doesn’t mean actors don’t still enjoy being around Gru. Dean said everyone on set always loves him, even if she and he are only there for a short time.
And just like any of the other actors there, Gru has to practice. He’s always training, and whether it’s for competitions where he does tricks with Frisbees or simply barking at different men, it never stops.
“I still do prep work for every job he gets, because they’ve all been a little different,” Dean said. “Because you just kind of don’t know what they want until you get there. So thankfully he likes to train and he’ll kind of figure it out while we’re there too.”