“People live with dogs, so let’s be true to the reality that we live in.” That is director Steve McQueen’s explanation for why he granted significantly more screen time to a white, fluffy terrier than to Carrie Coon in his new heist thriller, Widows.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really, really not. The film’s head widow Veronica (Viola Davis) clutches the enormous cotton ball, Olivia, at almost every turn. The dog lays beside Veronica in bed as she mourns her deceased husband Harry (Liam Neeson). She bears witness to various threatening visits, phone calls, and deliveries from Harry’s scorned business partners. Sometimes she’s even threatened herself! But most crucially, her excellent sense of smell warns Veronica of something far more shocking than, say, a clumsy boy falling down a well. When Veronica finally checks Olivia into a “Deluxe Sit and Stay” the night of the heist, the pup has evolved from extremely soft prop to a necessary supporting acteur. If it weren’t for her lack of opposable thumbs, she could have very well driven the heist van.
Who is this Hollywood newcomer? Because it is 2018, and the internet contains an endless trove of information relating to famous animals, I present to you, a full overview of her career: Olivia is a 3-year-old 15-pound West Highland white terrier whose real name is also Olivia. She is one of six “Medium Dogs” on the roster of Animal Casting Atlanta, which calls itself the no. 1 provider of animal talent in the southeast. The company’s canines have starred in everything from Stranger Things to The Hunger Games. Olivia’s “comp card”—the animal equivalent of a headshot—includes an image of her upstaging a white stuffed animal of a similar size. According to her trainer, Greg Tresan, she had her own trailer on the set of Widows and received on-site fur touch-ups. She follows a raw diet, but on her cheat days she enjoys cheddar cheese and hot dogs. She also loves to snuggle. “Olivia ‘loves and lives loud,’ as Viola says!” Tresan told The Ringer via email.
Widows is by far Olivia’s most ambitious role, but it is not her first. Unlike some of her competitors, who have exploited the nepotism of their famous parents to capture instant fame, she has humble beginnings. Olivia got her start in Netflix’s Insatiable this summer, in which she had a brief but memorable cameo in a high school bikini dog wash (?) as a customer who is transformed from dirty to fluffy. Tough gig, but hopefully it got her some Instagram followers.
But her breakout role was as a blood-soaked dog named Bastian in Game Night. “He was pretty easy, he didn’t talk that much,” Jason Bateman said of working with Olivia, who was apparently so good in her role that she made Bateman believe she was male. “He was pretty serious about what he was doing. He was nervous. He peed on the set. He had a real weak bladder on him. But he did hit his mark and was there on time. And didn’t complain that much.”
Davis has offered similarly high praise of Olivia’s work in Widows. “I don’t own a dog in life, so I was [complaining] like, ‘I’ve gotta work with a dog. What if the dog licks me? Dogs are nasty and disgusting,’” Davis said at the aforementioned Widows screening. “Within the first five minutes, I’m kissing the dog, I’m holding the dog, the dog was on my chest. I love that dog, and she came to me so easily.”
Aside from being an extremely professional and likeable colleague, Olivia’s performance is paving new ground for the canine acting community. The Lassies, Old Yellers, Rin Tin Tins and Uggies that make up the Old Dog Guard were indisputably talented figures. But their performances often reflected a gimmicky showtunes-like viewpoint of dogs as energetic servants who communicate by tilting their heads, walking on their hind legs, or playing dead. Olivia’s role offers a more realistic view of how pets act. She is Davis’s ubiquitous, silent comfort blanket. She absorbs the mood of the situation and bats her big black eyes accordingly. She isn’t ferocious or smart enough to know if an intimidating man at the door is worth barking at. And occasionally her search for food leads her to accidentally stumble upon extremely important information. Olivia reminds us why we own pets: To have a constant source of comfort in a frequently disappointing world, a comfort who will entertain us with their dimwittedness and occasionally help us sniff out something (or someone) rotten in the kitchen. She may not be classically utilitarian like a Lassie, or even—as they say—“good.” But you better believe she’s a real one. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what Hollywood needs right now.