Eleven-year old AnnaSophia Robb appears on the verge of a major movie career. Later this year the Denver native will been seen with Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore in Tim Burton’s version of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” previously filmed in 1971 as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” But prior to going to London for that shoot, Robb traveled to small-town Louisiana to star in Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s 2001 Newbery Award winning children’s book “Because of Winn-Dixie,” in which she stars as a lonely young girl whose life is changed by the dog she meets at the titular grocery store and names after the supermarket.
Along with one of the Picardy Shepherds that play Winn-Dixie, Robb visited Dallas recently for a screening of the movie at the KidVid program of the USA Film Festival. “I saw the movie and I really liked it,” she said the day prior to the screening. “But I want to see what the kids think.”
Robb hadn’t met the dogs she’d be acting with before getting to the Louisiana location last year. The Picardy Shepherd is an unusual breed–“rare, not endangered,” as the trainer accompanying the animal on tour said. “In all of Europe there were only twelve breeders.” But Wang had been looking through books of canines while casting the picture and, as the trainer said, “ultimately fell in love with the face” of the breed, simply described in the book as a “mutt.” So five of the dogs were acquired for the shoot and brought to America for training. “No, I didn’t [have the chance to get to know the dogs beforehand], no,” Robb said, “because they were being trained at the time. And they were flown in from France. But they asked me if I was good with dogs before I auditioned, because they didn’t want me to be scared of the dogs.”
So Robb arrived in the Napoleanville-Donaldsonville area south of Baton Rogue without having bonded with her co-stars. “I didn’t really know the dogs before I met them, so I was kind of nervous about them,” Robb recalled. “But then we started to be really good friends. They used two [dogs], mainly. They had five, but they just used two. If one gets tired or overworked, they have to use a different one. And one might be better at cuddling than the other one, and one might be better at following and running around.” And she quickly connected with them. “I liked shooting all the scenes with the animals,” she said, “because I think it was really fun being in bed with Winn-Dixie, because you could cuddle with him and he was so sweet.” But the dogs weren’t the only critters Robb interacted with in the picture. Several of the sequences were set in a pet shop run by a shy guy played by musician Dave Matthews, and Robb said, “I liked picking up all the animals they let me pick up. Except these pigeons flew into my mouth. I went to say my lines and…that was really gross.”
Of course, not all the performers in “Because of Winn-Dixie” were of the non-human variety. Appearing with Robb in the film are not only Matthews but also Jeff Daniels (as her father, a preacher), Cicely Tyson (as a local recluse) and Eva Marie Saint (as the town librarian). She hadn’t seen many of their movies–except for “Dumb and Dumber”–and said that they weren’t too free with acting advice. But, she added, “just watching them, you learn stuff–how they get into character and how they play their characters.” There were also other children in the cast, including Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister. “They’re so nice,” Robb said. “They’re all around my age, so we got along really well.”
The locals, many of whom appear in the picture as extras, were very nice, too–although Robb remembered that on one occasion, they were a bit too welcoming: “We were doing a take, and all of a sudden this parade comes–like a welcoming march, or something. It was homecoming, and they went by where we were shooting, purposely, just to say hi. And then they came around another time. They’re such friendly people.”
After making a relatively small, easygoing picture like “Winn-Dixie,” Robb admitted, being in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was a very new experience. “It was very different,” she said. ‘Winn-Dixie’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ I think are two of the farthest apart movies, because ‘Winn-Dixie’ is about love and life and making friends and ‘Charlie’ is kind of zany and crazy.” She found the directors different, too. “They’re both wonderful directors,” she said, “but they’re different. It’s kind of like, you know, a Picardy Shepherd and then a poodle.”
Mention of the breed featured in “Winn-Dixie” brought up the question of whether the film might ignite a run on them in America, the way “101 Dalmatians” did. But the trainer said it was unlikely, not only because of the scarcity of the animals, but because of their character. “This dog is very well trained and well socialized,” she said of the touring dog, with whom AnneSophia had begun to play as the interview ended. “But as a breed, it’s not a dog that’s a family dog. They’re very tentative about people…and have a very strong will. They really need to be handled by someone who has a lot of patience and a little bit of expertise.”
So however much you might fall in love with Winn-Dixie while watching the movie, don’t expect to run over to young local pet shop and buy one afterward. Unless, perhaps, you live in France.