Training Tips From a Cannes Award-Winning Movie Star Dog
Border Collie, Messi, is loving his moment in the spotlight and is ready for Awards Season.
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This upcoming awards season will be a starry affair with films featuring A-list actors such as Bradley Cooper, Annette Bening, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Penelope Cruz. But one of the best performances of the year is from a four-legged thespian that rivals many of his human counterparts.
Messi, a seven-year-old Border Collie, stars in Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall — a tense drama about a woman going to trial for the murder of her husband, with the only witnesses potentially being her blind son and their dog, Snoop. The film opened to rave reviews for Triet’s directing, the phenomenal performance from Sandra Huller, and Messi’s own considerable talents.
When Anatomy of a Fall first premiered at Cannes in May, eventually winning the Palm d’Or, the highest prize at the festival, there was as much buzz for the Collie’s performance as Snoop as there was for the human cast. This led Messi to win the Palm Dog, an acting award for animal performers that is handed out unofficially at Cannes each year.
Triet always wanted Messi to be an integral part of the film, and his trainer played a big role in that. “The lady who owns Snoop was a really key person for us to allow him to be a character, really as much a part of the film’s ensemble as any of the other actors,” Triet told The Hollywood Reporter. “In several scenes, we are on the level of the dog; we see things from his perspective. He is as much a character as any other, and that was very important to me.”
That “lady” is Laura Martin Contini — a longtime coach for dog training in theater and film specifically. Contini has also been Messi’s parent since he was a young pup living outside of Paris. Contini was always around animals in her youth before choosing to work with them as a career.
“It really became, for me, a job of passion,” she tells The Wildest. “I’m fascinated by the way in which you can really learn to understand animal behavior and communicate with them in ways that are nonverbal and get to know the specific personalities of each of the dogs.”
Contini’s personal interest in animal behavior inadvertently made her and Messi a perfect fit for Triet’s film. It’s a twisty family drama where every character, including Snoop, can be analyzed. It’s Messi’s first big role, though Contini feels he should have been cast in a feature film much earlier. “I’ve always known that Messi is a very intelligent dog, and he had already been in some clips and certain ads, but there was always a problem with castings,” she says. “Because of his quite specific physique and appearance and his very light eyes.”
But Messi was clearly made for this role. The film is quite heavy, and he has his fair share of dramatic scenes, for which he and Contini thoroughly prepared. “There were 22 days of shooting with the dog, which is a lot,” she says. “There was such a great team and he was everyone’s favorite on set and we really took the time on each of his scenes.”
Taking the time with Messi was important for many reasons. Snoop is the beloved family dog, but he’s also become the most important confidante for the son character in the film, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). It was necessary for Machado Graner and Messi to have a close relationship so their bond would translate to the screen. “I would let them spend a lot of time together and get to know each other and play,” Contini says. “Even during the shoot, every time there was a break, they would be playing together. [Machado Graner] was specifically very invested in becoming close to the dog and taking care and playing with him, which is what Messi needs as a dog. He needs to be taken care of and to be given attention and playtime.”
For Snoop’s most dramatic scene, Messi had to act sick — and a lot of hard work and training went into it. He had to learn how to lay down and let his tongue hang out as if he were ill, which wasn’t easy. “I would work with [him] when he was really tired and put him in these specific positions for [his tongue] to do that,” Contini explains. “It was an intense day of filming, but by the end of it, I was really happy because I realized how much of a big cinematic moment it was going to be on screen.”
And that’s the scene that truly cements Messi as a Meryl Streep-level actor. Upon Anatomy of a Fall’s premiere at Cannes, he was name-checked in most of the glowing reviews. “It was a real challenge for me to take on this with a dog that was my own dog, as an owner, and do all this work,” Contini says. “So, it was a recognition of this teamwork and of my own personal work. Messi is the best dog in the world, so intelligent and learns so quickly, and I feel very lucky.”
Since then, Messi has landed two more intense roles, on a television show in France and in a theater production. Cortini jokes that this seems to be “his calling” and says he is beyond prepared for his moment in the limelight — including the upcoming awards season. At the Anatomy of a Fall premiere, Messi acted like a star on the stairs of the theater and was rolling around as actors were doing their speeches. “He was letting himself be petted and he was making a show, so I definitely think he’s got what it takes to be at a ceremony,” she says.
But even though Messi is clearly talented, Cortini stresses that stars are not born; they’re made. “No dog is born an actor,” she says. “It’s not something that is inherent to the dog. Each dog is different, with different physical aptitudes and different personalities. It’s really about exploring those very specific characteristics of your pet and make it work for the role.” Ultimately, Cortini celebrates Messi’s achievements: “Having a star at home feels amazing.”
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Kerensa Cadenas is a writer based in New York. She’s previously worked at The Cut, Thrillist, Cosmopolitan, and Complex. Her work has been featured in Vulture, GQ, Vanity Fair, and others.