This article originally ran in early March, when First Cow first debuted in limited release, shortly before movie theaters across the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. We are re-running it for the film's VOD release on July 10th.
In First Cow, director Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, a reserved loner cook named Cookie (John Magaro) and an enterprising Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee) develop a friendship in the barely-settled Oregon Territory of the 1820s. It’s a tender and moving portrait of an unlikely bond between two outsiders, the intimacy of their relationship contrasted against the austere and unforgiving frontier setting.
It also stars an excellent cow.
The cow character, the first of her species to arrive in the area, belongs to a wealthy landowner, but Cookie and King Lu make a habit of surreptitiously stealing her milk to make biscuits. The actress behind this measured and nuanced performance as “cow”? Eve, nicknamed Evie, a handsome Jersey who was two years old at the time of filming. She was scouted by trainer Lauren Henry, who told GQ that Reichardt had outlined specifications based on breeds that were prevalent in the film’s time period but are no longer around today.
Henry first encountered Eve at a hobby farm in Washington State, and though the young cow didn’t have any previous acting experience, she immediately seemed destined for the role. “When we went to visit Eve to see what her personality was like, she was pacing and seemed a little agitated. And the lady who was her owner said, ‘Oh, she's a little antsy right now. We didn't milk her until you got here. She's used to being the first cow [who gets milked],’” Henry recalled. When she heard the phrase “first cow” used coincidentally in relation to Eve, Henry got “chills.”
She added: “And then we found out her name is Eve, so, first woman too. And we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is all the stars aligning. This is the cow for the job.’”
"She is a very fine cow," Reichardt told GQ in an email.
Behind the scenes, Eve was known for being sociable and popular. Henry tends to avoid too much contact between people and animal talent on set, so as to not overwhelm the non-human actors, but Eve couldn’t get enough of it. “She loves people more than just about anything else, other than apples. If you're not paying attention to her, she's running around and bucking and waving her head, trying to get your attention so that you'll come in and play with her,” Henry shared. “She thrived on people coming and petting her and brushing her and giving her treats and telling her how beautiful she was.”
And while Eve was never a diva, she definitely had some demands. “If we separated her, she would moo and look out the window and try and get people to come see her,” Henry said.
Cows may be intelligent animals with complex inner emotional lives, but how does one go about technically training them for the silver screen? For the initial stages, a miniature mock set was built near Eve’s paddock so as to acclimate her to lights and fog machines and the like. The rest mostly involved a lot of time and a lot of food.
Eve’s onscreen debut is a shot of her floating up river on a raft, which required weeks of hanging out on a mock raft on dry land. “We sat up there with her for a very, very long time, just adding a little bit of time each day, until she was absolutely comfortable with getting up on the raft,” Henry explained. “She absolutely loved floating down the river. She had her little sleepy cow eyes and chewed her cud and just hung out in the sun with the waves lulling her to sleep.”
While Eve’s appearances in First Cow largely involve standing still and staring with a penetrating and soulful gaze (Reichardt has said that she selected Eve out of all the cow headshots because “she had the biggest eyes”), the most overt action occurs in a scene in which she nuzzles Cookie. To get her to do that, actor John Magaro hid a cookie, usually an apple and oat concoction, in his jacket pocket. “Nobody else would give her a cookie except for Cookie,” Henry said. “She could find that particular actor in a lineup and say, ‘You are the one!’”
The breakout bovine star has since been adopted by Henry, and even gave birth to a calf who was named Cookie in May of last year (a birth announcement provided by Henry can be seen below). “He is super sweet,” Henry said of the calf, who has since been moved to a nearby local farm. “He followed his mom around most of the time, but he also seemed quite partial to our two Alpaca and spent lots of time hanging around with them.” As for Eve’s acting future? “She's here and demanding her next role,” Henry said. And she certainly has the Kelly Reichardt and A24 cred most young actors would dream of.
Talking to Dan Bern, the songwriter responsible for the flawless fake Dylan song in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Originally Appeared on GQ