By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Reese Witherspoon can flip over backward on her latest co-star, who in turn can either hoist the actress in the air or crush her.
We're not talking about either "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson or "Inglourious Basterds" villain Christoph Waltz, with whom she stars in the new romantic drama "Water for Elephants."
But rather, Tai -- a 42-year-old, 9,200 lb (1,900 kg) pachyderm at the unwitting center of a dangerous Depression-era love triangle involving a beautiful circus performer, her brutal husband and a dashing young man.
"Water for Elephants," Witherspoon's first film since the disappointing Christmas film "How Do You Know," opens on Friday across North America. The movie required the actress to acquire instant expertise doing elephant acrobatics while wearing sequined leotards and elegant gowns.
"These are skills that people develop over years and years of training and I had to condense that into five months," the Nashville-raised actress said in an interview with Reuters. "But it was really rewarding."
Witherspoon joked that one of her greatest accomplishments was learning how to step on Tai's trunk and hurdle herself on top of the 8-foot, eight-inch animal.
Tai, a veteran of movies and commercials, had to stretch her own acting chops by pretending to be untrained. She evidently reached a deeper level of familiarity with Witherspoon
than her human co-stars.
"It's like a dog in that they know your smell," Witherspoon said. "They remember your scent and so, she smells you every morning and she's like, 'Oh, I know that person.'"
"Water for Elephants," based on Sara Gruen's 2006 best-selling novel of the same name, stars Pattinson as a veterinary student named Jacob who abandons his studies and joins a traveling circus. He meets Witherspoon's character, Marlena, who is inconveniently married to the brutal animal trainer August, played by Waltz.
When August buys an untrainable elephant named Rosie, Jacob is put in charge. He soon develops a special bond with the animal and then with Marlena, who must learn to ride it. When romantic sparks start to fly, life gets dangerous.
Things are happier for Oscar-winning Witherspoon in real life. Last month, she married talent agent Jim Toth at her California ranch as Sean Penn, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire and Renee Zellweger looked on.
Witherspoon started shooting "Elephants" a few months after meeting Toth last year, and marveled at how her uneducated movie character overcomes the odds and finds true love.
"Some of the most beautiful scenes are the ones that have no words -- moments where my character is noticing Rob, or Christoph's character seeing us across the room. It just tells you so much about the story without saying a word," she said.
The movie also shines a light on animal abuse, and karmic retribution. Tai, fortunately, leads a comfortable life on a California ranch alongside five other elephants waiting for their next Hollywood close-up.
"Hopefully, this movie will build compassion for different elephant charities, that we really have to protect animals in this world," Witherspoon said. "They're very complex, thoughtful creatures and they deserve our attention."
(Editing by Dean Gooodman)