The first cow in the Oregon Territories during the Gold Rush is two men’s secret to success in Kelly Reichardt’s new film, “First Cow.”
Loner Cookie (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) become fast friends who hit on a surprisingly lucrative business: Cookie makes one-of-a-kind biscuits to sell to the locals. The key ingredient, according to King Lu is “an ancient Chinese secret,” but it’s really the milk stolen at night from Eve, who belongs to a rich land owner.
Casting the right cow was key to the film, not only to find one who didn’t mind lights and cameras, but to make sure she was the kind of cow who existed in the time period.
Eve was found in Washington state
Animal trainer Lauren Henry of Talented Animals told GQ that she found Eve at a hobby farm in Washington state.
“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],'” said Henry.
Henry got “chills” on hearing the term “first cow,” and even more so when she learned that the cow’s name is Eve. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is all the stars aligning. This is the cow for the job.'”
Eve was chosen because she was “the prettiest cow”
Reichardt picked Eve’s photo out of all the cow headshots because “she had the biggest eyes,” she said. Eve gets a lot of close-ups so having an expressive face was important. As she told The Atlantic, “I picked the kind of cow I wanted, a Jersey cow, and then they’d send me videos, and I saw this one and I loved her… It was very superficial casting—I was looking for the prettiest cow.”
Eve loved the limelight
It turned out Eve loved the spotlight. Henry said, “She loves people more than just about anything else, other than apples… She thrived on people coming and petting her and brushing her and giving her treats and telling her how beautiful she was.”
And she loved cookies from Cookie
In one scene in the film, the cow’s wealthy owner (Toby Jones) introduces her to Cookie, and she lovingly nuzzles him, nearly giving away the fact that she already knows her midnight milker quite well. Magaro, who plays Cookie, hid a cookie (usually one made of apples and oats) in his jacket pocket to inspire her display of affection.
John Magaro had to learn how to milk her
“City boy” Magaro told KPIX that he learned how to milk a cow so the milking scenes in the film are 100 per cent authentic. “It’s not as hard as you think it is. It’s pretty instinctive,” he said, joking he’s considering a second career “on a farm somewhere in New Jersey.”
Eve was a pro for her first big scene
Henry had to work with Eve to get her used to getting on a raft, so when it came for her first scene in the film, where she’s being floated down the river to her new home, she was right at home. “She absolutely loved floating down the river,” said Henry. “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.”
The cow wasn’t in the novel the film is based on
As Reichardt told The Atlantic, “‘First Cow’ is based on a novel by Jonathan called ‘The Half-Life’… The novel spans four decades and includes a ship ride to China, and I’m making small-budget films, so for many years we were trying to figure out how we could make it. We came up with [the cow] as a way to tell the story while keeping it small enough… The presence of the cow gave us a simple plot structure, and it allowed a lot of the themes Jonathan had in his novel about the beaver trade in 1820s Oregon to come into play.”
Where is Eve today?
After filming wrapped, Henry adopted her. Eve gave birth to a calf (aptly named Cookie) in May of 2019. Henry, who is “super sweet,” now lives on a nearby farm, Lauren told GQ.
“First Cow” opens in limited release on March 6.
The movie was monitored by the American Humane Association and bears the “no animals were harmed” trademark. (And rest easy: Nothing bad happens to the cow in the movie.)
For more information on Eve (and other animal actors), you can follow Talented Animals on Facebook.