First Cow isn’t writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s first movie to star an animal—the title characters in her 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy were played by Michelle Williams and a yellow Labrador—but it is the first to give an animal sole top billing. The new film from the American master follows a cook nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the Oregon Territory of the 19th century, but it gets its name from their cash cow, reputed to be the first dairy-producing bovine in the area. After Cookie and King-Lu start baking biscuits together and selling them to hungry travelers, they realize the biscuits would taste better with milk, so the men begin furtively milking a cow after nightfall.
Though the movie also features such established actors as Toby Jones and Alia Shawkat, the cow herself is played by a newcomer, Eve. According to Reichardt, the filmmakers plucked her out of a series of cow headshots. Watching Eve on-screen, it’s no mystery what made her stand out. She’s got a quietly graceful look, slightly demure, but still radiating the sort of beauty necessary for stardom, not unlike Au Hasard Balthazar’s iconic donkey. “The biggest challenge was actually having her look dirty enough,” Lauren Henry, one of the animal trainers who worked on the film, revealed. “She wasn’t supposed to look like a well-pampered show cow, but she just glowed anyway.” With her gorgeous walnut-hued hair and huge black eyes, it’s hard to blame Cookie or King-Lu for risking so much just to get close to her. (Or as cinephile Sam Herbst put it more bluntly on Twitter: “Am I gonna get cancelled for thinking the cow in First Cow is hot?”)
The fact that Reichardt’s films are often populated with animals is part of what lends her work such a patient, natural feel. Her movies offer a studied, nuanced look at human behavior—but they also allow animals to be animals. Not that this always comes easily. While on Reichardt’s widely acclaimed Wendy and Lucy, she worked with her own dog of the same name, First Cow represented a new challenge for the auteur. “It was my first time working with trained dogs,” Reichardt said, expressing some frustration at how good at their jobs they could be. “They just don’t do anything naughty! They don’t roll in the mud. They don’t. They do exactly what you tell them to do,” she said. Henry agrees. “Getting natural behavior to happen on cue is one of the toughest things about animal training,” she admits. “They’ll do it at some point, but will they do it when the cameras are rolling and the actors are ready and the light is just right, on a particular mark, in front of the camera, and still have it look natural?”
On the film’s poster, Eve is front and center, standing atop the raft upon which she makes her entrance in the film, with only the film’s title, spelled out in giant yellow letters, competing for prominence. “The prettiest woman always ends up on the poster, it’s always true,” Reichardt joked. At the moment of Eve’s introduction, Reichardt lingers on her floating down the river, framing her with quiet reverence. She has an almost regal presence on-screen—in fact, the cow’s unassuming owner remarks that she has royal lineage.
One might find bestowing this kind of lavish attention on a farm animal unusual, but according to Henry, Eve never let the title role get to her head. “She was quite content to hang out outside and have people take selfies and play with her, pet her, and brush her. She was very much a people cow.” Reichardt agreed. “A sweeter cow there never was,” she told me. “She was quite lovely. Such a sweetie. Everybody was always super happy to have her around. It just makes for a good vibe on set. I don’t think anybody’s eaten a piece of meat since we finished production.”
Given that First Cow marked Eve’s cinematic debut, one might expect some jitters, but Henry describes Eve as born for the screen. “She acclimated very quickly. She’s very naturally trusting, and fearless. To the point where we could walk her through a wall of fog and she didn’t hesitate. In that scene where she’s floating on the raft, she was probably on there for a couple of hours. But she never had an issue with it. We let her stay out there as long as she was comfortable, and her comfort level expanded past what we needed while rolling.”
And Eve’s significance to the film is bigger than just her share of screen time. “I think it shows how intertwined we all are and how we rely on each other,” remarked Henry. “Each animal and each person has a different contribution to each other’s lives. I think it’s an interesting thought to consider how a cow floating down the river from some foreign land could come into Cookie’s life and change it the way she did.”
Could her impact extend beyond this one feature? Even in a film so sumptuous, with such tender performances, Eve manages to distinguish herself. It’s the kind of turn in a film that could lead the way to a long-lasting career—if not for Eve, then for others like her. “She is here, ready for her next big project,” Henry says. “I don’t think people consider cows as leading characters, but that may change after this movie.”