An Interview With Andrew Simpson, Wolf Trainer To Game of Thrones Star Quigley
By Sarah Fisher
Winter is coming, or rather, Game of Thrones Fans’ favorite time of year, the release of the highly anticipated seventh season of the franchise. While we enjoy keeping up with the show’s stars through the filming season, one actor stands out to us: Alberta based Quigley, a white wolf trained by Andrew Simpson, the man to call for a project requiring Hollywood’s a-list wolves. We had the incredible chance to speak with Andrew on his involvement with GOT, some exciting other projects, and learn how much wolves differ from their cousins – dogs. Read on as we press for spoilers and learn what it takes to run with the wolves.
How did you come to specialize in work with wolves? What sets them apart from other animal talent? How long have you been working with wolves?
I grew up in Scotland in a small town in the middle of nowhere. I was always fascinated with the movies and animals and I left home at 20 for Australia. It was there that I worked on the Lindy Chamberland movie, where the famous line “a dingo ate my baby” was made famous. I was backpacking around Australia and asked for a job with the lady who trained the dingos. They are misunderstood and quirky like North American wolves.
I started working for a company in Vancouver, Canada before starting my own company, Instinct Animals For Film. They had a wolf in a cage who everyone said was untrainable. I spent a lot of time with him to understand what he was about. Eventually I could take him on a leash and work with him.
They are not like dogs.
On set, people just see a dog, but the last director I worked with said wow- they are nothing like a dog at all. They even move differently.
I then came to Alberta and now focus about 80% on wolves.
What makes a great wolf actor? How are wolf actors selected?
One that accepts and understands everything that’s put in front of them. In my opinion, a wolf is the hardest animal to work with. House cats are hard to work with, and some dogs too. Everyone expects their movie dog to be able to do everything you see on YouTube which can make things hard.
You cannot get a wolf to do something it doesn’t want to do, ever.
Even if a dog doesn’t like an actor, give them a tennis ball and they will follow. For a wolf, you can’t trick it. It will simply walk away. You have to spend the time and build a relationship so it has the confidence in you. There’s a lot of things on set like lights and distractions, and the wolf needs reassurance from you.
The first 6 months of our wolves’ lives, we take them everywhere, and what they see in those months becomes normal. We take them to the airport to watch planes go off, and the more interaction and exposure makes them a better working wolf.
I’ve had wolves who were great as puppies, and as adults , they suddenly don’t want to work any more. Unlike some other companies, we keep them. Eventually, the wolf may come back and want to work again.
They become members of the pack and enjoy their life. When they show interest again, they will start working again! We had one wolf take an 8 year break and now she’s one of my best actors!
We don’t give up on them. We make the commitment and although we aren’t a rescue or a shelter, if the animal doesn’t want to work, they stay with us.
We have a lot of Game of Thrones fans – how did you come to join that project?
I was a big fan from the start, and they inquired in the beginning to work with us. I was in China and Greece at the time and couldn’t make it work. So in season five, they came to Calgary to shoot with us! It was a huge honor for me as a fan of the series They came back for season six. Season seven, fingers crossed!
Our wolf Quigley played Ghost and it’s really such a huge honor.
Can you spill any details on Quigley making another appearance?
Season six was a big cliff hanger – so have to respect the show. The two main produces have become friends and they are awesome, they understand animals.
Are there other notable shows or movies we would recognize your wolves in?
We do a lot outside of North America. One of the hardest ones was in Siberia. It was the harshest conditions we have ever worked under, think -60 degrees some days.
We filmed our own documentary and released it called Wolves Unleashed. It was a neat experience. It was unique and no one had ever seen or done this before. In the film industry, a lot of people have a bad reputation for working with animals. We wanted to show how we train the wolves, in a positive way, not hiding what we do to make a movie.
What do you say to people who believe that using animals in the entertainment industry is a form of animal cruelty?
I understand because it’s a thing we fight with all the time. If you look at the 50s and the old style, some of the things they did with animals was unethical and cruel. Even now things show up on social media and that does happen in certain areas.
For us, we have our own standards as humans and the animals we work with, we love them. Most of them we raise from being very young.
For me its all about the animal first. There’s always a way to get the shot.
We spent 3 years in China and I made it clear, this will be a tough project with wolves, sheep, and everything else, and it’s likely someone will try to find something wrong with what we’re doing because China has a bad reputation for animal treatment. Our team made it very clear if there wasn’t a safe way to do a scene, we would not do it. It had to be humane and safe.
There’s one scene where the wolves are bloodied and trampled, that’s very believable. We put toothpaste and mouth wash on the ground, covered it in fake blood, and the wolves would love rolling in the toothpaste! With sound effects, it looks like they are rolling in agony. The story telling is realistic, but the methods are very clever.
I would say don’t believe everything you see and I know there are unethical people out there, but for us, if an animal doesn’t want to do something, they don’t. If they are not happy we are not happy.
The director told me “for my job, I have to keep pushing for my vision. Working with you was refreshing because if something is not possible, you tell me no, and I know to trust you.”
Why we get the big challenging shows is because we have a good reputation, our ethics come with us to every country, whether it’s China, Russia, France, or here in North America.
What are some of the most inspiring locations that your work with animals for film has taken you to?
The Belle et Sebastian series in France is one for sure.
I recently had an operation in Mekong in Southeast Asia. I had military dogs – very focused and a driver. We did two months in Bangkok and two in Malaysia We stayed on Penang Island and it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
One theme in many of the “behind the scenes” or in-training” showreels is the importance of actors working with animals in film to develop a mutual sense of trust and respect. How do you encourage this working relationship, especially when there simply isn’t enough time available aside from shooting?
Usually we’ll try for a big feature with a lot of screen time, and we will get time before the shooting dates. You have to make an animal look like they belong to that actor as owner. We work into our schedule and the actor’s schedule 7-10 days, 4-5 hours a day to get time in to build a rapport.
With wild animals like wolves, its very difficult if you don’t have the time. You have to raise them before you train them, and trust before you have control.
We have exceptional wolves who love everyone, but with wolves in general, they don’t bond, but tolerate the actor. They can stand and walk with the actor. For stunts, a trainer will usually switch out in costume
How do you achieve the perfect wild/domestic balance with your wolf actors?
We do it in a different way from most companies. Some people keep wolves in cages and only take them out for jobs. When you keep them like that, it builds frustration and anxiety, especially when a group of wolves work together.
For me, they sleep in kennels at night and are in them to get their dinner. They are usually out together in groups and interact with each other. They show their own hierarchy and dominance in their own world, they play and squabble and have all they need from each other to keep they in a family structure
We see them all day, but they see us as someone who shares their life with them, not as part of their group.
They’re happy to have interactions with us as it’s something different in their world.
Finally, can you leave us with a special story or memorable story from a project?
We raised 9 groups for the movie Wolf Totem, but when we got them, they were past the imprinting days. At close to ten weeks old, this is a huge no no in the industry to try to bond and make a film. When we got them, we couldn’t’ even touch them. One wolf, Cloudy, went on to star in the movie
Now they are five years old and we still can’t touch them. We had to find different ways to train them and trust them. They would follow us on set like dogs, but didn’t have the desire to be touched. They needed 6-7 feet of security space.
We made an incredible movie and did things in China my wolves in North American could never do. During the first four months, I considered quitting and coming home. I learned a lot and the crew learned a lot. We really had to think differently.
When the project finished, I didn’t want to leave these wolves in China. It took me 12 months of paperwork to take them from China to Alberta, Canada. I finally got my piece of paper saying the wolves now belonged to me! 16 animals from China leaving the country is unheard of, but we made it happen.