My mother was Episcopalian, and she was constantly exploring her faith. It took many different shapes; she found [the poet] Wallace Stevens more inspiring than any priest we had. I stopped wanting to go to church when I was about 14 or 15; my mother said I could as long as I started doing something for somebody else. So I got a job working at an animal shelter, where I’d clean cages and walk the dogs.
Early in my acting career, after I got a part in “White Fang” (1991), I went to Alaska and spent six weeks getting to know the animals. Two of my scene partners were this quarter wolf and this half wolf that we’d rotate between. If I were ever to teach an acting class, the first thing I’d do is bring in animals — they just smell inauthenticity.
Over time, I developed a passion for dogs. After my first marriage ended, I got this Border collie, Nina, and had her while I was making “Before Sunset” (2004), “Before Midnight” (2013) and “Boyhood” (2014). I was living in New York, but I was constantly calling Richard Linklater in Austin, Texas, dreaming of those movies I’d made with him. He and I used to have the best conversations at night while I was walking Nina, just talking about our lives.
One of the things nobody tells you when you become an actor is how difficult it is to maintain any sense of continuity in your life. So wherever I was shooting, I’d bring Nina with me. There’s something about taking care of something else; you develop your own pride. When she passed five years ago, I just didn’t know what to do.
But by then I had these two young girls who wanted a puppy. I finally decided we were ready, and we went to a shelter where there were two sisters, Georgia and Jett, and I took them both. It felt like a nice way not to have to compare them to Nina. Animals’ life cycles are much shorter, so they teach you awareness of death and of what’s really important. Just waking up and walking them or walking them before bed — in all kinds of weather, in all situations — the monotony’s nice. And it’s a great way to learn lines. They often hear me talking to myself. I can see when I capture their attention — when they think I’m really talking to them, and when it sounds like I’m just reciting.