By MARA REINSTEIN – Parade
The last time Rob Lowe and Kristin Davis worked together, they were trying to prevent impending disaster in a 1999 TV miniseries called Atomic Train. “I was very intimidated because he was a childhood crush,” the actress recalls of her hunky co-star, who made more than one heart pound in such ’80s Hollywood hits as St. Elmo’s Fire, The Outsiders and About Last Night.
Two decades later, the two—now good friends—have reunited, with no disaster in sight. In Holiday in the Wild (streaming now on Netflix), she plays a lovelorn New Yorker who goes to Africa on a safari for Christmas and falls for Lowe’s laconic small-plane pilot. (Lowe’s youngest son, John Owen Lowe, plays Davis’ son.)
“I’ve been lucky to be in a few traditional Christmas movies,” Davis says, “but sometimes you have to widen your horizons when you’re telling a story around the holidays. This is family-friendly, romantic and you’ll learn something.”
We sat down with Davis to talk about the movie and her work with wild elephants.
Tell us about your character in Holiday in the Wild and why she’s in Africa.
I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to give away, but the first thing to say is that this film is like a love letter to everyone I know in conservation, especially to the people who work with elephants. It’s near and dear to my heart. And it was super-amazing that we got to film it in a way that we did, which was very different than your average Hollywood film with the animals where you’re using trained animals. We didn’t use show-business elephants. We used wild elephants that were rescued, and we never did anything they didn’t want to do. You know, we would ask, “Are there people who take care of them? Where do they like to go, what do they like to do?” And we would try to incorporate it. So it was really special from that perspective. And I like to lead with that because I’ve been involved with elephants for 10 years.
Since this film is about animal conservation with the backdrop of the poaching parts of the elephant, it was even more important. The gist of the story is that I am a New York City woman and married with a kid going to college, played by the fantastic Johnny Lowe, Rob’s son. And he leaves the house to go to college. And my whole life I’ve wanted to go up there after and have a safari. I bought the ticket to the safari. I don’t tell my husband, and he has a very different plan. I end up alone with Rob Lowe playing the pilot for my little plane when we fly over the more remote areas. And we end up face to face with the poaching crisis, basically, and my character falls in love with the baby elephant that they ended up finding. That’s the basic setup.
It’s called Holiday in the Wild because this takes place around the holidays?
It is. You are not going to find another Christmas movie like our movie. I don’t know any other Christmas movie that is also about elephant conservation that was filmed in an actual elephant orphanage in Zambia, which is where we filmed. I think the holidays are so important because everyone is around, your family is around, you want to have something to watch that everyone can watch and enjoy.
Are Christmas movies a comfort-food kind of thing?
I think it’s two things. Our world has become more hectic and chaotic and everybody needs a break so desperately. I think that’s how everyone feels. For the entertainment industry, it makes sense to be producing content for that time when you’re going to have free time and you need something that might be uplifting. It’s important that we need to have something for the whole family to watch and feel good about and feel uplifted in a way that celebrates being together, or thinking about your life in a different way or nature in a different way or expanding your horizons or recreating family. One of the things that my character loves doing is that her family goes through something that she’s not expecting, but she finds a more truthful way of living through that. People can relate to change. Change and then create something better. I think people are in need of a bump for the soul, which is what holiday movies can do.
When you were growing up, what were some of your favorite holiday movies?
Well, I’m really, really fully addicted to The Sound of Music.
Is that a considered a Christmas movie?
Well, I don’t know. But they play it around Christmas. I don’t know why exactly, but it works, you know what I’m saying? It’s in the Alps. It’s beautiful. This is not technically Christmas, but I love Defending Your Life. I love it because I think you’re thinking about your life and the holidays and the eve of the new year. And I love that movie because it’s so deep and it’s also really funny. Oh, and It’s a Wonderful Life!
Do you remember watching it for the first time?
I do remember being young and watching and being very stressed out about what was going to happen to George Bailey. I was very, very worried for him, because you don’t really know. And it was so tricky when it goes through, like, when people don’t know who he is and he goes to that bar and they throw them out. Then you’re so relieved that it all works out. Oh, my goodness.
What were some of your favorite holiday traditions growing up?
Well, my mom is very crafty and I grew up in the South, so we would always do handmade decorations. Our living room at some point would become filled with cuttings from all the holly that she grows. These pine trees and whatnot, we have to go out and cut it all down and put holly in the living room and make garland out of it for all the many fireplaces in the house. I mean, it’s beautiful when it’s done, but Lord it’s very hardcore. And we also sometimes bake 18 million of these particular kind of cookies. I have friends in other cities who request their delivery to share with their family. It’s like a chocolate-dipped sugar cookie. It is basic and very old-fashioned. It’s fun to make, but it’s also kind of high maintenance. So it’s like a job at my mom’s house. I take it a little more relaxed in my house, probably because I have little kids. My little one might pull down the decorations. So I’m a little bit more relaxed with them in L.A. We do go home to South Carolina, where it’s a much more traditional Christmas.
Your family is still there?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. My children love South Carolina so much. I can’t escape that even if I wanted to, which I don’t because I crave that as well. I like L.A. and the palm trees. But my daughter is 8 now, and she loves a tree. My daughter is hardcore into Christmas.
Do you have your own Christmas traditions?
Sometimes I try to do stuff at night when they’re asleep because I’m always scared of what they’re going to do. Like last year my daughter put all the ornaments on, but I hadn’t put the lights on and I was like, “Baby, slow down! There’s a certain process and you’ve got to honor the process.” But my little one is kind of rough-and-tumble. When you have kids, you’ve got to be good to think ahead a little bit. You’ve got to put the tree up or do something creative with it, and don’t use a lot of glass.
How was it working with Rob Lowe and his son? Did you know them before the movie?
I know them very well. I’ve worked with Rob before. I met Johnny when he was a little child up to my hip. I had not met Johnny as an adult, but I’ve worked with Rob and [his brother] Chad. I know their dad. I know the whole Lowe family.
How do you know them so well?
Rob and I did a film in Canada together for many months. It was a big miniseries. He hung off trees and did his own stunts and I played his wife. But it was super sweet, and [his wife] Sheryl and his boys would come up to visit because we were there in Canada filming during Thanksgiving. And then the next year I was also in Canada filming with Chad. And his dad came, and then I remember thinking that I’m slowly going to meet the entire Lowe family. Chad has all these little kids right now. Then Rob’s kids are grown and are amazing, and the whole family came for our filming and we spent months in Zambia, and then they went on to Tanzania, and Rob dove with sharks off the coast of South Africa. He’s game. You’ve got to love him for that.
Are you now past the point where you’re talking to Rob Lowe and you can’t believe it’s Rob Lowe?
Definitely. Don’t tell him that. I post hysterical pictures of him. I make fun of him. I know his wife, she makes a lot of fun of him. His kids make fun of him. I mean, he’s very lovable and he just needs to be made fun of. He takes it really well.
So tell me a bit more about the elephant conservation and how it played into the movie? Which came first?
I’ve been involved in elephant conservation since 2009, when my friends and I were in Kenya and we found an orphan elephant, but we didn’t know that the poaching crisis had begun, but it had, sadly. I took this elephant to a wildlife trust and became obsessed with elephants in general. They’re intelligent. I can’t count the times I’ve been in Kenya at this point. I love it so much. I was just there last week. But I had felt that people didn’t know about the poaching crisis. We tried to tell people about it, but they didn’t care.
It was so hard because you felt like, OK, I know about this horrible thing that’s happening and no one knows. And people would care if they did know. It was very difficult to do. So we worked tirelessly to help the trust [the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust] because the trust does a lot of things. Now they have 14 anti-poaching teams. They raised the elephants that are orphans but then we released them into the wild. I ended up making a documentary about them called Gardeners of Eden, which is on YouTube. And one of our producers wanted to have a meeting. I didn’t think it was elephant-related, and they said, “We want to hear about your elephants.” And I was like, “Wow, OK, you know, we’re on, we can talk for hours.” I didn’t perceive that this would turn into a film because I know that you can’t work with trained elephants anymore because the way that they train elephants is not humane to the elephant. I was trying to tell them at the time, “You guys, I don’t know… Understand, like, you’d have to go to Africa.” I was a little skeptical that it would work out.
So that was a few years back and has been through a couple of incarnations, partly based on finding places that we could film and that treated the elephants correctly and were open to us also coming into their world. Because we’re kind of disruptive, film companies, meaning we bring a big crew, and even if you try to scale down, you’re disrupting whatever’s going on. And everyone who is in conservation is solely focused on the elephant’s well-being. Everyone was very worried that we not stress the elephants. It did take a long time to figure out how we were going to do it. And the wonderful thing about Netflix, they stepped up to the plate and they understood when I went to them and explained why we couldn’t film at certain places that other people film and why we had to film at the other places that I’d been researching for a couple of years that I thought would be possible and true to the story and ethically correct in terms of how their elephants were living and being treated. And Zambia has an actual elephant orphanage where they are released into the wild, and it’s very much like my place that I know in Kenya in terms of doing the work that needs to be done to try to get these elephants back into the wild before their mothers were killed by poachers.
The idea for the movie came from our producer thinking that we could make this issue into a movie. I’m not sure that he understood how difficult that would be. For many years, I researched places where it could possibly work and then flew down there to try to convince them that we would not harm the elephant, which did take some convincing, but I did it. And then our crew was top-notch and so incredibly willing to follow the rules. It all came together in a way that I was really, really proud of. And I’m so excited that the film is finally going to come out.Was your recent film an absolute dream gig?
It was my dream gig for sure. It was not easy to make because I really wanted to make it in a different way in terms of how we worked with the elephants and I wanted to really change how people thought about using animals in film. It’s basically my love letter to all of the people who spend their lives trying to save elephants and raise them and re-release them into the wild. And there are people all over Africa and also in Asia trying to do this. So, it wouldn’t make sense to do that and use trained elephants obviously.I had already gone to both of the places where we filmed, where the baby elephants were in Zambia and where big elephants were in South Africa. I spent two weeks with them to get to know the elephants so that they could hear my voice, smell me, so that I wouldn’t be a foreign element in their world when we came to film. And also I had talked to their keepers and the people who ran the organizations to say, “This is what we want and what we need. What do the elephants like to do?” Because that’s the what you kind of have to do. It’s backwards to how we normally film and say, “Where are the elephants during the day? Tell me their favorite spots. What do they like to do at this time? What do they like to do at that time? Where’s the location that we could film?” So we backwards navigated our locations and then sometimes we would shift the scenes a little bit so that they worked with what the elephants were doing. So that way we didn’t change their day at all. We didn’t ask them to do anything that they didn’t want to do. We had to abide by every rule because of course the rescues only care about the elephants and they want the message to get out but at the same time they don’t want the elephants to suffer.
So then my concern was the crew, because crews are not necessarily used to this. This is not the normal way. And our crew was so amazing. Like the first day that we filmed with the big elephants in South Africa, the crew could only stay in the land cruisers because that’s what the elephants were used to. They’re used to tourists going on safari and land cruisers. And they had to whisper, which is also so not what a crew does normally. But those elephants are really, really big. And so not only were we concerned for the elephants, we were concerned for the crew members as well. You can’t run around and do things hectically the way that you normally do because it will spook them. And that’s dangerous for everybody. So they were so amazing. Our crew and the elephants were so happy and relaxed and it was so magical to be there and to be able to film. So all of the pieces came together for it to work out and I really was my dream gig. I’m still amazed that it happened and that it worked.
Did you show Rob the ropes of being around the elephants?
I don’t know that Rob wanted to learn the ropes necessarily. It’s a funny thing because he’s so into Africa. He had the best time. He brought the whole family and both of his sons came. Johnny’s in the film. He’s so good as my son. His wife came, they went to tend to Tanzania, he went to Johannesburg and swam with the sharks. He did all these hardcore things. But in terms of the elephants, I think he was like, “Oh, that’s Kristin’s gig. I’m going to let her deal with that.” He did do some really funny things. Like the first place that we got to, we had a day to settle before we filmed. And he went for a run and he found two huge giraffes fighting. And he took pictures and videos. We were like, “Don’t do that.” He was like, “No?” And I was like, “No. They’re huge! They’re like as tall as a house.” He had a mixture of his wife saying things like, “Don’t get eaten by a lion.” We were worked he’d just get excited and jump out of his car. So she was alarmed (laughs). I mean he did go for a run in the middle of the safari park basically. He was like, “it’s so gorgeous and I’m going to go for a run and the weather’s great.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” He got the hang of it all eventually (laughs). And once he heard the lions roar though, he was like, “Ah okay.”
I think Johnny was probably more into the baby elephants than Rob. But part of that too was because we were very strict rules. We couldn’t really spend time with them casually because it would be too much contact. Especially in Zambia with the baby elephants, they have very strict rules about that. And we of course had to abide by every single goal, which we did.If people want to go to Africa and visit an elephant sanctuary like they had in the movie, what would you recommend?
If you go to Kenya or if you fly through Nairobi to go to either of those places, you should go to the shelter Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It’s in Nairobi, right on the edge of Nairobi National Park. It’s so close to the airport. It’s not cheap, but if you could go to Jabulani, that’s where the big elephants are that we filmed. And it’s so magical. It’s just amazing. It’s right near Kruger. It’s totally five star. It’s a beautiful private game reserve owned by this family, kind of similar to the Sheldrick’s in that they are three generations of animal loving and rescuing people. So within their private reserve, they have a place called HESC, which is the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.The main woman who started it Lente Roode. She rescued cheetahs. That was her first thing that she did because the cheetahs have really been suffering and they were very inbred. So her thing was, “let’s research their DNA and make sure that we’re giving them a mix of the different types of cheetahs so that their DNA is stronger so that they’re stronger.” And then they moved on. In South Africa, the rhino poaching for the horns is really big so they have two rhinos who were victims of poaching and survived. And the cool thing about it is that now her daughter has taken over a lot of the operations and she’s been trying to release as many of these animals as possible in their protected area.
These rhinos had to have a bunch of surgeries to reconnect their nose and nostrils after this poaching attempt. And so once they were healthy, they are now just roaming free within this private area that is protected again, cause you don’t want anything to happen to them. And their family is the family who rescued this group of elephants from Zimbabwe that were going to be killed. It’s a long story but they got a call because people knew them from for rescuing cheetahs saying, “Hey, could you take a herd of elephants because we can’t find any big enough for them because they’re big elephants. In South Africa. We can get them there from Zimbabwe.” And they said, “okay, we don’t know anything about elephants, but okay.” So they took that herd of elephants at that point. I think there were maybe eight or nine. Since then, they’ve all had babies. They’re doing so well. And then a new orphaned elephant was found in Kruger named Jabulani. And Jabulani is in our movie. He isn’t the biggest one; he’s the second biggest one. And they named their camp Camp Jabulani, that’s how they support having this huge herd of elephants, which is now I think at 16. They’ve had babies, they’d added wild babies. They’re quite amazing and it’s very different than the Sheldrick’s who only have babies that they raise. This herd is kind of its own identity and so the big elephant in our movie, he is the leader of the herd, which is unusual because usually the male elephants go off. But this herd is different. It’s been through a lot. And that’s why it was so amazing to be able to meet them and be around them. And when you get to go to Jabulani, you get to meet them.
Your kids have certainly seen and done a lot. Do you get them a lot of Christmas presents?
Well, that’s for sure. I do get them presents, but I’m the easygoing online Christmas shopper. I don’t like this stress. I like to have fun. I just try not to overdo it, because I think it could get Crazytown. You don’t want to go over-the-top because you have to keep topping yourself.