Why you should care
Because you might see her name in lights one day.
A handful of moments define a young actress’ rise to stardom. For Maggie, the big break arrived when she starred in an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. The spotlight came at a grave cost — dying, trapped in a car on a sweltering summer day. Maggie’s trademark trick: playing dead.
The tears flowed. Of course, it helped that Maggie was an adorable puppy. These days, the canine starlet’s production schedule is packed: a cameo in a Foster the People music video; segments on TV programs, including the Today show and Dateline NBC, and networks like Univision and Fox; a spread in Harper’s Bazaar; a run at America’s Got Talent. She’s appeared in commercials for Uber, AT&T, American Apparel, Petco and Shiseido. Upcoming: a spread in Vogue. Dog acting is a competitive field, with a total of 78 other canine competitors vying for roles through Hollywood Paws, one of the biggest animal talent agencies for TV and movies.
Near Los Angeles’ Santa Monica boardwalk, 8-year-old Maggie is basking in the Hollywood lifestyle. She’s been on movie sets since the age of 2. I ask Maggie to weigh in on whether or not she has agency in her rise to fame and fortune. I have so many burning questions: Who would play Maggie in her biopic: Sofie Vergrrra or Tina Spay? How does she maintain her 15-pound frame while chomping on In-N-Out burgers (she prefers a patty, extra well-done, cheese, no salt)? How does she juggle her two celebrity boyfriends — Greatest American Dog host Preston Casanova and Wall-E? Has she watched herself on TV and experienced the same kind of terror that the mirror stage engenders in infants? Grrrr, she rumbles in response. I may have struck a nerve.
Our fascination with dogs is … “a form of escapism, a form of unconditional love.”
Maggie is all bark and no bite, I’m assured. But the cream-colored pooch does display some diva-like tendencies, perhaps letting her “top dog” status go to her fluffy little head. “I set her up for success,” says Nicole Ellis, Maggie’s owner, bodyguard and (sometimes) helicopter mother — who, incidentally, pockets most of Maggie’s earnings. The going salary rates for a dog is a fraction of the average actor’s in Hollywood, about $400 a day or up to $10,000 a year. (Big-league animal actors like Rin Tin Tin earned $6,000 a week in their heyday, the equivalent of $83,000 today.) Ellis, an animal trainer who’s worked with bears and leopards in the past, taught Maggie more than 100 tricks. She can ride a horse, skateboard, do handstands, surf and play the piano. Her exotic looks — miniature poodle, golden retriever, bichon frise and border collie, with a dash of shih tzu — attracts gigs aplenty.
“She’s too popular,” says Hollywood Paws’ Joel Norton, Maggie’s agent; sometimes, he says, she’s a showoff — a dangerous quality in an emerging star. In order to garner more attention and treats, Maggie won’t just sit, for example, she’ll pose in a situp. “I don’t want a dog to do anything other than what I tell her to do,” Norton says. “When you hire a plumber to fix your water heater and they flail around instead, you wouldn’t be happy and they’d be fired.” Indeed, competition might stoke Maggie’s least attractive qualities. It’s a — with apologies — dog-eat-dog world in Hollywood, says Stephen Silverman, author of Movie Mutts: Hollywood Goes to the Dogs. Maggie stands in the shadows of four-legged luminaries like Marley, Toto, Buddy, Beethoven and Old Yeller.
Silverman raises concerns about the psychological pressure put on today’s Hollywood dogs to be perfect performers, some of them, he says, “practically blackmailed with food.” The industry has come a long way since the days when a handful of horses perished during the filming of the chariot race in Ben-Hur in 1925 and nearly 30 animals died from severe dehydration and exhaustion during the filming of The Hobbit in 2011. Over the years, animals have been put through harrowing obstacles that humans wouldn’t dare attempt: ritual sacrifice, swarming beehives, explosions and decapitation. (Maggie is trained with “positive reinforcement methods,” Ellis tells me.)
Hollywood’s infatuation with dogs began in 1905, with a collie named Blair. Her breakthrough? Rescued by Rover, a silent drama. Then came Jean, another fine-haired female collie, who appeared in films between 1906 and 1916. Her career was curtailed by World War I. Nevertheless, the road to stardom had been paved for other celebrity canines. In the 1990s, 300 hopeful dogs auditioned for the part of Lassie in a big-screen remake.
Our fascination with dogs makes sense, says Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding expert and marketing professor at the University of Southern California. He points to Instagram dogs who make thousands of dollars per post and weepy Sarah McLachlan ads that get you to donate to shelters. “It’s a form of escapism, a form of unconditional love,” says Sehdev. Hollywood dogs like Maggie provide “necessary relief,” he says, and “exude a level of authenticity and connection” that leaps out at viewers from the screen.
Maggie hasn’t forgotten her origins — it’s a rags-to-riches tale of an unwanted mutt brooding at Los Angeles’ North Central Animal Shelter. In her spare time, she serves as a therapy dog for children with cancer, visits the elderly at nursing homes and performs at charity benefits to raise awareness of animal abuse and crowded dog pounds. Maggie has also been nominated for a Hero Dog Award and inspired a book, Working Like a Dog.
The humanitarian act doesn’t fool me, though. In the end, Ellis says, Maggie prefers center stage over playing fetch with other pups. Just after she says this, another dog, bigger and prettier than Maggie, walks by. Maggie lets out an ugly, guttural growl.