Willem Dafoe on His Canine Costar and Learning to Dog Sled for ‘Togo’ on Disney+

Matt Fowler
TV Movies
TV Movies Disney

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Based on the true story of a 700-mile dog-sled run through Alaska in 1925 in order to transport a vital antitoxin to dying children, the new Disney+ film Togo centers on Willem Dafoe’s sled dog trainer, Leonhard Seppala, and the beautiful bond he forms with his lead dog – the titular Togo.

Togo will pull on your heartstrings and put you on the edge of your seat when it debuts Friday on Disney+. But what was it like for Dafoe to share so many scenes with a canine counterpart? We sat down with him, and co-star Julianne Nicholson, who plays his wife, Constance, to dig into what pulled them both into this project.


Willem Dafoe in Togo

Both Dafoe and Nicholson were drawn to Togo not just because of the call to adventure, but because of the poignant saga underneath.

Asked why he wanted to do Togo, Dafoe replied, “Sledding with dogs, a movie with dogs, I’m in Alaska, this incredible journey of doing this heroic trip through terrible weather. There were lots of elements that appealed to my sense of not only imagination but play as an actor.”

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Nicholson added, “I thought it was a beautiful story and I loved that it was a true story that we didn’t know that’s been tucked away while someone else was getting the glory. I just watched it last night and having read the script, having filmed it, I was not prepared to be as walloped as I was by the emotional journey of Leonard and Togo. I was snotty, heavy, big fat tear crying.”

“When I first saw it, I was moved as well,” Dafoe said. “But you don’t feel worked. It’s not about punching buttons. It’s a well constructed story and you come to it. It’s a very delicate thing. It’s a catharsis that happens because you recognize certain things. I think it’s a well conducted story, good characters, and some fantastic action sequences.”


Togo, Julianne Nicholson, and Willem Dafoe

Obviously, working with animals on a film set can be an unpredictable endeavor. But both Dafoe and Nicholson were game, and ready to let the dogs be dogs.

“It was exciting!,” Nicholson said. “You want your scene partners to be in the moment and these dogs were very much that.”

“It requires patience sometimes,” Dafoe explained. “The truth is the most difficult things are the simplest things. They can do behaviors. They can do things they love to do. Sled dogs love to run, they love to pull that sled. But for the actual scenes, things like standing still, paying attention, eye contact, these are challenges. Because it’s not their nature.”

“But you clock that,” he added. “And you don’t force them into things that aren’t their nature. Because they’re dogs in this. We aren’t trying to make them people and the relationship is about a man and a woman and an animal. It’s a fine line because you want to discipline to get your shots but you want them to be dogs. And you have to come to that.”


Togo leads the way

While Togo is most certainly an emotional ride, it’s as thrilling one as well. Showcasing a famous race against time, a trek across Alaska to save a community from a deadly epidemic, it was a physically challenging movie to make.

When it came to learning to die a sled, Dafoe remarked, “When I was first learning, the first thing I learned was, if you lose the sled, don’t let go, because we’ll never find the dogs again. So was it physical, yeah. I got dragged a couple times like in Spartacus behind the chariot.”

“It’s so cold also,” Nicholson added. “Those temperatures and being up there in the mountains, with the altitude.”

Still, Dafoe stressed, “We had fun. Every day was different and there was camaraderie. And we had a tough crew who approached it like mountaineers sometimes. And the schedule and everything was dependant on weather so we were always playing it by ear. You couldn’t plan how things were.”

Togo premieres Friday, December 20th on Disney+.

Disney+ is the only place to stream favorites from Disney and more. Watch now!

Matt Fowler