The book was on the New York Times Best Seller List for 12 weeks when it was first published in 2006. Since then, Water for Elephants has quickly become a classic story of heroism, love and … an elephant. Just as the novel by Sara Gruen captured the hearts and minds of readers all over the world, a pretty lady named Tai stole the screen from her female co-star and Hollywood princess Reese Witherspoon.

Robert Pattinson also stars in the film adaptation, and he says the 9,000-pound elephant was just one of the crew.

“I don’t think I was scared at all,” says the young actor. “There was only one moment when we first saw the whole pack of elephants, the herd, together. Gary, Tai’s trainer, said, ‘Sit’ literally, as if you were talking to a dog, and it sat down in exactly the way a dog would. It’s totally incomprehensible when you see it. It’s really powerful to think that you can have a relationship with these huge beasts.”

Tai, who is a 42-year-old Asian elephant, stars as Rosie, the elephant in the film that joins the Benzini Brothers Circus. August (Christoph Waltz) is its ringleader and owner. He is charming and demented, charismatic and ruthless. Determined to beat out the Ringling Brothers in sales, he often uses unbecoming means to do so, including several brutal scenes with Rosie and the bull hook.

Waltz says that not only was Tai not hurt during any scene, she hardly noticed the other actors at all.

“This animal has one relationship with a human being only,” says Waltz. “And that’s her trainer. The rest of us are just there. I didn’t work with an elephant. I worked next to an elephant. Considering that she could step on your toes, it’s good to keep a certain distance.”

Apart from Rosie, Marlena (Witherspoon) is August’s prize possession and the selling point for his show. She also happens to be his wife. When recent veterinary school dropout, Jacob (Pattinson), leaves his haunted past and joins the Benzini Bros. Circus, August is initially smitten with the prospect of having a real vet in their ranks. However, paranoia takes him hostage, as Marlena and Jacob get too close for his comfort.

On set, there was another love connection that passed as whispers through the crew.

“It sounds really disturbing, like I’ve been flirting with the elephant,” says Pattinson. “I had a relationship to the elephant that was based purely on candy. I strategically placed mints. You know, you suck a peppermint for a bit and stick it on to your body. I had them in my armpits and covering my entire chest all the time. Every time the elephant would constantly sniff me, I’d be like ‘I don’t know, she just really likes me!’”

The actors had much more to worry about than wooing the animal. The characters are so vividly described in the book that the filmmakers were eager to get everything right. Witherspoon even chopped off her hair and dyed it white for the role, but the hardest part for her was dealing with her own conscience.

“I made a conscious effort all my career not to end up in a bathing suit in a movie,” reveals the petite actress. “And here I was in this movie wearing a leotard the majority of it. It was horrifying! But they were beautiful, and it was a different time when women loved their curves and enjoyed being voluptuous.”

The film is set in the early 1930s at the peak of the Great Depression. Director Francis Lawrence made sure that authenticity was the name of the game. The circus big top was fashioned in direct likeness of old-fashioned circuses, and every detail from the animals to the costumes was spot on which helped the actors find the right mentality for their roles.

“There was a kind of comprehensive creation of the world,” admits Pattinson. “There was an embankment with the train tracks on top. All the trailers were on one side and then there was the circus world on the other. Once you walked over the tracks, there was a camera, but that was the only thing from the 21st century. You could stand on the tracks to look over everything, and you were in that world.”

Water for Elephants releases in theaters April 22.