By Oliver Jones
To pull off her performance as Pretzel—a guide dog devoted to the hard-living, blind 20-something Murphy (Perry Mattfeld) on The CW's drama series In the Dark—8-year-old Canadian-born golden retriever Levi does perhaps the most bravura acting on TV.
Where Pretzel is the epitome of serenity and caution, Levi wags her tail with such joyful abandon that it's been known to clear a coffee table. Then there's the way she says hello, greeting Mattfeld with a sound that crew members call "the screaming dolphin."
"I wouldn't say it was hard for her to take on this persona of a calm, nonreactive guide dog," says her trainer, show animal veteran Violetta Hessing, who has worked with Levi since the pup was just 7 weeks old. "But it took a lot of effort. Everyone on set knows that all you have to do is snap your fingers and Levi takes to the air, jumping for joy."
Not only is Levi a four-legged star (Hessing attributes it to her expressive, wrinkly face that's "straight out of a cartoon"), but she and Mattfeld's character also share a relationship fraught and complicated enough to make them one of TV's most talked-about couples. For that, Hessing credits Mattfeld for the time she has put in building trust with Levi during three seasons together on In the Dark.
"In terms of crafting a bond with a dog, Perry is the most incredible actor I've worked with," says Hessing, who has been a trainer for nearly three decades. "I've never seen a performer give so much to an animal. And Levi is so happy working alongside her. This is a case where you can truly say that the dog is at one with the actor."