Jules Sylvester talks ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ lions and superstars

By Helin Jung
Updated November 12, 2009 12:45 PM
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The lions in Out of Africa. The vipers in Snakes on a Plane. The maggots on every franchise of CSI. They were all handled by Jules Sylvester, an animal trainer and snake wrangler who is Hollywood’s go-to man for things scary, dangerous and, as he would put it, “creepy-crawly.” He has been working in Hollywood for 44 years, and in all that time, Sylvester has never been bitten!

“A far as I know, in my business, I’m the only one that hasn’t been nailed yet by a venomous snake,” Sylvester tells PEOPLEPets.com. “When you’re paying an actor $20 million, they’re not going to want to deal with someone that’s been bitten all the time. That’s like a race car driver that smashes his car every time he goes around.”

Sylvester’s extensive resume began with a stint a snake park in Nairobi, Kenya, where he grew up. There was no TV around on the family farm, just animals, and from his childhood, Sylvester – who turns 59 on Friday – cultivated a respect and understanding of them.

“I was trained very well,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a lot of snake bites in Africa and that was pretty damn frightening. I think you need to see people getting bitten.”

He went from the snake park to working as a taxidermist, then as a lionkeeper in Scotland, then back to catching snakes near Victoria Falls in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Sylvester caught about 3,000 snakes in four years, and then joined the Rhodesian Army to fight in the guerilla war. Following the war, Sylvester went back to Kenya, where a Hollywood movie had come to film on his father’s farm, and that’s how he got his start in the movie business.

Even after four decades of working with actors and being on movie sets, Sylvester still speaks with audible joy when he talks about his work.

“You can teach actors how to handle a snake, and in 15 minutes, they’ll look like they’ve been doing it for years!” he says. “You suddenly realize they’ve been studying you. It’s wonderful to watch.”

One actor who you might be surprised to find didn’t do the snake handling on a movie? Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane. Sylvester says Jackson’s agents were terrified that he would get bitten, so he was forbidden to go near his slithering costars. Jackson, who himself didn’t fear the snakes much, often stopped by the snake house after the day’s shooting wrapped.

Another surprising detail about Sylvester’s work is that no creature ever gets left behind – all the ants, flies, maggots and beetles that crawl over the rotting corpses on CSI go home at the end of the day.

“I know exactly where I put everybody, and I have a tiny little paintbrush to pick them all up,” Sylvester says. “Nothing is killed or left behind on set, ever. It has to be that way because at what point do you draw the line? Is it mice? Horses?”

Sylvester has noticed a slowdown in movie work because so little filming actually happens in California these days. He is still working on television shows (he recently did a reptile kids’ party for an episode of Modern Family), but he worries about what happens when the shows conclude shooting their respective seasons. Still, even if there’s a dry patch, Sylvester isn’t worried about the interim.

“I’ve got a freezer full of frozen rats and mice,” says Sylvester, “so I’m good for a long time.”