One determined movement director and a sphinx cat were responsible for taking the entire cast of Cats to “Cat School.”
“Every single person you see in the film underwent Cat School,” Sarah Dowling tells Rolling Stone. School entailed a few hours per day of lessons about basic cat anatomy and movement training, all overseen by a sphinx cat named Paname, the charge of French hip-hop musicians Les Twins, who also appear in the film.
“They haven’t got any hair, so they’re amazing as a reference point for how a cat articulates their body and how unpredictable and crazy they can be,” Dowling says of the cat.
Despite being the professor of Cat School, Dowling is not a feline expert; she’s a choreographer, performer and movement director who had previously worked on films such as 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Director Tom Hooper and Cats’ producers approached her to teach the film’s actors how to move, and she worked to create a movement language based on how cats behave.
Each actor attended Cat School for varying amounts of time based on their roles. Francesca Hayward (Victoria) and Robbie Fairchild (Munkustrap) spent six weeks in Cat School, while Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) only attended for a week. “Taylor is a natural cat,” Dowling says. “She loves them, she knows loads and loads. She came with lots of prior information and she’s super slinky herself.”
During the lead up to the film’s premiere this Friday, several actors have discussed their time at Cat School. “You start at 8 a.m., you walk in and get on your knees,” Idris Elba (Macavity) told Variety. “For at least seven minutes you prowl around, nuzzling each other, smelling each other, rolling around and doing what you think cats do.”
“I think that’s what stuck in their heads the most: Sniffing each other and licking their arms,” Dowling says. “All of that stuff really did happen in a sort of playful, fun way. We created this alternative world where these creatures are cat-like, but they also sing and dance and have character stories and journeys.”
The actors also studied the way cats move to create their human-cat hybrid characters. “For instance, cats have really big shoulder blades and a floating collar bone,” Dowling says. “That made the actors start to roll their shoulder blades in a way that a cat rolls them as they walk. They learned how a cat says hello: They rub noses. How a cat likes to lay their scent on furniture and people. That they will bristle up and arch their back if terrified or under threat. And they use their nose to gather information about the world.”
She stresses, though, that the characters all created their own cat characters. “It was collaborative and everyone was given license to create their own impression of a cat/human,” she says. “I really enjoyed anyone who was unpredictable and wild. That, to me, was one of the best things about being a cat.”