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Cats pandemonium has taken over the internet ever since the movie trailer first appeared, like a delightfully deranged mirage, in July. The question that plagued so many of us when the trailer was released still endures: What, exactly, is the cats’ deal in Cats? They’re felines who move like humans. Some of them wear clothes, and some do not. They sing; they dance. How did they arrive at that point?
We’re now a mere week away from the release of Cats, and in celebration of this cinematic feat, Vogue sat down with Sarah Dowling, the film’s London-based “cat coordinator.” Dowling is the one who taught the cast how to move, purr, and most importantly, dance like cats. (Yes, we asked her about the Taylor Swift shimmy from the trailer.)
How would you describe your line of work?
I’m a movement director, and I’m also—even though I’m very old—performing a little bit with Punchdrunk. I was originally a performer myself, but I mostly movement-direct now, in theater, opera, and film. I’m just finishing off a play at the National Theatre at the moment. I’m a movement specialist, so I don’t just specialize in cats, which would be a limited line of work, I imagine. [Laughs]
It would come in handy at this moment, though.
That’s true. I’m ready to start my cat school. Cat University.
How did you get involved with Cats?
I’d worked with [Cats producer] Debra Hayward on the 2018 film Mary, Queen of Scots.
What was cat school like? Did the actors come to you?
I had a period of research on my own before rehearsals began, and then I went to Judi Dench’s house; I went to Ian McKellen’s house. Mostly, though, cat school was at Warner Bros. studios, where the majority of rehearsals took place. I researched real cats’ movement and behavior, actually. In the movie, they’re not pure cats, they’re cat-human hybrids, so I also had to find this new language—a cat-and-human meeting point. I’d start off by giving the actors cat anatomy lessons, talking about their long spines, their big shoulder blades, get them walking laterally. Sorry, I’m getting very technical with you here.
No, I love it.
We talked about how cats use their senses of smell and hearing more than their sight, and we trained the actors to literally smell objects and people delicately, like cats. We’d look at cat behavior through videos and demonstrations, and then we’d find our own way. We’re inventing a world in Cats, so we invented our own rules for behavior and movement. Sometimes we walk on two legs, and sometimes we walk on four legs...we worked out how our cats would run, how they would attack each other. It was very bizarre; people would play together like cats.
How long did everyone in the cast attend cat school?
The chorus and ensemble cats did weeks of cat school. People like Ian had less time on their hands, but people like Francesca [Hayward, who plays Victoria], who were there every day of rehearsals and shooting, would come more frequently. Then choreography and character came into the picture, and we’d work really closely with Tom [Hooper, the director], the vocal coaches, the choreographer. It went from general cat school to really character-specific. For instance, Taylor [Swift, who plays Bombalurina]’s cat likeness would be very different from Rebel [Wilson, who plays Jennyanydots].
How did singing factor into cat school?
Someone like Jennifer [Hudson, who plays Grizabella] would be rehearsing and learning a big emotional number, and then alongside that, she’d have cat school, which I’d try and tailor to fit her character, which has less to do with dancing and moving through space and more to do with what it would be like to be a singing cat.
Was there a “best in show” cat?
They were all such different human beings. We’ve got Francesca, who is Victoria, our mainstay cat throughout the movie; she would look like a cat when she was eating her lunch, outside of rehearsal, because of how deeply she was immersed in it and how extraordinarily professionally she approaches everything. She’s got cats herself. Robbie [Fairchild, who plays Munkustrap] and Francesca were really deep in it. I love the mischievous, unpredictable nature of cats, and people like Rebel and Jason DeRulo and Idris Elba and Taylor and Les Twins [Larry and Laurent Bourgeois] were very catlike in terms of making you laugh by doing something really naughty. Then there’s Jennifer, who would literally make you cry when she began to sing “Memory.”
Did you ever have real cats on set?
Yes! Les Twins brought a sphinx cat in. It was hairless, which can look a bit weird, but was extremely useful for our purposes because you can see every single rib and movement. Little Paname was with us every single day, which was an amazing reference point. I’d have loved to bring in a whole load of cats, but we were scared. [Laughs]
How did Taylor Swift’s little shimmy from the trailer come about?
I would say Taylor herself came up with it! She’s a very slinky cat, Taylor.
You spent about six weeks conducting cat school lessons. Was there any kind of graduation ceremony at the end?
I had a whole cat certification system in my mind, but we had to get on with making the movie. I was there every single day of the shoot as well, as a Guardian of the Cat.
Originally Appeared on Vogue