Brow Beat

Noted Cats Superfan Mo Rocca Responds to the Trailer for the New Movie

Mo Rocca, cbs news host and author staring toward his audience.
What do the real Cats fans think? Mo Rocca tells all.

Ever since the trailer for Tom Hooper’s Cats appeared online last week, it has prompted waves of disgust, confusion, uncomfortable laughter, and even fear from everyone from fellow musical-theater creators to Furries to actual cats. (At least one Slate writer did, however, enjoy it.) But what do actual Cats fans think of the trailer?

To find out, we called up Mo Rocca, the author, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent, and host of the podcast Mobituaries. Rocca also happens to have been a fan of the musical ever since he was a teenager, when he became, according to the New York Times, “scarily infatuated” with it. When he was 14, he wrote a fan letter to every actor in the show.

Slate: We were curious if you had any opinions about the new trailer for Cats.

Mo Rocca: Yeah, I do. I had to watch it a couple of times to collect my thoughts. There are certain things I like about it. I think Idris Elba is a perfect choice for Macavity the Mystery Cat. I like how open-minded they were with the casting. The idea of Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy makes a lot of sense. She could’ve also been Gus the Theater Cat, which Sir Ian McKellen is, but they’re sort of interchangeable anyway. Frankly, I used to confuse the two myself. The cats, that is.

But after watching it a few times, I started to compare it to the performance on the Tony Awards in 1983, which actually really holds up. I realized that what’s so unnerving about this Cats trailer is that it has a very strong Jordan Peele vibe. It almost starts to be a little bit like Get Out, but it’s cats they’ve killed for their bodies. It feels like, “Oh my God, these are cat bodies that have been repurposed by humans.”

Because they’re not quite tactile enough?

When you look at that video of the Tony Awards—and it’s ironic because usually theater on TV looks terrible—it somehow works. It’s a bunch of humans in leotards with whiskers painted on and some fur. And somehow it doesn’t seem unnerving. With this, it feels like there’s either not enough artifice, or they should’ve just gone all the way with CGI.

Do you feel like the way the cats are inhabiting the world of this movie recaptures the bizarreness of how Cats was first received in the 1980s?

I don’t. The whole thing about the phenomenon of Cats is that, in the ’80s, we all went bananas over it. Now I think it’s something we all look back at and think, “Well, this is really weird.” In a way, this trailer kind of makes the Broadway show look good in comparison. Look, I think it was strange that we all went nuts over Cats. Maybe it was a reaction to coming out of a recession. It was only a few years after the energy crisis. It seemed right for the time. This feels trapped.

 Maybe “trapped” is the right feeling for the time?

Yeah, maybe it is. Maybe it is right for the time. We’re in such a strange place. I’m feeling very discomfited by the whole thing. I think some of the casting was just kind of weird. Jennifer Hudson is too dewy and unspoiled to be a Grizabella. I would have cast like a Joan Collins or an Angie Dickinson …

And who is this woman Francesca Hayward and why is she an “and introducing” in the trailer? I love “and introducing.” It’s this great but very old-school thing. No one will remember her because she’s dressed up as a cat, and I think you want an “and introducing” because it’s going to be a career performance that will be remembered, like sort of an Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. And you know the idea is you win an Oscar and ”Oh my God, it was her Hollywood debut.” And she’s playing Victoria, the most boringly named cat.

Francesca Howard as Victoria the cat on a lamp lit street.
Francesca Howard as Victoria the cat.

And no one will recognize her next time because …

Well right, the next movie trailer she does will have to have an “and introducing,” because we’re now introducing her as a human.

Isn’t the trailer really introducing all of them? As cats?

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I wanted to know who Taylor Swift was playing, and it’s Bombalurina, who of course has the best name of all the cats. So of course she used her clout to capture that role. But I think Bombalurina’s a big dance role, and not really Taylor Swift’s forte.

So overall, are you feeling optimistic about the movie? Uneasy? Or just bad?

We’re in such a strange place. I’m feeling very discomfited by the whole thing. It reminds me of those stories you hear on the internet about some experimenting done in a Chinese or Russian lab, like breeding different species together. It feels like we’re really fucking with God’s plan, with human nature. Like this was a treatment they found of Cats by Mary Shelley. Directed by Jordan Peele.

The more that you describe it, the more I am convinced this is the Cats that we deserve in 2019.

I don’t know, some people are lashing out really hard. Cats, is now and forever, but so is the internet, so be careful what you say. Who knows? Maybe this could turn around and be a big hit. We’re in this in-between moment, and this feels and looks very in-between. The cats look in-between. Is this what cats are going to look like in 3,000 years, or what people are going to look like? I don’t know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.