Brow Beat

The Cats Movie’s “Cat Movement Expert” Reveals the Secrets to Acting Feline

Rebel Wilson, wearing a yellow cat suit with a white belly, stands on a kitchen counter with a floral tile backsplash, one arm reaching up toward a shelf with boxes and jars.
Rebel Wilson in Cats. Universal Pictures

Tom Hooper’s Cats movie lists a position in its credits you won’t find in any other movie this season: a “cat movement expert.” Sarah Dowling, a London-based movement director, performer, and choreographer, taught the production’s “cat school,” a series of classes where the performers learned how to prowl, nuzzle, scamper, and just generally act catlike. I spoke to Dowling about her enviable title and even received a crash course over the phone about how I might learn to move like a cat.

Violet Kim: How does one become a cat movement expert?

Sarah Dowling: The director, Tom Hooper, wanted this detailed research on cats, so they employed me about six months before we started rehearsal to start my research. I spent about six months researching real-life cats with cat owners, hanging out with cats, talking to cat experts, reading, YouTube—everything I could get my hands on, just immersing myself in the behavior and movement of cats before we started rehearsal.

They needed a cat expert. But they also needed somebody who was going to be interested and skilled in finding a specific language for this movie, because it wasn’t just about behaving like a cat. It’s a hybrid: human meets cat. We were creating a creature, if you like, or creating a movement language. So I had all this information about real cats, and then when I went into rehearsal, we collaborated to find out how a human—sometimes behaving like a cat or taking the characteristics of a cat—would look like and walk like, and then we started to work specifically with character, scenes, and context for how specific characters would take on specific cat types.

Did you have a special connection to cats that led you to this role?

As a dancer, dancing and catlike movement have got complete crossovers. You do see clumsy cats, actually. A lot of dancers are clumsy too. But they’ve got this smooth, economical way of moving their bodies. They’re soundless, they can sit there looking like an ordinary cat and the next minute do a massive leap. I would say most dancers would have affinity with cats on a physical level. If I could come back, if I believed in that, I’d definitely come back as a cat. Bloody love them. Sitting around all day, and then if you fancy it, having a good old leap on the table, or on the wall.

What is the most important piece of advice for acting catlike?

I really enjoy the unpredictable, inscrutable nature of cats. You don’t quite know what they’re thinking or what they’re about to do next. And that was a lot of fun to play with in a roomful of performers. That’s one thing that we kept working on. And that could be to do with unpredictable rhythms, both suddenly going super, super fast and then really, really slowing down. Or it could be to do with behavior. Les Twins are just brilliant natural cats. They’d steal somebody’s hat, or a wand. Mr. Mistoffelees’ wand would go missing, and it would be one of them.

Technically, it was about the sense of hearing and smell being much more the leader of the cat and the character than it is for humans. Cats don’t use their eyes to gather information about the world in the same way as humans do. They would use their sense of smell. The minute you give that bit of information to an actor or a singer, to imagine their ears on the top of their head, and they’re listening acutely to what’s going on in the room, it immediately gets an animal, and particular catlike-ness in the body.

So you didn’t direct the movement so much as you taught them how a cat would approach the world?

Exactly. I didn’t want to create a generic cat or teach them a cat move. It was all about harnessing their imagination and giving them this actual, factual stuff about how a cat does things, and seeing how that translates in their body, in their experience. Because we had Ian McKellen, and then we had chorus members. They were all doing cat school, all having to generate a cat, but having extremely different approaches. And I loved that. It would have been really dull and very un-catlike to have everybody moving in the same way.

We did loads of playing like a cat. If you’ve ever seen a cat play with objects, it’s hilarious. The group of actors and dancers we worked it found it really galvanizing as a group. All this play, all this fun. Equally, getting them fight each other, and of course, the nuzzle that is a key of cat behavior that we use quite a lot in the film: all of that helped to build this strong cat.

Also, they were on all fours. They’re not on their knees, but on their hands and feet, which helps our brains go, “oh! That could be a cat!” for a minute. That was our desire. For a moment in the film—it couldn’t be throughout, because we’ve got singing, and we’ve got numbers, big dance numbers, big song numbers—but in moments of the film we just wanted to trick the brain and the eye for a minute and go “Whoa! They could actually be cats!”

How long did everyone attend cat school?

It was all different. We had a lot of stars to work with, with lots of different availability, shortages, so it really varied. People like Francesca [Hayward] and Robbie [Fairchild], they were in for six weeks. They were fully immersed in that. The others—it really ranged. Ian McKellen we did quite a lot of cat school with. And Taylor [Swift] is really more of a cat expert than me. She was already at a very high level and has got a natural slink to the way she moves.

Have you taught people to act like animals before or been inspired by other animal-like movement?

I haven’t been going from movie to movie doing different animals, no. Although in the dance world, when I’m choreographing or choreographing other people, we often use animals as inspiration and reference points because they’re communicating physically without words, so that is often a key way in. Mary Queen of Scots and Rebecca were the films I did before this. But I did work on [The Legend of] Tarzan a little bit. I did work with apes and a cheetah in Tarzan. It’s really rich territory for me and I love it. It feeds me and develops my knowledge of movement by studying animals.

You said that you hung out with real cats in pre-production. During cat school, was there any hands-on research involving real cats?

Les Twins actually brought a little kitten—a sphinx cat—to the start of the process, which they called Paname. Sphinx cats have no hair. They can look a little bit like a plucked chicken, but they are brilliant for observing cat moment, because you can see every sinew, every roll of the shoulders. Another part of cat movement was to get those big shoulder blades rolling. Paname was a daily reference point for everyone. Paname was with us at the start for some of the rehearsals but also on the shoot, on set, every single day, and could be a useful reference point and would play, and would climb up to the highest ground because cats love to do that, and get its claws out, and retract them as soon as possible.

Walk me through a typical day at cat school.

You would begin with brief anatomy, a cat anatomy lesson. Mainly things like, cats have got large shoulder blades, so I’d create a visual reference for everybody, and get them moving their shoulder blades, to make us believe that their shoulder blades are bigger than they are, and that their collarbone isn’t fixed, that they can fit their head through something. Cats have a really long spine, much longer than ours. It’s extremely snaky and flexible. The tail—because of course we didn’t have tails when we were shooting and rehearsing, they were CGIed on later—to show them that the tail was very much part of the spine of the cat, it’s not just something that’s stuck on, it’s very expressive. Just sitting, here on the phone to me now, if you imagine you’ve got a tail, it immediately shifts your posture, and you start to believe it, right?

The sensory aspects, getting them into a much more animal state, getting them to close their eyes, tapping into this idea that their ears are on the top of their head, elongate the neck. You hear something in the corner and react to it. Smelling like a cat: I’d show them videos of how a cat smells, which is really delicate as opposed to a dog, which like, scuffles all over the place. And then we’d go into cat-walking, not the model type, but trying to find their way of walking. I’d show them that a cat operates laterally. The right side of the body moves first, then the left of the back, the right leg, and then the right arm, then the left leg and then the left arm—rather than counter-laterally like us.

Were there any props that were used to help performers get into the right mindset?

We were mostly using our imagination because we did find some people connected better if they had tails. We did have tails available in the room, but the trouble with the tails was that they were either sort of stuck in an erect way, or they were all floppy, like a rope. It helped them for a moment to help them realize that they were present in the room, but actually they weren’t a proper representation of this living, expressive thing, so we found it easier to just give them triggers to help them imagine their tail. The same went for ears, actually, because the minute you stick on ears it just becomes a bit … dead, not alive. Whereas if you imagine your ears are there, you know, doing a 360, the way cats’ ears turn from the left to the right, you just get much more interesting effects in the brain and the body, I think.

But we did have playthings: balloons and bowls and string and bits of paper. They all really helped, the oversized props in the room, right from the beginning, so they could actually get inside a bin, or, you know, hold a gigantic newspaper, or put themselves inside a hat, which all helped get into their cat mindset. Different levels in the room were set up so they could climb and get this all-powerful feeling that a cat likes, to get on the higher ground.

What was the most difficult part of teaching a cat language?

This idea of sequential, fluid movement was something that we needed to practice a lot with some people. Weirdly, it’s the most simple thing in the world, walking. But—you can try it after you’ve spoken to me—on all fours? It was so hard. It was like a deep core exercise because we didn’t allow them to put their knees on the floor, because I thought it looked a bit like humans pretending to be a cat. And when they were on their feet and their hands, it had a tension in it that I really liked, and a realism. So that was really difficult for everyone, and we did loads of shoulder preparation to get people strong for that. And of course our cats stand and sing and dance and they need to come up on to two legs, so playing the cat when we were in a human-like form on our two legs was another really big challenge. And then the head movement initiated: I said that for cat senses, smell and hearing are their foremost way of getting information. So we asked for everybody to move their head as if they were hearing something rather than seeing something. That was another little tiny detail that we needed to drill loads and loads.

What are your thoughts on having seen the movie, after all this work?

I actually really loved the group scenes for the catlike-ness. Ian McKellen lapping the milk from the saucer was maybe one of my absolute favorite catlike moments in it. And he’s a bit of a hero of mine, so that was quite amazing to see. I really enjoyed Rebel. I enjoyed her performance and her wit, and her lightness with the whole thing. She’s got a really wicked, naughty side which is great. When she kicks the cake off the table in the end, that was totally in the moment. She totally encapsulated the unpredictable, the “don’t know what she’s going to do next” aspect of the cat.

This interview has been edited and condensed.