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The Thankless Job of a Hollywood Movie Cat Wrangler, Explained


You can’t herd cats, the idiom goes. While not technically true, trying to train a feline is not nearly as easy a task as training a dog, horse, or pig to leap on command or pretend to like its Homo sapien co-star. Those animals are more social pack animals. Cats? They’d rather sleep in the wheel well of your car than next to you.


That hasn’t stopped thousands of professionals, and some average folks, from enlisting their pets into casts of movies and TV shows. As this 1961 Life photograph proves, if humans can’t make it big, the next best thing is living vicariously via your kid or American-short haired. At least cats can handle rejection, because landing a spot in a cat food ad or feature film takes a special cat.

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Cats come with their own eccentricities and dangers. Exotic tigers and lions are a whole other can of worms, but even something that can fit under your arm is enough to upend an entire film production. Trying to get the beast to do what the script demands requires as much creativity as it does luck. As anyone who has ever encountered a cat can tell you, they are not known for their predictability.

Before you get the impression that casting directors are miraculously stumbling upon inexplicably obedient felines while yours chews on your charging cables, Hollywood has a dark secret that it’s not telling you.


No Actors Were Hurt in the Making of This Film

Eon Productions

Close-ups of Donald Pleasance’s wardrobe in the rocket scene of You Only Live Twice shows the aftermath of one of the greatest freak-outs in film history. The fluffy white Turkish Angora brought was under control by the actor as the blast occurs, but the snag marks in Blofeld’s beige suit are clearly noticeable. Pleasance was not having fun, as any cat owner can attest to when a cat sinks its claws into your ligaments. Cats are irritable furry props, cute or not, and dealing with them can be a health risk.

Related: Best Dog Actors in Movies, Ranked

Orangey, the memorable street cat from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was so hostile that his tendency to attack the film crew earned him the nickname the “world’s meanest” cat by a terrified onlooker (via Cats Who Changed the World). But trainer Frank Inn’s cat was in demand enough to make several dozen more appearances in a rather short span of years. Talk about connections.

One of the more surreal scenes in Meet the Parents was the brilliant work of a cat rather than that of a human. The odd task of training a cat to use a toilet in the film fell to Dawn Barkan, an animal trainer with a long list of films to her credit. Her secret? Positive reinforcement, i.e. lots of cat treats.

Even the Cats Have Agents

keanu cat movie
Monkeypaw Productions

To capture the full cat emotional spectrum (friendly, hissing, sleeping, staring blankly into space, curious, etc,) the task of Jonesy, the cat in Alien, actually fell to four separate stunt cats. Same for the cat in The Princess Diaries. Which tells you everything you need to know about cats. They never do what you want when you need them to, as Brent Spiner recounted working with the numerous, tempestuous Spots on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This is not uncommon at all; the cat from the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis necessitating three cats. And to ensure the correct animals are obtained, the filmmakers will go so far as to stage a cat-casting audition. Seven kittens were needed to portray the stolen cat in the 2016 film Keanu, which posed so many issues that many extras were needed on hand. According to director Peter Atencio, the tabbies were chosen because their particular coloring is the easiest to match. This is handy when it inevitably becomes necessary to call in the cat double, or triple, to get B-roll. Fourteen black cats were selected to star as Rhubarb in the movie of the same name, each performing a specialized trick in one scene.

Related: Dennis Quaid Adopted a Cat Named Dennis Quaid: I Just Couldn’t Resist

When directors find a cat for a movie, they have as much the trainer as the cat to thank. Many cats who have made the big time were rescues. Given a shot at life by animal trainers, they can make it up to their owners in incredible ways. The iconic Morris the Cat of 9Lives fame, earned the title “the Clark Gable of cats” for the affection he showed the advert’s director in 1968. Morris and his trainer Bob Martwick were set for life, the cat eventually even getting his obituary printed in papers across the nation, which is more than some actors could ever hope for. Morris was beloved, and he didn’t even know it. People take this stuff very seriously. Because in this business, an outrage mob can even cost a poor cat its job.

“Saving the cat”

Oscar Isaac holding a cat in Inside Llewyn Davis.
CBS Films

Joel Coen once joked that the inclusion of the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis was by design. “The film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” Nothing quite lends the hero a kindly nature like a soft spot for animals. We’re not sure why so many villains had them either, because it was impossible to ever see Don Vito Corleone as a bad guy in The Godfather when he is introduced to us playing with a kitten.

Jonesy, the cute orange tabby in Alien, is generally interpreted to be director Ridley Scott’s attempt to show a kind of therapeutic animal to the homesick, bickering crew locked up in the claustrophobic space freighter. Though the dichotomy of the crew toting around one ruthless, fanged killing machine in his box (the cat) while fleeing like mice from another remorseless predator (the Xenomorph) in their own box, is an aspect of the film that has always been ignored for some reason. Maybe we were supposed to sympathize with the alien? This film poses more philosophical questions than even Prometheus.

Coen’s joke hides a deceptively salient point. Animals complicate otherwise one-dimensional people and humanize outwardly “hard” characters, providing the screenwriters more tools to tell a story without needing to waste a page on exposition or character building. The emotionally-challenged Data from Star Trek looked on in fascination at Spot. Corben Dallas in The Fifth Element might be a tough guy, but the fact he dotes on a cat he named “Sweetie,” tells you everything you really need to know about him as a human being.



This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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