My father and I don’t have much in common when it comes to our careers. He’s been a practicing veterinarian for 35 years now, and every day he saves a kitten’s life or delivers a litter of puppies or spays a ferret or something. Meanwhile, I write not-as-important things on the internet about movies and TV. Sometimes I’ll text him to tell him I interviewed an Oscar winner or wrote a review I’m particularly proud of. His reply is usually something like: “Very cool! Here’s a picture of a My Little Pony McDonald’s toy I cut out of a golden retriever’s stomach this morning.”
There’s not much overlap in the Venn diagram of our professional lives — at least not until the release of a certain feline spectacular. Tom Hooper’s Cats sauntered into theaters this December, bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fever dream of a musical to the big screen and hiring actors including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, and Jennifer Hudson to cavort around pretending to be cats.
My editor was keen to get an expert’s take on the realism of Cats, and since I don’t have Jackson Galaxy’s email address, I volunteered my father. After all, he’s the biggest cat whisperer I know: I’ve watched him befriend feral strays and handle cats who would sooner draw blood than let anyone else touch them. As a bonus, he also knows a decent amount about musical theater.
When I traveled home to St. Louis for the holidays, I asked him to accompany me to our local theater to get his take on Cats. He agreed — both because I’m his daughter and he loves me, but also because I promised him we could go see 1917 a few days later. (The man is a sucker for a movie about a World War.) Afterward, we sat down for a conversation about all things feline.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the original musical. You were the one who introduced me to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s craziest production when I was a kid, and we always had a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. When did you first encounter the show?
JEFF COGGAN: I saw it in Miami Beach with your mom and your grandmother, and I enjoyed it. Obviously, I read the T.S. Eliot poems to you and your brother, and he wound up starring in a production of it in middle school. So it feels like it’s been a family thing for a while now.
So, the movie. What are your initial thoughts?
It still has all the good music. [Laughs] And it had some really great talent singing some of those songs, so that part of it I really enjoyed. To be honest with you, it is not something that I envisioned being able to translate to the screen. Somehow it seems like stage makeup was more appropriate than what it actually turned out to be. To actually try to morph humans into cats via CGI is just kind of terrifying.
A lot of people are fixated on the way the cats’ bodies look; they’re sort of a feline-human hybrid. What felt the most bizarre to you?
The faces. Cat faces, they can be expressive, but they’re extremely subtle. They’ll give the tiniest little twitch of whiskers or ears, but they are so impassive. They don’t let on a lot of what they’re feeling, whereas people are not nearly so subtle. Seeing cats make all these exaggerated faces was kind of horrifying. As a veterinarian, trying to imagine cats being that expressive in their opinions of me after I’ve vaccinated them would be terrifying — because clearly they’re not happy with me. [Laughs] I like the fact that they’re sort of stone-faced, so I can pretend not to know what they’re thinking.
As someone who hangs out with cats all day, what was the least believable part of the movie?
Um, most of it? [Laughs] Cats are not generally terribly competitive, and [in the film] they’re all vying to win this contest to see who gets to go to the Heaviside Layer. Most cats, they do care, but they’re never going to show you that they care. They’re always going to act like they don’t.
Cats don’t emote very well, except for anger. They will show that. But beyond that, they tend to be much more passive and so much more subtle. It’s not to say they don’t have a tremendous range of emotion! They do! But they don’t put it out there for anyone to evaluate or judge. And even if you do judge, they don’t care.
How did you feel about the cats’ hands and feet? Sometimes they have claws, but most of the time they’re just normal human hands.
They’re not very expressive with their feet [in real life], unless they jump up on you in the middle of the night to get you to go feed them. That’s about the only way they tend to use their feet expressively — or to scratch you.
I kind of wish there were some polydactyl cats in this movie. There could just be a shot of Jason Derulo or someone with extra fingers.
That would be even more terrifying than the CGI human face.
Was there anything about the cats’ behavior that felt accurate?
The way they rub their heads on one another as a means of bonding, they got that part right. They definitely do that.
The other thing I think they did get right is that they respect cats for what they are. In cartoons, they always make the cat the villain, they make the dog the hero, and then the cat always gets upstaged or beat up. Cats are too smart, too dignified, and too agile to be the way they’re portrayed in cartoons, so in that respect, I think [Cats] got that right. They respect cats for being independent, and they try to celebrate what they are. They didn’t always portray it very well, but at least they tried.
These cats do a lot of singing, but in real life, most cats don’t really communicate with other cats vocally, right? Is it true that cats only meow when they talk to humans, not other cats?
They do make some little chirps and other sounds, but again, they’re very subtle. They communicate far more with body position, tail position, orientation of how they approach. There are so many really subtle things that they use to communicate. Bursting into song is not one of them.
Who do you think did the best at pretending to be a cat?
I really liked the lead actress, Francesca Hayward. I liked the ballet moves because if a small cat is being introduced into new surroundings, they’re very cautious but very graceful. That struck me as very catlike. That worked.
The other one was James Corden as Bustopher Jones. Falling in a trash can to try and get more food? I do have some patients like that.
Rebel Wilson’s Jennyanydots teaches a lot of cockroaches how to tap dance, and then she eats them. Do cats really eat cockroaches?
I have never personally seen cats eat cockroaches, but I have seen them eat crickets, grasshoppers, moths… So that is entirely plausible. [Laughs] I also believe that with the way cats play with their food and then eat it, I could see them actually making their prey go to dance camp and then eating them.
Our old cat Satchel liked to bite the heads off crickets and leave their decapitated bodies scattered around our basement, so maybe that is accurate.
As a warning to other crickets, I guess: “You better shape up on your dance skills!” Like the cat version of Bob Fosse.
Taylor Swift’s cat, Bombalurina, incapacitates a bunch of the cats by dumping catnip on them. How do most cats really react to catnip?
It runs the gamut. There are some who literally fling themselves on the floor and scoot about upside down. There are others who basically sniff it and walk away. So they’re not all universally affected by it, that’s for sure.
Are there any movies that do a good job of depicting cats? What were your thoughts on Goose in Captain Marvel?
He’s a very good cat. Although Goose technically wasn’t even a cat, he was actually an alien who tore out Samuel L. Jackson’s eye. I’ve had a few patients over the years who would’ve liked to have done that to me.
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