'She's a scary person to sing to'
As the run-up to Christmas enters its final week, there’s only one topic on everyone’s minds – Cats.
Yes, the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, is coming to the big screen. With Tom Hooper producing and an all-star cast – we’re talking Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, James Corden, Idris Elba and Jason Derulo to name a few, this film looks set to be a box office hit.
But what was it like behind the scenes? How long did it take? And what did cat school entail?
Digital Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with the leading actress, Francesca Hayward, who temporarily hung up her ballet shoes as principal dancer in the Royal Ballet to play the role of Victoria in the most anticipated film of Christmas.
What drew you to the project?
I have always loved Cats. I didn’t even see the script, I just heard the auditions were happening for Victoria and I had to go for it. When I was much younger, like 8 years old, I had a video of the original stage production so I used to play that a lot and I was always drawn to the role of Victoria. I used to always play Victoria. Always. And I would dance around in my living room just being her. Sometimes I would invite my friends around and they would have to be the other cats and they would have to dance along to the video and play along with me. So when the audition came up, I thought I had nothing to lose. I have a job that I love at the Royal Ballet so you know, so what could hurt by going to the audition?
And you can sing…
I have never sung professionally or had any proper lessons. I just did it, but I’m really proud that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone because it was very much out of my comfort zone. I had to sing right from the very first audition which was quite terrifying for me. I remember being really nervous, my hand was shaking, and I was thinking “you need to calm down because you’ve done so many crazy things on stage in front of so many people and you’ve been much less nervous than singing in front of this one person now.” It was weird. And not only that, but then singing in front of and with Jennifer Hudson. She’s a scary person to sing to.
Was there anyone in the cast that made you particularly star-struck?
I really tried not to get star-struck. And obviously, because of the ballet, I have had experience. I get to dance with some pretty amazing people that I grew up watching and suddenly I’m playing their lover, so I’ve learnt not to freak out about these things. But that being said, I definitely had to stay cool when I was doing scenes with Judi Dench and it was just the two of us. And of course, Idris Elba – that was mad. Also my solo – I had to do a whole day of singing as a non-singer in front of everyone – including Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber. They both tried to stay a bit hidden so I could try and forget about the fact that they were all listening and watching, but they were both very supportive.
What was your most memorable scene to film?
There were a lot. It’s hard to pick one out. I have a great memory of Judi Dench as she comes down the street and obviously she’s like the god-like cat and we’re all bowing and incredibly happy to see her and it’s like, it’s Judi Dench, so it’s not that difficult to imagine and we were bowing in real life. What else? Watching Jennifer Hudson singing ‘Memory’. Wasn’t that incredible? She made us cry every time. Also, I loved the scene with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer – that was very energetic and probably one of the most exhausting because they’re very mischievous and they never stop jumping off things.
Can we talk about cat school?
Yes, we all had cat school on our schedules. A lot of us were in class together – I remember Ian McKellen joining a cat class with us one day which was particularly funny. We studied cats and watched their behaviour, to think about what they do with their ears and their tail, things that we don’t have as humans. The idea is not to be mimicking a cat quite literally but to be incorporating something a little more feline. We were just having to think about cats and their anatomy and how one would move. They don’t have knees so obviously you couldn’t just crawl around – that would look really awful. We had to think of ways to help ourselves to move and play around and find our own cat.
Did your dance background give you a head start in cat movements?
It definitely helped and also the sets were enormous, so we felt very cat-sized. If you even imagine a cat next to that chair, imagine the scale of the chair on the set. It was like a playground, it was very cool. Obviously, if it was very high we would have help from the stunt team and we would have harnesses and things to help us. But yeah, we would be expected to jump off very big things and land very gracefully like a cat. Jumping up onto things was probably even harder and obviously cats don’t make it look difficult. That was the challenge, but yeah being a ballerina, I train every day to make things that are actually very difficult look much easier, so I got a head start.
Talk me though filming…
We filmed at Leavesden, where they did Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts. We started in December and we finished in March. But we rehearsed for a couple of months before that and had cat school, so yeah, I took about 6 months off from the Royal Ballet. It wasn’t easy. Obviously, I had lots of performances lined up and at The Royal Opera House, people book to see certain dancers perform so I felt really awful that I was letting a lot of people down who had booked to see me. But you know, I think it’s fantastic that they’re all very excited to see the film. Now they’ve got something they can watch again and again.
What was your hardest scene to film?
I would say the singing scene for my solo. I’m not a trained singer and my voice isn’t strong so I was really worried that my voice wouldn’t last for the whole day. I remember getting tired and I didn’t know about all these things until I started singing. Your voice can get tired. It can just disappear. When you use your voice to sing a lot. It’s literally just a muscle. It was fascinating to me, it’s a muscle that gets tired. If you kept doing the same thing to your leg it’s the same. I was drinking ginger tea, had a vocal steamer and you can like blow bubbles with a straw into water – that really helps for some reason. All these things that I would never have known about but all these singers were obviously giving me all the tips and my coach was helping me.
What message do you hope people will take away from Cats?
Cats is a timeless musical because its message is really relevant now. The message is about inclusion and community and kindness really – and that will always be relevant.
Cats comes to UK cinemas on 20 December 2019.