Based on his scene-stealing performance in Pet Sematary, available now from Redbox on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand, Tonic possesses the animal instincts it takes to become a star. It comes naturally; Tonic is a cat and he landed the coveted role of family feline Church in this remake of the Stephen King horror classic. It is his first feature film. He was 10-months old during filming.
You think it’s easy to hold your own with the likes of Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor John Lithgow? It takes months of intense preparations, nighttime rehearsals after the rest of the cast and crew have gone home and lots of fresh chicken and catnip parties. That’s where Melissa Millett comes in. She is an animal trainer, who, with animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett, prepared Tonic, along with another cat who portrays the hissing, undead Church (Tonic’s face is too cute, Millet gushes) and their stand-ins for the role of nine lifetimes. Millett spoke with Redbox about how she knew Tonic had star power, why cats are more difficult to train than dogs and the sweet life of a cat on a movie set (did we mention the catnip parties?)
RB: How did you discover Tonic?
MM: I was searching the rescue organizations. The first time I laid eyes on
him, I said that’s the cat for me. He walked out of his crate like he owned the place, ready to work. He was just incredible, and after filming was completed, I had to make him part of my family.
RB: Tonic had never acted before. What do you look for in an animal that indicates it could be the next four-legged Bradley Cooper? MM: Tonic is a cat that drove everybody nuts, and that’s how you know. He was looking for something to do, for a purpose. The animals that are more food-motivated and toy-oriented are your best working animals. Essentially, they want a job.
RB: How long does it take to train a cat?
MM: We got Tonic feature-ready in two months. The first thing you’re doing is catnip parties to make them feel good about working with you; to let them know this is a fun space. From there, we start on simple behavior until we got to the point where they could stay on a mark and focus. Then
we can teach new behaviors within a week, but the foundation takes roughly two months.
RB: Cats are known to be divas; did Tonic have any demands?
MM: The only good working cat is a happy cat. You have to make sure they enjoy the game of work with you. The cats each had their own trailer with a human counterpart—an assistant trainer or groomer. I was adamant they would not live in cages. And they got leash-walked every day. They get used to a really high of mental stimulation. We got them a cat patio and a cat exercise wheel. And before filming would begin, Kirk would make a speech that we needed everyone on the set to stay stationary while we brought the cats in and let them sniff around until they told us they were ready to work. We had A-list celebrities sitting around and waiting for cats to decide they were ready to go (laughs).
RB: I can’t imagine a dog acting this way.
MM: Cats are harder to train but there’s more reward in the reactions on set and the excitement of getting the job done because nobody expects cats to do anything. You have to make them feel confident.
RB: What communication tactics are the most effective in training a cat?
MM: There are a lot of treats involved. We use clicker training and freeshaping, which is a hot/cold game. You show a cat their mark and then reinforce any behavior that leads them to stepping on that mark. When the cat understands the game, they feel like they are calling the shots, like, ‘I do this and the human feeds me.’ Their emotional state is our responsibility. We have to make sure they are having fun. We have to ration the food and make sure they’re just hungry enough to want to continue to play our games.
RB: In what ways are cats more challenging to train than dogs?
MM: Cats can get startled or scared if you don’t do your homework. We didn’t take any chances. We worked with the cats on the set at night and practiced all their scenes. We did a lot of pretending. This is a horror movie, so we pretended to murder each other….
RB: Wait, what????
MM: We know cats murder things for fun, so it wasn’t a surprise that the cat wasn’t rattled. Cats don’t really care about your well-being (laughs). A dog would be concerned about your safety.
RB: What scene in Pet Sematary was the hardest to shoot?
MM: The very first day we shot the scene at the table. Tonic was to rub against John Lithgow’s leg, jump on his lap and stay there for the duration of the conversation. That was day one. Tonic did it all and when I called him back to me, everybody said, ‘Wow.’ I felt like a million dollars.
RB: Has success spoiled Tonic?
MM: He has been spoiled. Imagine having a staff to walk you on a leash and offer you a cat wheel for your exercise and have every whim cared for, and then you join a family and you’re just one of the group. He wants that special treatment. Tonic got to attend the Brooklyn Horror Fest. He loved meeting everybody. He posed for photos with hundreds of people. He definitely thinks he is important.
RB: What’s next for Tonic?
MM: We’re in negotiations, we have scripts. There was so much buzz about Tonic’s performance. We knew this would be big, because Stephen King is iconic and the character of Church is iconic. We’re looking at different options for Tonic because he is so talented. We’re hoping for Pet Sematary 2.
Want more Pet Sematary? Good news! We’ve got a special clip for you to check out, right here!