Herding Kittens: Animal Trainer Larry Payne is Keanu's Baby Cat Whisperer
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele team up on the silver screen with an adorable feline costar
The premise is almost too good to be true: Comedy Central stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele team up on the silver screen with an adorable feline costar and fend off menacing drug dealers while grooving along to George Michael‘s greatest hits in Keanu, in theaters April 29. Oh, and that child actor cat is pretty much the cutest tabby kitten ever — and he’s named after (and voiced by) the real Keanu Reeves. Be still our purring hearts!
We caught up with the man behind the meowing magic, Hollywood animal trainer Larry Payne — best known for classics such as Marley & Me, Charlotte’s Web, Doctor Doolittle and Alvin and the Chimpmunks: The Squeakquel — and got the dirt, er, litter, on the tiny kitty cast members.
Spoiler: More than one kitten plays our heroic star, “Keanu.” But you already knew most animal actors had body doubles, right?
What does the kitten training process entail? (Get it … en-tail?)
One of the producers … knew the type of work we do. He sent us the script. We figured it out, gave him a budget and then we started talking about colors of kittens. We narrowed it down to the brown tabbies which actually worked in the movie, and the second choice was tuxedo kittens, black and white. So I found three of each in L.A. and we started training because they were undecided. In the process of locating kittens from rescues I found the brown tabbies are the most common. I brought both sets to Louisiana. I pointed them in the direction of brown tabbies because we were going to need more kittens throughout the movie because they grow so fast. They really liked the brown tabbies anyway, so that’s what we went with.
I started with three kittens that were acquired from a rescue in California, and halfway through the movie we found two more in Louisiana and the other trainer, April Mackin, she’s from Florida and was able to locate [another] in Florida that her friend brought up for us. So we had a total of seven kittens in the movie.
How did you transport the kittens from the rescues to the set?
I flew the three kittens from L.A. to Louisiana on an airplane. We have to get health certificates to do it. We used animal carriers so I traveled with them a bit at home, and they learn that that’s a safe spot for them. We don’t use tranquilizers or anything. We brought them as cargo, and the two I found in Louisiana we just picked up in shelters. The two from Florida were driven up. They all traveled well.
When you have kittens on set, everyone wants to play with them. How do you allow those interactions while also keeping the kitty actors on task?
We like to share the animals with the crew but at the same token, when I have certain shots coming up, it’s off limits to hold the kittens for 10-15 minutes before the shot. But as you know, on a movie set there is waiting around. I don’t do it too much before we shoot, but if I know it’s a couple hours in between shots …. there was a running joke on set where if anybody had a bad day, they came over to me to hold the kittens. That kind of became a thing, and everybody loved the kittens and everybody wanted to hold them. I did it when I could and when it wasn’t going to interfere with a shot. With the brown tabbies, I gave actress Tiffany Haddish (“Hi-C”) one of the kittens. It was named Clementine, but I think she changed it to Catatonic. That was a really cute kitten. We kept the rest, six cats.
What are the tools you need to use when training kittens and cats?
Cats and kittens are similar. Kittens I can mold into a “movie cat” a little better because they don’t know any better. As far as tools [go], we use clickers and buzzers. The buzzer is a sound cue I use for recall. It typically means there is food where that buzzer is. I teach them to run to the sound and by doing that — if, in a shot, they want them to come through the door, run over and jump on the couch — I can hide a buzzer in the couch and show them there’s food there. In a shot where there is no food, I can hit that buzzer and they’ll run over and jump up on the couch. That’s how the buzzer works for A-to-B-type work. The clicker we use as a bridge for doing a correct behavior, because sometimes you can’t give them the treat fast enough. But making the click also means “food is on its way” shortly thereafter. So when they do the behavior, sometimes it helps them lock into what you’re looking for quicker than just trying to give them the food for it. When I click it means, “Yes, good!” like you would say to a dog or something.
Is there one surefire reward or food that works for all cats?
Mostly their regular diet: I always bring baby food, chicken or beef, just in case. Generally it’s mostly wet cat food. Sometimes if you go too crazy with the treats they can get runny stool, that sort of thing. I’ll keep the baby food around, but I try to stick to more of their normal diet since I’m feeding them throughout the day. That way they stay healthier and don’t have any stomach problems.
In Keanu, what were the most challenging sequences?
We pretty much did everything real on the whole movie. Even when the squibs were going off in the drug laboratory (opening sequence of the film) there was going to be gunfire. We didn’t do gunfire with the kittens, but I acclimated them to squids popping off and then they were able to hide. We would go out to the FX shop and I started with the kittens doing a squib 100 feet away as we’re running the cat and rewarding them, then little by little we’d move it closer and closer because of the popping sound. On the day we shot that sequence, the squibs are buried in flour [supposed] to be cocaine, so we really ran them by the flour, which also muffled the sound of the squib. I had already acclimated them to the noise aspect so we really ran the cat with squibs popping the flour that’s supposed to be cocaine getting shot. That was challenging. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it, but we did and we shot it live.
We [also] did some jumping. I teach them. We did some shots where I give them a short toss. We have stunt pads and we catch them in a furry pad and the cats, believe it or not, I’ve done that kind of stuff in the past and we do a little toss and catch them in a blanket, then lower them to a pad. I give them a reward and pretty soon, you can only toss them so many feet, but when they shoot it slow-motion, it really dramatizes the little toss. The cats get really used to it, it’s almost a fun game for them to do that. We can do it safely for six or seven feet. We did some of that and then the untying of the guys (the kitten claws and chews through rope) it was a challenge, but at the same time it was a shot I prepped and rehearsed a bunch. Basically I teach the cat to claw at the rope and bite at the rope and I would give them a reward for it.
Hypothetical question: Would a kitten ever be traumatized by what goes on in this film?
It’s possible they could be, but that’s where it’s my experience. I know how cats react, so anything that may seem scary, we rehearse it and ease them into that with our treats and rewards. Also being kittens, they become immune to the noises, sounds, lights being moved, someone rushing in really quick; it’s not startling like it might be for an adult cat.
Were you part of the cat calendar shoot?
Yes, that was probably my biggest concern. Not everything fits them just right … I would really stress out the day before about what we were going to do. The wardrobe department did a great job, but not all the costumes fit terrifically. On the day, even if the cat struggled in it, it became almost funny so that took all the stress out of it.
How was it working with Jordan and Keegan?
They were great. I think everybody, [including the director Peter Atencio] really wanted to do it live action. In the beginning, the producers wanted CG, but I think Peter really pushed it. Everybody was a little worried about how the cats would perform but once we got into it and started shooting, they saw we could do pretty much everything. Key and Peele were great with the cats. They were great with the whole crew, myself and April too. They were always thanking us and just being so funny, so it was a really fun set to work on. We were well appreciated and they were really into the kittens, and even at the end of the movie with the rescue aspect, that helped with real life adoptions too. It was a really nice mesh of actors and crew, a really fun show to work on. They all aren’t as fun as that one.
All of the kittens were from rescues. And at the end, you kept the rest?
Correct. Since we’re an animal training company, and I had so much training [time] with them, they become valuable to future movies. I have two that pretty much live at my house permanently, and I have two that live at our ranch half the time and half the time at my house. Then April took a couple to Florida. We also do the animal shows for Universal studios in Florida and L.A., so they got great homes. It’s a really good environment being a movie cat; they’re pretty spoiled and treated like little stars.
•Reporting by KARA WARNER