No matter what your initial response was to the announcement that Hollywood was making a Cats movie based on the stage musical, it is sure to be a component of many cultural discussions leading up to awards season.
Legends of all stripes—from Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson to Judi Dench and Ian McKellen—are in the cast, but it is newcomer Francesca Hayward who will likely catch your attention. In Cats, the 27-year-old principal dancer of London's Royal Ballet makes her film debut as Victoria the White Cat.
Hayward, who estimates she saw her first ballet at age two and took her first class at age three, had been obsessed with both Cats and cats (she grew up with five of them) since she was about seven. "I’d never seen it live, strangely, but I had a video of it that a family friend lent to me and I used to watch it over and over again," she explained over the phone, just a day after the star-studded world premiere of the movie. "I’d dance around to it," Hayward said. "And I alwaysThe young performer was drawn to Victoria because "she’s really the most elegant cat," she said. "She’s always a ballerina in the stage production. I gravitated towards that side of it and I loved the atmosphere when she does her iconic solo," Hayward went on. "I just can’t believe that I have the chance to bring her to life even more. I feel privileged." choose to be Victoria."
The young performer was drawn to Victoria because "she’s really the most elegant cat," she said. "She’s always a ballerina in the stage production. I gravitated towards that side of it and I loved the atmosphere when she does her iconic solo," Hayward went on. "I just can’t believe that I have the chance to bring her to life even more. I feel privileged."
When she first auditioned for the role, she thought Tom Hooper's vision of the character would be more in line with the stage production, in which Victoria is a lithe ballerina who does not sing. However, when Hayward signed on, she realized just how much singing she would be doing—and that her repertoire would include a song written by Swift. "It was already quite overwhelming, and then to be told I had a song created for me by Taylor Swift, I couldn’t believe it," Hayward said. "Taylor sang the song for me, that’s when I heard it the first time. That was a surreal day. I had to pinch myself," she continued, before praising Swift for making her feel "comfortable" and "supported" on set.
Hayward took a leave of absence from the Royal Ballet to film Cats, but the lessons she learned from the experience will remain with her forever. "The biggest difference is definitely that I’m so used to doing a live performance and only getting a chance to do something once. Telling the story from start to finish, that adrenaline fuels me and keeps me going," she explained. "That was a big difference on set, but also a great thing because I got to explore and have that freedom, and it made me dig into my character a bit deeper because I’d have to tell the story broken up in a different order. It made me go further into the character so that it would make sense in my head, because we were not filming chronologically."
Working with stage and screen icons Dench and McKellen was understandably a highlight of the whole experience for Hayward. "It was amazing watching them in their element, doing what they do best, each and every one of them," she explained. "Watching Judi on the screen and the way she switches when the camera is on. There’s something magic about her. Everyone was just grateful to be doing their part."
And as for that "digital fur technology" that set the Internet ablaze with think pieces and memes, Hayward admitted that it was a bit of a shock at first. "I loved it," she exclaimed. "Obviously it took me a few seconds to process. It’s not a normal every day thing to see yourself with fur, but I loved it," she went on, impressed with the creative decisions made when bringing the musical to the screen. "I think we spent so long imagining ourselves as cats on set, to see the hard work during filming and see what the digital team created for us in a way that our tails became part of our characters and reacted along with us and was part of the choreography, it was really cool."
She and the cast are well aware of the online response to the way the cats from Cats look, but they aren't taking anything seriously and in fact, they've been sharing memes about the movie in their WhatsApp group, according to Hayward. "No one’s been taking the criticism personally, we’ve been finding the humor in everything," she said. "Especially when there’s one of the cast in a meme, we share it and have a good giggle with each other."