The feline lead in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, in cinemas nationwide now, is a delightful little black and white cat called Peter. The beloved pet of Louis (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife Emily (Claire Foy), Peter supports them through a very difficult time of their lives. Peter (played by Felix and several other cats) is one of many felines to feature in the film. In fact, the film features over 40 professionally trained kitties. So, as the famous saying goes “like herding cats” (used to refer to a difficult or impossible task), just how did the filmmakers pull off such an impressive feat without relying on CGI to bring this magnificent feline story to life? I caught up with Charlotte Wilde, celebrated film and TV animal trainer who worked closely on the movie to find out.
C&W: Did you have pets growing up?
Yes, I grew up with dogs, cats & horses.
C&W: What got you into the world of professional animal training?
By chance really, I kept my horse at a lady’s yard. Her mum ran an animal casting agency and I thought it sounded interesting.
C&W: I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many real cats feature in a film, it’s magnificent to behold. What was the most challenging aspect of working on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain?
The biggest challenge was having multiple cats on set in exposed or busy locations. Cats are flee animals; if there’s something that worries them, they just bolt. Whilst the cats were trained, and we had complete control over the set, there’s still a lot to consider - especially when you’ve got cats loose on the streets of London or on a Kent beach!
C&W: How did you go about finding and training the cats for the film?
I’ve been working in animal training for film and TV since the 80s. I hate seeing animals put in high stress situations on set without proper training so my team and I work with cats from a very young age. At the moment, we have 21 adults and 7 kittens in our care and every one is treated as an individual. Some actions will come naturally to one cat and prove impossible for another so you have to work with the animal on their terms. Felix is a real cheeky chappy and he is in his element being at the centre of attention. I knew he would do a wonderful job as Peter and he delivered a stellar performance.
C&W: In our interview with Felix, he mentioned a lovely lady that brought him home one day because he reminded her of a cat she loved very much but sadly lost. Was that you?
It was! I used to have a black and white cat called Socks - he turned up in my garden one day during a tough time in my life when my dad was very ill. Socks had a weepy eye so I took him to the vet and called Cats Protection to see if we could find his owner. We put posters up everywhere but no one came forward and he wasn’t microchipped. He had such a wonderful character and I couldn’t bring myself to rehome him. Cats have a funny way of coming into our lives, seemingly at times when we need them the most, much like Peter’s story with the Wains. The memory of Socks is very dear to me and Felix reminds me of him so much.
C&W We understand Felix had some feline understudies. Who played Felix’s kitten double?
There were two kittens that played young Peter - Norbs, and his stand-in who became lovingly referred to as ‘Not Norbs’ owing to how similar they looked. The crew had trouble telling them apart so they had to keep asking me - “Charlotte, is that Norbs?” and I would reply “No, Norbs is over there, that’s Not Norbs” and the name kind of stuck! The two of them became inseparable, so much so that I decided to retire them from acting early. They have found a new home together with one of the film’s producers and his family which I think is wonderful.
Norbs with Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy
C&W: We understand you’ve worked with all sorts of members of the animal kingdom, what has been the most unusual?
Beavers were probably the most unusual. They are absolutely beautiful creatures but not the easiest to instruct. They were in an enclosure and we handed them apples on sticks as rewards. Being on set with them was more about wrangling than training. They are wild animals so the approach needs to be different.
C&W: That’s interesting. What would you say is the difference between wrangling and training?
I sometimes get referred to as a cat wrangler but that’s not exactly correct. For me, there’s quite a big difference between wrangling and training an animal. Wrangling is improvised and involves managing the animal in the moment whereas training takes a lot of time and is specifically tailored to each animal. It’s not one size fits all. I taught Socks to play dead but despite using the exact same technique there was no way Felix would do it! It’s horses for courses really.
C&W: What was the most enjoyable moment working with Felix?
I think probably the last day of filming, I felt so so proud of him. I couldn’t find a suitable double for him, so he performed the role of adult Peter all on his own.
C&W: Cats are famous for their independence. So how did you persuade Felix to follow the script? Were there any moments of improv that made the final cut?
Luckily Felix has a very healthy appetite, so many scrumptious treats kept him interested. He weighs in at around 5kgs, so you can imagine it takes quite a lot to fill him up. There were a couple of scenes where Will wanted Felix to be completely natural; I had to sit on my hands and try not to give him any cues. He aced the scenes but walked off scavenging for food - ever the opportunist!
C&W: Forty cats in one room must have been challenging; was it as difficult as it sounds? Any tips for training our kitties at home?
To be perfectly honest, production had everything so well organised it really wasn’t too hard. We’d had several meetings beforehand, and the production and locations team were very efficient - they gave us everything we needed to make sure each cat's welfare was put above everything else. I really couldn’t have asked for more.
Benedict Cumberbatch playing the delightful Louis Wain (with a quizzical Persian) image courtesy of Studiocanal
THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN is Directed by Will Sharpe. Story by Simon Stephenson. Screenplay by Simon Stephenson and Will Sharpe. In cinemas now!