LOS ANGELES – Anyone who’s spent time with a cat might agree with filmmaker Peter Atencio when he says cats are the “15-year-olds of the animal kingdom.”
Dogs are eager to please their owners. Cats couldn’t care less.
But the kittens that play the title tabby in the new action-comedy “Keanu ” impressed their human co-stars so much, they’ve earned permanent places in Hollywood.
“They blew away my expectations,” said Atencio, director of “Keanu” and a self-described “crazy cat man” who has three cats, two dogs and a rabbit at home. “They took direction really well.”
“Keanu,” in theatres Friday, tells the story of Clarence and Rell (“Key & Peele” stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), two mild-mannered guys who pretend to be killer criminals after a gang of thugs steals Rell’s kitten, Keanu. The gangsters want to keep the kitten — now wearing gold chains and a tiny do-rag — but Clarence and Rell will do anything, including embracing their inner tough-guys, to get him back.
Seven brown tabbies, all rescued from animal shelters, played Keanu. Trainer Larry Payne said animal roles generally require multiple actors (or, in this case, cat-ctors), as each has its own personality traits that contribute to the onscreen character.
Some kittens are better at hitting marks, for example, while others are particularly skilled at sitting still and being adorable.
“There’s the run guy, there’s the snuggle guy, there’s the meow guy,” Key said.
“It’s like assembling a team of bank-robbers,” Atencio added.
Payne initially trained three kittens to play Keanu, but they aged out halfway through production.
“(They) had gotten big and not really kitten-like anymore,” he explained.
He adopted four more kittens to finish the film. All were about eight weeks old when they began their monthlong training.
Besides learning the skills they’d need for their scenes — sit, stay, go from one mark to another — the Keanus had to get used to the noise and commotion of a movie set. Loud sounds typically make cats run and hide.
“It’s a little bit easier with the kittens, believe it or not, than with adult cats, because I don’t think they know any better,” said Payne, who trains all kinds of animals for film and TV roles.
Payne plied the kitties with treats during training. Repetition and positive reinforcement are key, he said. He uses off-camera buzzers or clickers — which signify food is coming — to summon the cats to their marks.
He also used treats to get them to tolerate the dozen or so costumes Keanu wears. Rell dresses his pet in a little fedora, goggles, a leather jacket, a hoodie and sunglasses, among other things.
When the kittens weren’t on screen, they hung out in miniature star trailers: deluxe animal carriers decked out with beds, toys and water. When filming on location in New Orleans, all seven Keanus stayed with Payne in his hotel suite.
Peele, who co-wrote “Keanu,” said a cat-napped kitten wasn’t part of the film’s original premise. He and co-writer Alex Rubens knew the main characters and their squares-in-gangland dilemma, but “it didn’t feel like we had something that really justified why we would put ourselves in danger,” Peele said. “That’s where the kitten came in.”
Though he has a dog who sometimes wears outfits (“We got a Burberry outfit and we do have a little beach hoodie. It goes deep.”), Peele said they made Keanu a kitten because “we realized there’s not a lot of kitten movies.”
Payne, too, said he “never had the pleasure of doing an entire kitten movie” in his 30-year career.
Atencio would do one again, saying, “I would love to do a kitten-based horror or thriller.”
Maybe he’ll call on the kittens formerly known as Keanu? All the film’s feline stars are staying in Hollywood. Though one went home with “Keanu” co-star Tiffany Haddish to become a housecat, Payne said the others will continue to act.
He and his colleague, April Mackin, each took two kittens home, and the remaining two live at the California ranch where Payne keeps his menagerie of acting animals.
“The fact that I was able to acclimate them to a movie-set environment when they were real young, they become valuable for us for the future to do that work,” he said. “They’re provided a great home. We have on-staff vets. And they’re very spoiled, much like a normal star would be.”