From pet shelter to ‘Pet Sematary’: these stray cats were adopted and turned into movie stars

Cute animals get all the attention, but how about we give some credit to the ones that are scary?

Or at least, the ones who can pretend to be scary—like these rescue cats who went from the animal shelter to the red carpet as the faces of a major Hollywood movie.

Horror movie aficionados and cat enthusiasts alike probably remember this year’s new Pet Sematary movie, adapted from the Stephen King chiller.

The movie, released in April, is about a cemetery plot that can bring back the dead, but things start to get weird when a family uses the cursed land to bring back their cat, Church.

You may have seen him looming in all the film’s advertisements:

Church was easily the movie’s breakout character. Even as the film received mixed reviews, everyone agreed it featured one creepy kitty.

But photos of the feline actor on the red carpet made people realize how deep the performance actually was—how different the friendly real cat and the scary, mangled cat on screen really were.

It got people wondering how, exactly, the movie pulled it off.

Some people were surprised it was even a real cat.

So what Hollywood magic went in to these cat scenes? The answer is both fascinating and inspiring—a feline rags-to-riches story.

Church made it to screen thanks to the work of animal trainers Kirk Jarrett and Melissa Millett. Trying to recreate the cat on the original novel cover, the trainers sought out Maine Coons for the role—and searched shelters and rescue organizations for their stars.

“There’s a huge cat overpopulation [in North America],” Millett told the AV Club. “They’re not as easy to place as dogs, so there’s a large volume of cats waiting for homes in shelters. It’s easier to find matching cats rather than dogs because of the sheer volume of them out there.”

How do you turn shelter cats into actors? Jarrett says it’s all about gaining the cats’ trust and making them comfortable on set—not always an easy task.

“We need the animals to be acclimated, and first that means working through all of their insecurities from being rescues,” Jarrett said. “Not knowing what their lives were like prior, first we have to give them an opportunity to smile, and explore, and build their confidence before we can even start training.

Five cats were selected by the crew. Four ended up in the film, but two of the cats—Leo and Tonic—proved to be the breakout stars of the pack.

“Leo and Tonic were so talented, we didn’t really require any doubles,” Millett told the New York Post.

The cats worked well because they had a similar look but different temperaments, which made them perfect for a cat that goes from happy family pet to undead zombie cat.

Leo plays Church after he returns from the grave, and is featured in the film’s logo.

“Leo is a confident sit-stay cat,” Millett told the AV Club. “Part of it was that he’s just got such a cool look, different from any other cat I’ve seen. He’s got this beautiful face, and these eyes that are so expressive.”

Tonic, who was found as a stray cat and brought to a Canada shelter, plays the cat in the early part of the movie (when he’s a normal, not-dead-yet cat) and also did some action scenes for Leo.

While Leo was the poster boy, Tonic was the one who really ate up the red carpet.

“I’ve never seen a cat like Tonic,” Millett told the Post. “He’s going to have a big career because he loves the spotlight. We’re just looking for his next opportunity.”

Training the cats for filming was a months-long process, involving desensitization to the lights, sounds and people involved.

The cats were trained for their scenes using clicker training and positive reinforcement—having a food-motivated cat really helps. Treats were also used to keep the cats happy while being made up for camera.

“We did feed them treats during the hair and makeup process, because we didn’t want them to be stressed at any time,” Millett told the AV Club. “So while they’re getting their makeup put on, they’re getting treats.”

It all came together, helping to create one of the year’s most chilling movie characters. But the really great news is that all five cats were adopted when filming ended, giving these cats a real Hollywood ending.

Unfortunately, the happiness was short-lived for one cat: Leo passed away in May. But his performance as Church will live on in people’s nightmares for years to come.

How can you tell if your cat is the next big thing? Well, according to these trainers, the big thing is if it drives you crazy, as they told one Twitter user:

 Share this story!