How the Cats Playing Goose in 'Captain Marvel' Were Trained to Be Professional Actors
There's an old adage in Hollywood first coined by comedian W.C. Fields: Never work with children or animals. And yet, children and animals can be some of the best parts of your favorite movies and TV shows, stealing scenes willy nilly and becoming stars in their own right. In Marvel's latest superhero film, Captain Marvel, our hero Carol Danvers is joined on her quest for identity and truth by Goose, her trusty feline companion who turns out to be a little more than she seems. Goose meows and purrs and paws at things and rubs on people's legs and does everything that cats do (and some things they can't). To find out how a cat can become a movie star, Thrillist spoke to expert cat trainer Ursula Brauner, who not only makes her furry performers look like professional actors onscreen, but makes it look easy.
Thrillist: So, the main question that I have, of course, is: How do you train a cat?
Brauner: [Laughs.] You know, that's the most common question that we get. And I always tell people that cats are just as smart and eager to learn and all those things that dogs are. It's really just a different psychology. We train all kinds of animals, and I think one of the most important parts of our job is understanding every type of animal we train, how they learn. They all learn differently. And we also take into consideration not just the type of animal -- cat, dog, or whatever -- but also they obviously each have different personalities.
You gotta figure out whether the cat you have is trainable, I guess.
Brauner: We look for extroverts. It's like people. The ones that thrive in what we do are the ones that just love people, love the mental stimulation of learning, all of that. That's really what we look for in anything that we're training.
How did you find the cats who played Goose in this movie?
Brauner: Reggie, we've had. He's been with us since he was 2 years old. We got him from a rescue a long time ago, same with Archie. So they were both experienced cats before we went into the meeting to discuss. And after looking at the script and looking at the action and talking to the filmmakers, we decided that it would be beneficial to have another two cats to spread the workload out. So we got Rizzo and Gonzo, both from shelters, and we spent four months getting the entire team ready for the specific action that was in the script.
What exactly was in the script?
Brauner: We read the script and we break it down, just into cat action. We look at the way [the filmmakers] want them to move. Most people ask us what trick is the hardest. And really, for us, the animal trainers, the tricks are the most fun part. When we're prepping it's just us and our animals and we're learning new stuff and we're bonding, and it's just a great experience. What we spend so much of our time on is gradually getting the cats used to working in the environment they're going to experience on the set, which is obviously very different. Getting them comfortable, getting them feeling safe, and getting them to be relaxed and just be their own selves while we're working with them.
Was there a certain trick or behavior for this movie that was particularly difficult?
Brauner: Well, no, again, like I said, the tricks are easy. The most difficult part -- not difficult, but the most time-consuming, because we do this very gradually -- is getting them used to what they're going to experience on set. They had to learn how to work inside the quad-jet, they had to learn to work alongside actors who were in different-looking costumes. They didn't look like real people, you know. [Laughs.] So, it was all about gradually getting them used to that and where that they were comfortable and realized that, OK, this is just another day at work.
I did read that Brie Larson is unfortunately very allergic to cats, as is Kiernan Shipka, coincidentally, who played Sabrina on the Netflix show. Is this something that you encounter a lot with actors?
Brauner: I do. Oddly, more than you would think. But Brie never let it affect the job at hand, what we had to do. They had to walk up to her, jump in her lap. She was allergic, but she also did everything that we needed from her to get the cat action in the scene, whether it was giving them a treat or giving them a pet. She never let it affect the cats at all.
Did any of the actors particularly bond with any of the cats?
Brauner: I think all of them really were great with them. All of them loved the cats. Ben Mendelsohn, because we had a particularly… it took a little bit longer, for the cats to get used to costumes. And Ben, of course, looks very different from a normal person [in the movie]. We really had to spend some time with Reggie to get him comfortable, so that he understood that this was all just part of the environment. So, Ben just sat down and gave that cat treats just to get him comfortable working with him. It was the most surreal experience, because we were in the quad-jet, with Ben Mendelsohn as a Skrull with a cat, and he is talking in a kitty voice to him and giving him treats.
I read that you used one cat in particular, I think Reggie, for a lot of the close-ups. How did you choose him for those shots?
Brauner: Well, nobody chose Reggie, Reggie kinda chose everybody. When I went in for my first initial meeting to talk to the filmmakers, I brought Reggie with me. It was a room full of people, a big conference table, and I literally brought a big plush bed, and we came in the room and I let Reggie out, and he just plopped in his bed and started grooming himself, and was so relaxed and chill. He really embodied the character of what they were looking for. He just was Goose. I wasn't working him, there were no tricks, it was just really his personality shone through right at the beginning.
Are there certain things in the movie that aren't a trick, that are just cat stuff?
Brauner: Oh, absolutely. Again, the thing is that we want them to do "cat stuff," but they have to do it exactly in this spot. Because it has to be in the frame and on camera. So it's a little bit of a double-edged sword: You want the cat to do whatever he wants, and to look very natural, but we also have to keep them in this frame line. It's a balance. And that also comes with the animal's comfort level on set and the trust they have in us, that this is just another day. Just relax, it's all good. And that is usually a difficult balance, because they have to be natural -- but they can only be natural in this exact frame.
Do the cats enjoy being on camera? Do they know that they're working?
Brauner: Oh, they totally know, they totally know when they're working. Reggie is our "hero cat," but all the cats contributed to the character, because we really try to use the best qualities and the things that each cat is good at, and that they can succeed at. Reggie knows when he's working. We'll do where he's walking with the characters or walking down a path, and, you know, he's a cat. Every now and then he gets distracted, it's like a dog with a squirrel. But then he'll realize it, and before we even go in and pick him up, he just goes back to his starting mark and goes, all right, let me try that again. It's like he just knows when we're working.
He's so professional!
Brauner: [Laughs.] And there were scenes in the film where we just let them relax in that spot, and maybe suggest that they just lay there for a bit. And then we just let them get bored and start rubbing and moving around, and that's when you get the most natural stuff. When they're in a mild "stay" but letting them cheat almost.
How was it introducing the cats to their human co-stars?
Brauner: It was an ongoing process. Before every shot, we would explain to the cats what was happening in the scene, and we always let them know what they had to do, but we also let them see what else was going on around them. The most important thing is that as long as they know what is going to happen, they're good. So that was a lot of what we did. So, for instance, when somebody had to go in and pick him up, we always had the actor go in, walk up, give him a few treats, pick him up. And when we were ready to roll, they just walk in without the treats and pick them up. And the cat's like, "oh, OK, maybe they'll give me a few treats next time." It's really just explaining to the cat what's going to happen, so that they're comfortable with it and they look great doing it.
It sounds similar to working with people, actually.
Brauner: It is! And we have to rehearse just like everybody else. The difference is we have to take the time to get the cats in, the set quiet, everybody where they're gonna be. We just gradually build the scene. And whatever we need to do among the actors, even a camera move, we'll let them see that: OK, this is gonna happen. We let them see it, and we give them treats when it goes by, and then they just start going, OK.
You make it sound so easy.
Brauner:Well. [Laughs] It's fun. And we've been doing it for a long time. It's fun for us and it's fun for them. We form the strongest bonds with our animals. It's really a combined effort, it's something that we do together, and we both know when we've done a great job.