Shelter Cats Star In Remake Of Pet Semetary

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Move over, Goose, Captain Marvel’s cat. 2019 is off to a star studded feline extravaganza with cats taking center stage in big name films so far this year. But these latest movie stars are not only gorgeous Maine Coon cats, they were once living the lonely shelter life before their big film debut. That’s right, cat lovers. Talk about the ultimate rags to riches story, or Meow Mix to Weruva life we should say!

The original Church of the 1989 film, Pet Semetary

Many of us remember the 1989 feature adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 chilling novel of the same name.

If you’re anything like me, you read it as a child and it scared the living daylights out of you! For the original film, the director decided on a British Shorthair for the role of Winston “Church” Churchill. Which is fitting given the infamous moniker.

But for the remake, directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer decided to go another route. They went with a Maine Coon cat for the role of Church. They felt it was more synonymous with the state of Maine. Maine, which as many of King’s fans know, is the favorite place of choice for his famous tales. Also, they felt that choosing a Maine Coon cat would better match the book cover from the classic novel.

Kerry Hayes/Paramount Pictures, the new Church of Pet Semetary

So how did they go about choosing the purrfect Maine Coon cat for the job? Well, first, they knew that they would need multiple felines for the many scenes of the movie in which Church was/is shown. 

This is when lead trainer Melissa Millet and animal coordinator Kirk Jarrett who worked on the film set their searches on all the rescue organizations and shelters to find the perfect cat that resembled the famous book cover. It was their direct orders to find cats who could “convincingly alternate in the role of Church.”

And we are so grateful that they knew rescue cats were the purrfect choice to fit the bill!


The original book cover for the 1983 classic, Pet Semetary

Millet and Jarrett successfully found 5 Church lookalikes for the the role, but only 2 would go on to become the film’s breakout stars, Tonic and Leo:

“Leo and Tonic were so talented, we didn’t really require any doubles,” said Kirk Jarrett, seasoned animal trainer. Hey, he’s even taught cats how to roll over and ride a scooter–with the help of cat treats, naturally.

So, how exactly did they train cats to “act” for their shared role of Church?

Each of the feline stars of Pet Sematary was trained for each scene first in a training facility. Then again on location as Jarrett and Millett gradually added elements like lights, boom poles, dolly tracks, cameras, and people. This was done over many rehearsals. Then, by the time the scene was actually shot, the cat wasn’t fazed by all the noise and activity on set. Still, the crew had to work efficiently in the cat scenes. Jarrett estimates Tonic and Leo can only do between 7-10 takes at a time before they start to get restless. (Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer both have cats at home, so they understood, Jarrett says.)

Leo the cat in character as Church

So, were Tonic and Leo divas on set, now that they’d had a taste of the luxury life?

“The cats had a lot of demands,” lead trainer Melissa Millett told The NY Post. “Air conditioning, a quiet set” — and, it seems, a steady supply of chicken and Temptations cat treats. Between scenes, the cats each had their own trainer/companion to pay attention to them. [Not to mention], their own air-conditioned trailer to hang out in arranged around a “catio” in a quiet corner. (Cats, as Jarrett points out, can’t regulate their body temperature through sweat like humans can, and the lights used on movie sets get very hot.) 

The trailer for new film…watch if you dare….

More on the film’s leading cat duo, Tonic and Leo

Tonic, now 1 1/2, stars early on as the lovable family pet. He is the face of Church for personal appearances and premieres. While Leo, who reportedly is “a very laid-back cat” in real life,” served as the “evil” poster boy. He is the revenant who wreaks havoc upon his family.

Tonic the cat on the BHFF red carpet. Photo courtesy of Kristina Bumphrey

Throughout filming, the trainers each spent two months working with the cat stars, acclimating them to life on the set. For Leo, the reincarnated evil version of Church, he learned to spend time in the makeup chair to look the part. But fear not, a representative from the American Humane Society was present at all times. They’re there to ensure that no harm was done to any of the film’s animal stars.

But what’s even better than these two cats becoming stars?!

Well, it was a joint effort by members of the film’s crew. All FIVE of the cats plucked from the shelter and rescue groups found loving furever homes! Three went home with the film’s trainer and animal coordinators. Jarrett took home two of the cats, and Millett one.


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Flashback to April when Tonic was first learning to lie down. Tonic was trained exclusively with positive reinforcement and clicker training. In this video he was learning with a method called “free shaping” where he gets reinforced for offering behaviour 😸 All the cats are trained with exclusively positive reinforcement and clicker training! This method is called “free shaping” .. have you ever tried a clicker? . . . . . . . . . . . . #catsofinstagram #catworld #cat #cats #petsemetary #petsemetary2019 #pets #rescue #rescuesofinstagram #rescuecatsofinstagram #hashtag #handsomecat #goodboy #gotoyourmark #onyourmark #actor #actorslife #adoptdontshop #church #petsemetarychurch

A post shared by •Tonic• (@church_aka_tonic) on

Can’t get enough of Leo and Tonic? Well, now you can follow them on Instagram to keep tabs on what these two marvelous Maine Coons are up to. Find them here: Tonic and Leo

And for a full interview with the films trainer and coordinator, click here!


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