For rising star Francesca Hayward the most surreal moment of her Cats journey wasn't walking onto the U.K. set for the first time in a motion capture suit surrounded by giant furniture and the likes of Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, and Dame Judi Dench — or even the first time she saw herself as Victoria, the naive young feline at the center of Tom Hooper's whimsical, big-screen adaptation, covered in digitally created fur. Instead, it's right now, amidst the press run for the film. More specifically, it's walking the red carpet, arm in arm with Sir Ian McKellen, in a fabulous fit. "I'm loving all of the dresses," Hayward tells MTV News from a London hotel.
She remains unfazed by the spectacle of it all. After all, more than two decades of ballet training has afforded the 27-year-old performer the kind of mental toughness and stamina needed to survive a whirlwind Hollywood press tour. But there's still a special kind of magic in helping to bring Cats — a musical she's loved since childhood — to life. "It's joyous and uplifting and amazing," she says of the story.
Hayward, in white, with the cast of Cats at the world premiere in New York City
The film ultimately gave the principal dancer a chance to put her career at the Royal Ballet on hold for seven months to pursue a life-long dream: acting on screen. Now, with a major movie on her resume, her future looks limitless. MTV News chats with Hayward about the challenges of acting cat-sized, singing in front of Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and some of her favorite Cats memories.
MTV News: I know you were a big fan of Cats growing up. What was it like walking onto that set for the first time? It must have been surreal to see everything from a cat's perspective.
Francesca Hayward: It was absolutely amazing. I never really thought about what a cat sees, I suppose. You don't really give it much thought, until I was on the set for the first time and realized that even something like a chair is just absolutely enormous to a cat. We really felt cat-sized, like literally. Sometimes we needed a stunt team to help us on and off furniture on set because it was impossible even to climb up onto a stool.
MTV News: Did you know that it was going to be cat-sized going into it?
Hayward: Tom Hooper had explained it and described it to us during rehearsals, but nothing really prepares you until you're actually there and you're in the middle of it.
MTV News: What was the most surreal moment on set for you?
Hayward: For me, it was having scenes alone with Judi Dench. And also having scenes with Idris Elba on another day. He's very charming, I have to say. Everyone would ask, "Have you seen them in their latest film? Or their latest TV thing?" And I was deliberately not watching any of them because I didn't want to freak out about the fact that I had to act with them.
Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy, the wise, old leader of the cats, in Tom Hooper's Cats
MTV News: What were your thoughts when you saw yourself as Victoria for the first time with all of that digital fur?
Hayward: I spent months and months trying to imagine what I was going to look like. I actually saw it the first time when the whole world saw it in the trailer. It took me a few seconds to get used to myself because it's me but different — without my ears. But then I loved it. I spent months pretending to have a tail, imagining it, and then I finally saw my tail! It was fascinating.
MTV News: The cast has talked extensively about how you all trained to move like cats. Did you feel like you had an advantage going into it because of your formal dance training? How much of your dance experience helped your feline performance?
Hayward: Everyone was coming from a different background. We had dancers and singers and actors, so we all knew that at some point we'd all have to do something that wasn't what we naturally felt confident in. So there were some parts of being a cat that felt much easier for me, like leaping off something and landing to my feet gracefully. I found a way to use my shoulders differently that worked for me as my go-to feline position. But then things like singing were terrifying to me, and I had to build up my confidence to be able to do that.
Hayward as Victoria in Cats
MTV News: How did you build up that confidence?
Hayward: I felt so lucky that the people I had to sing in front of — like Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, and Andrew Lloyd Webber — made me feel so comfortable. I never felt judged or pressured. Tom Hooper also didn't want everyone to sound perfect and polished. He wanted the emotion of the song to come through, so that was very helpful, to be able to focus on just that. And obviously the lyrics that Taylor Swift has written in the song that I sing, I could really focus on the words and less on my voice. Although, my voice did need some work. I worked on it every day with an amazing singing coach. I had to learn about how to use my voice as an instrument, like a muscle in my body when I dance. I had no idea how much you could do with your voice and how much you have to look after it. I've never had to use it like this before!
MTV News: The song Taylor Swift wrote for your character, "Beautiful Ghosts," was recently nominated for a Golden Globe. In her statement, she said that she would go to set and watch you dance. Did you know that she was following you?
Hayward: I didn't know that! But I know that when she sang me the lyrics for the first time, it was astonishing how well she tapped into my character. I kind of gathered from that how much she must have been learning about my role and the part that I had been creating. So I guess I kind of figured that out.
MTV News: So you were doing vocal training and cat training, while still practicing ballet every day. What was it like balancing all of that while also making a movie?
Hayward: I had to arrive to set before everyone else to squeeze ballet class in. I'd be waking up at 4 a.m. and I'd be doing ballet at 6 a.m. in order to be on set and ready to go at the same time as everyone. It was definitely long, but ballet training helps so much with being able to deal with the stamina you need and being mentally prepared for what's ahead of you. But being a cat and trying to sing at the same time were the two hardest challenges for me.
MTV News: Who was the most natural cat on set?
Hayward: Everyone was so different. But some of my favorite Cats memories are of seeing Judi Dench curled up in a basket while watching Ian McKellen.
MTV News: If I were a cat, I would like to be that cat. When the film wrapped, what was it like going back to your normal routine?
Hayward: It was really nice to have more time in bed in the morning. I really loved that side of it. I used to complain about having ballet class at 9:30 a.m., so now I'm ready for it.
MTV News: To put your ballet career on hold for seven months, you must have really wanted to be part of this project. What was it about this film that made you want to put your dance career on hold for a bit and pursue this?
Hayward: Everything! For people who know about dance, Cats is a musical that really celebrates dance, and there are so many different styles of dance in this film, too. I was really looking forward to being part of that. And Tom Hooper asked me to be part of a huge film, and you just can't turn that down. I think I'd always have regrets about never having had this experience.
Hayward as Victoria and Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees in Cats
MTV News: What was your audition song?
Hayward: They asked me to sing "Memory" right at the beginning, which is actually a very difficult song to sing. Obviously, I'd never tried to sing it properly before.
MTV News: They really threw you in the deep end.
Hayward: I know. It's one of the most famous songs ever!
MTV News: Did Tom Hooper call you personally to tell you that you got the part?
Hayward: He did. He wanted to hear my reaction over the phone. I was actually in holiday in Barcelona. I had been in a horrible Airbnb because it was the last place left I could book, but I had enough of it, so I decided to check into this really nice hotel on the beach the last two nights of my holiday. So I checked into this hotel, and I was feeling rather fabulous sitting by the pool. I had ordered myself a drink, and Tom Hooper called me. I remember him saying to me, "You just got the main part in a big Hollywood film. How do you feel?" I was already drinking champagne, so I felt great! I was living my best life.
MTV News: When you were younger, you said you really loved performing and acting out things that you saw on TV or on stage. Did you always want to act?
Hayward: Acting is what I've enjoyed the most about ballet and being on stage. I love all of the ballets that have a really strong story in them where I get to play a character. I don't enjoy the ones that are more technical without a story line and it's just me on stage dancing. To be acting without dancing, to have it all stripped back and be about me and what I'm saying and my expressions, that was really interesting for me. It gave me a taste of what I could do in the future. Because a ballet career could be short. It's unpredictable. So I feel lucky to have this opportunity to know that this is a possibility for me.
MTV News: When you think about ballet as an art form, and as a way to tell stories, what is the most exciting thing to you about ballet right now?
Hayward: Dancers are finally being recognized for their athletic ability. For a long time everyone had a stereotype of ballet that it was easy and that we were just prancing around. But thanks to the internet, and being able to share live performances and broadcast them to the world so that everyone can experience the ballet, I think it's inspiring people we wouldn't normally be able to reach. Finally, we're getting the recognition for the hard work and dedication that's involved. I'm happy that people are getting to enjoy it because of all the new forms that are being presented to the world now.
Cats is in theaters now.