This month’s Exberliner is the pet issue, where we explore the way lockdown has made Berliners go gaga for dogs, defend Berlin’s pigeon population and investigate how savvy animal owners are becoming #Petfluencers. In keeping with the theme, we decided to reach out to one of Hollywood’s top pet players.
After tense negotiations, we’re thrilled to announce that we’ve scored an exclusive one-on-one interview with one of the James Bond franchise’s most iconic players: the unnamed feline companion of the super spy’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (most recently played by Christoph Walz in the last Bond film to date, 2015’s Spectre). Since making his debut in 1963’s From Russia With Love, this Persian thespian became not only a regular fixture in the Bond universe but also a worldwide cinematic icon.
We talk to Blofeld’s cat about his career, the state of cinema for feline performers and whether he may appear in the 25th Bond film, No Time To Die, which became the first major movie production that had to (repeatedly) move its release date due to the ongoing pandemic.
First of all, thank you for accepting to speak to us. You make your interviews and public appearances scarce.
Happy to speak to you. I’m in a good place right now. I’m recovering from a massive stroke, you see.
Dear God, I hadn’t realised. Are you ok?
Perfectly fine, you doughnut. I meant a hefty caress, not a CVA.
Oh, right. Please forgive my misunderstanding of what is likely to be the first in a series of cat puns, Mr… Well, I suppose that would actually be a good place to start. What do I call you?
Like my character in the Bond films, I have taken great care in cultivating a sense of anonymity for the sake of my art. I won’t undo years of good work, but for the sake of this interview, you can call me Stevens.
As in Cat Stev-
Let it go.
Fair enough. Can you talk to us about your big cinematic break in From Russia With Love in 1963?
Well, Ian Fleming’s big bad Blofeld didn’t have a cat in the books so the role was never supposed to exist in the first place. However, the screenwriters decided that Blofeld’s face should not appear on screen, cultivating a sense of mystery. Because the audience couldn’t see the main antagonist’s face, they needed something to focus on. You couldn’t very well just point the camera at his crotch: there needed to be a cue of sorts, a visual surrogate. That’s why screenwriter Richard Maibaum thought a cat could be a good idea. They frantically looked for a feline performer and my trainer got the call. I went to the audition and the rest is, as they say, history.
What is your fondest memory of the eight Bond films you’ve been in?
I had a ball on You Only Live Twice, my third time in the role. The film didn’t have the greatest of starts, though. Czech actor Jan Werich was originally cast as Blofeld. It was an important role to get right because You Only Live Twice would be the first time the audience saw Blofeld’s face. Werich was totally wrong for the part and everyone knew it from the moment he stepped onto the Pinewood backlot: he looked like a benevolent Santa with a crippling pastry addiction. They recast him and in came the great Donald Pleasence, who was the cat’s pyjamas. From that moment on, the shoot was a joy and filled with high jinks: the explosions were fun, and I sabotaged the extras’ efforts by sitting on the computer keyboards while I wasn’t in shot. Famous production designer Sir Ken Adam’s infamous volcano lair was a wonderful set and was filled with buttons, nobs and keyboards… Endless fun.
Considering you mention it, what is the deal with cats and keyboards?
Like most cats, I find them mesmerising. More than that, there’s nothing quite like seeing the faces you people pull when you’re trying to concentrate in front of your precious screens. All we have to do is waltz up and sit on the keyboard and watch as telegraphed mayhem ensues.
Thank you for clearing that up. Why do you think they chose a cat for the role?
As opposed to a disgruntled pug or a surly turtle, you mean? Well, purr-haps it’s because cats have always fascinated homo sapiens, as far back as the ancient Egyptians. We were associated with the goddess Isis. In fact, did you know that if you were to dig long and deep enough, you’ll realise the pyramids are actually triangular cat ears peeking out of the sand?
That can’t be true, surely..
Don’t make me piss on your keyboard.
Sorry. You were saying?
I was saying that the human fascination with my kind is old as balls. It’s bizarre when you think about it – unlike our subservient dog counterparts, who spend all their time yearning for morsels of attention, we treat everyone with louche contempt and still get preferential treatment. It’s mystifying. Just look at the cat flap: we get to choose when we come and go, while the excitable, tail-wagging flunkies have to wait until someone feels like taking them out. Humans know, on a basic subconscious level, that we essentially emanate from the deepest crevices of Hell but they never give up hoping we’ll love them as much as the mutts.
The role of Blofeld’s cat became iconic and symbolic shorthand for villainy in other films. Do you think that the role gave you – and other cats by extension – a bad reputation?
I don’t think so. We were a shorthand for amoral behaviour from the get-go. The role of Blofeld’s pet only reinforced what humans already knew deep down. Do you think it’s a complete coincidence that Alexander the Great and Hitler, two notable examples of the worst your kind has to offer, were known ailurophobes?
Are you suggesting they hated cats because they feared competition?
I’m saying that those genocidal lunatics could sense a rivalling force and knew to back down.
But what of the cultural impact of the role? Surely that had an effect on the feline community?
I think it undeniably brought us cats back to the front stage and boosted the careers of some of my contemporaries. After the first few Bonds, screenwriters couldn’t get enough of cats. Scripts were being rewritten so that Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather had a cat, they made a cat one of the central protagonists in the Alien franchise. The biggest impact was on cartoons: both Inspector Gadget and Danger Mouse’s nemeses now had fluffy ones, too. Disney even made The Aristocats in 1970.
You left Bond behind after Diamonds Are Forever and you seemed to disappear in the ’80s.
Yes. I only returned – contractually – for a cameo at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only in ’81. I was also purr-suaded to come back for the non-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again in ’83. It was the chance to work with Max von Sydow, who I greatly admired since seeing him in The Exorcist. That and kittens need their yarn, simple as that.
There were stories at the time that you had fallen into severe depression and found refuge in various drugs.
Tabloid fodder and cheap sensationalism, I’m afraid. Your readers will be disappointed. I just withdrew from public life for a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a lot of curtain mauling and some Grade-A nip in my time, but my onscreen absence was not about that. A lot of Hollywood directors belong to the W.C. Fields school of thought, and my patience runs thin.
By the W.C. Fields school of thought, you mean?
Fields said “Never work with children or animals” and there are some directors who often work with feline performers like myself out of narrative necessity rather than genuine pleasure. I usually tend to avoid these types.
You did return to the screen in 1997, though.
Yes, for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. When I read the script, I chortled a fair bit and enjoyed the thought of playing Dr. Evil’s cat, Mr. Bigglesworth. I thought it would be fun to not only do a send-off of the role that had kick-started my career, but also to have a full body shave.
Weren’t you apprehensive that your return would see you typecast as the villainous cat once more?
Not really. Films rely on visual cyphers and the use of clumsy symbols. The stroking of a white cat has retained a certain parodic value for evildoing over the years, but with the passing of time, I grew to accept it and made the trope work in my favour.
Do you have any thoughts on the state of modern cinema for feline performers?
Frankly, it’s pretty deplorable. The PATSY Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year, later changed to Performing Animal Television Star of the Year) ended in 1986, mainly because there was no more funding, and the American Humane Society’s Pawscars never really kicked off in the way they should Canine performers are getting a lot more attention than they deserve, specifically with the Palm Dog Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against certain canine actors – it’s just a sad state of affairs when our superior talent isn’t appreciated. For instance, I notice that the new issue of Exberliner features a dog as its cover star. Question your biases, people.
Are there some feline roles you’ve seen over the years that have impressed you?
Well, the less said about the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the better. That cinematic dumpsterfire hurt the feline community and has single-handedly assured that major roles for feline performers will doubtlessly be re-written or axed in order to avoid any cinematic PTSD. That aside, I recommend that your readers discover or rewatch the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s fantastic, and the script leads to so many interpretations about what the cat represents within the narrative framework.
Any other cat-centric film recommendations for our readers?
I’d recommend to rewatch Alien for Jonesy’s performance, and the same could be said for Church in Pet Sematary. That said, my main tip is to bingewatch the series Sabrina The Teenage Witch – the original show, not the joyless Netflix remake. Salem in the original series showcases everything good cats have to offer the screen.
Our time is running out, but I have one last question. Considering your cameo in Spectre in 2015, will you be appearing in No Time To Die, Daniel Craig’s eternally-delayed final outing as James Bond?
Paw-lease. Do you think I’d give you that exclusive? You’ll just have to wait until the next start date, which is currently scheduled for September 30. Considering the sheer amount of delays the film has faced, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately gets a release on streaming platforms. There were even rumours that Netflix would buy it. Not that that bothers me in the slightest – again, it’ll be further opportunity to bother you subservient, screen-addicted homo sapiens by sitting on your keyboards.