encounter

Jason Derulo Says Meow

The musician was looking for his first movie. Then Cats called.

jason derulo cats movie
In the movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s classic musical, Jason Derulo is the sexy Rum Tum Tugger. Photo: David Williams
jason derulo cats movie
In the movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s classic musical, Jason Derulo is the sexy Rum Tum Tugger. Photo: David Williams

When the Cats trailer debuted earlier this year, it fractured the internet in ways not seen since, maybe, the first glimpse of A Star Is Born. Familiar humans — Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, and Idris Elba — were cattified, for lack of a better word, with fur and tails, wriggling and writhing around giant, trashy sets. What, we seemed to purr in unison, the fuck is going on here? Jason Derulo, however, was simply impressed. He plays Rum Tum Tugger in the movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, the story’s high priest of horny. For months during production, Derulo slid his sinewy body into a Lycra catsuit and spent hours having motion-capture dots and sweatproof reference makeup applied. “I thought I was an attractive cat, yeah,” he tells me on a recent December evening. “I wouldn’t want to take it home, but it’s pretty decent. My cat was actually pretty much finished when they let out the first trailer, whereas a lot of the other cats weren’t finished yet.”

We’re at the “cattery” in Manhattan’s Koneko Cat Cafe, a back room where about a dozen cats are free to roam and play and claw at one another. A couple of cats — and Koneko’s official cat handler — cautiously approach Derulo, and he eyes them just as skeptically. A photographer on hand asks if he might pick up a toy to coax more cats to his corner, but Derulo declines. “I still have to look swagged out, though,” he says, not wanting to give up his usual smolder in front of the camera. Once a black cat settles against his biceps, which is at least three times the animal’s size, Derulo cracks an amused smile. But even then, the best-selling musician with 11 platinum singles doesn’t seem entirely at ease. I tell him it’s an interesting challenge for a non–cat lover to star in a movie about cats. “Becoming a cat is a lot easier than handling cats, I think,” he says. “If we played in Cats with a bunch of cats, that would have been even harder. I don’t hate cats or anything, it’s just not my favorite thing to do. If I was in a movie playing pigeons, that would be cool too, but I don’t necessarily fuck with pigeons. Cats, pigeons, same thing.”

Before Cats, Derulo spent a few years looking for his first movie role. Professionally speaking, he thought it would have happened earlier. “I’m impatient,” he admits. “I remember being nine years old and I was telling myself, If I’m not famous by 12, I’m quitting. Twelve came along, and I was like, Let me give myself a couple more years.” But he’s also picky. The movie needed to be memorable if not immediately iconic. He turned down “a ton” of scripts, he says, frustrated with everything his agents were sending. He finally started developing a project with Michael Wilson, the screenwriter behind Ice Age and Shark Tale, but then came the call for Cats. There wasn’t a script at the time, just a general pitch: “Bringing Cats to the big screen is the selling point, because Cats is probably one of the biggest musicals of all time,” he says. Derulo auditioned for director Tom Hooper; he sang, dance, and did some improv. The production called to offer him a part that day.

jason derulo cats movie rum tum tugger
“I thought I was an attractive cat, yeah,” Jason Derulo says. “I wouldn’t want to take it home, but it’s pretty decent.” Photo: David Williams

“I never pinned any character in Cats as, like, That would be the perfect role for me,” he says over coffee at Koneko’s café bar, with the actual cats a safe distance away. “Not for any reason in particular. I’ve never seen anybody black play in Cats. Maybe when you don’t see an African-American playing a role, in your mind’s eye it’s kind of like, Okay, maybe that’s not my vibe.” Rum Tum Tugger, however, could not be closer to Derulo’s vibe: This is a cat that hip thrusts as he purrs and hisses. He’ll seduce anything with a pulse, lap up anyone’s cream. Rum Tum Tugger has always been a fan favorite, and Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger became an instant meme. Could the singer of “Talk Dirty” really meow dirty, too? “I think people really love [Rum Tum Tugger] because he exudes confidence, he exudes self-love. He has a lot of different layers,” Derulo says. “I did a bunch of character work for myself to figure out who he was to me. I think he puts on an act of how confident he is and how much he loves himself, but he has a really big disorder where he cannot stay focused on one thing too long.” He uses female cats as an example: “One second, he’s into this girl; the next second, he’s like, Oh no, what about this one? It really holds him back from being as great as he can be.” (“Yeah,” I offer earnestly.)

As a self-described “musical-theater kid” from Florida, Derulo doesn’t consider himself a musician who simply stumbled onto a film set and into acting. “I discovered musical theater [in middle school]. The fact that it married acting, singing, and dancing at the same time — I loved it. I went to college for theater. I really took acting seriously,” he says. Like the rest of the Cats cast, he trained at the production’s official “cat school,” carefully learning to walk on all fours. (Derulo demonstrated the skill on The Kelly Clarkson Show. “I’m gonna show my man that clip. I’m gonna be like, ‘I want you to do that tonight,’” Clarkson said of his moves.) The cat-school lessons lasted for the entire film shoot, in both solo sessions and group classes. Derulo even took his work home with him. “I wanted to dive super-deep into his character and his background but also embody a cat. So I filmed myself a ton, watched myself back, spent a lot of time in the mirror,” he says. “As a regular man day-to-day, I’m pretty in the pocket. In terms of being super-flamboyant, it’s not really my usual personality. But I can go there, you know what I’m saying. Especially after a couple drinks.”

Perhaps he’s being a little too modest — while on vacation in Bali a few weeks ago, Derulo posted a photo of himself exiting a pool with a healthy dick imprint visible. In these trying and stratified (cattified?) times, a single photo of Jason Derulo’s body seemed to unite the online masses under one wet droplet emoji — before it was swiftly removed from Instagram. “I thought this was a great photo of myself. Like, people will like this,” he says. “I didn’t think this shit was going to blow up. I promise I did not at all! It was very early in the morning. And I thought it was a great photo of myself, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t even think it was going to be my most liked photo. I mean, I’ve got pictures with Elton John.”

After the photo was removed, he says, his personal photographer met with Instagram to discuss the reasoning. “I was like, Why you taking my photo down? I have underwear on! And apparently they were going to put it back up until” — here he lets out a deep sigh — “TMZ caught me outside somewhere, and they were like, ‘Did you have an erection?,’ and I was like, ‘Nah, I ain’t had no erection.’ I was like, ‘It was not cold outside. I was not shriveled up.’ [The TMZ photographer] was like, ‘Well, did you have a semi?’ I was like, ‘I might have had a semi.’ The word semi is the reason why they decided not to put my photo back up, apparently.” Not really a loss — the image lives forever on Google and on Derulo’s own Instagram, where a new version features a $5 footlong where the semi in question used to be.

So maybe that’s where Derulo and Rum Tum Tugger intersect: They’re both reluctant showmen, gregarious performers, hot. I ask if he has an inner cat, and, if so, how much it aligns with the one he’s playing onscreen. “The cat within myself is Rum Tum Tugger,” he says definitively. Listening to him talk about the DMs he received post–Bali pic makes that seem extra true. “They were insane,” he says, his voice lowered. Would Jason Derulo really take dates from DMs? His inner Rum Tum Tugger flexes its claws: “Oh, I’d take dates from anywhere.”

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Jason Derulo Says Meow