Netflix’s upcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is the perfect catnip this Halloween season, what with its whole teen-drama-set-in-a-horror-show vibe. But despite its propensity for the Twitter-friendly dialogue that one would expect from a series created by Riverdale’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, one of the characters most obviously bound for internet fandom is the one known for the occasional purr, meow, or hiss. Just don’t expect him to actually talk much.
To be clear: Salem, the black cat who serves as the confidant and “familiar” (a.k.a. guide) to Kiernan Shipka’s titular teenage witch, shouldn’t be confused by the wise-cracking version of Salem that TV audiences know from ABC and the WB’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch. That version, voiced by Nick Bakay, was a master class in upstaging and considerably more loquacious than the feline in Chilling Adventures. He was also portrayed by a mix of actual cats and puppets overseen by lead puppeteer Thom Fountain. (Production company Animal Makers made Salem for that show’s first season and a half, while the remaining seasons utilized puppets designed and built by the Chiodo Brothers Studio.)
Nor does TV’s latest Salem — at least in the eight episodes released to the press ahead of the Netflix show’s October 26 premiere — get as elaborate a backstory as he does in Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack’s Chilling Adventures comics, which serve as the show’s source material. What Salem does do is run, jump, confuse enemies, and generally Lassie about in the name of protecting his girl. And he’s awesome at it. It’s such a big role, in fact, that five cats are actually sharing the role together.
Shaq, Boomer, Edward, Trevor, and Bobby all come via animal trainer Ian Doig and his staff (yep, he’s aware of the appropriateness of his surname). Doig either adopted the cats himself or used Facebook to sleuth out owners willing to give their pets a chance at the limelight. They’re all boys, not because female cats are harder to train, but because, as Doig explains, “We wanted a most robust cat and oftentimes, female cats can be a bit, you know, feminine.”
Training for their Chilling moment, all of these felines have been fed the same snacks, run the same courses, and basically gone from being your average house cat or rescue to a united team that’s ready to protect Sabrina in five-part harmony. Like any superhero squad, they each come with individual strengths so that they can tap in at any moment.
“Shaq really does carry the load because he’s just tremendous; like a majority of the shots are [the cats] sitting on set and he tolerates all the stuff going on so easily there’s no point in trying to better it with a different cat,” Doig explains. But if it’s an elaborate scene that requires the talent to run from point A to point B, he says, “Trevor’s our guy because he’ll literally run through flames. He’s kind of a nut.”
Doig says the hardest scenes to film, so far, were for an early episode that he jokes was also “early in their careers.” It was at night and outside — both triggers because Doig says cats are nocturnal and “they like to be out prowling at night, just kind of lurking around and hunting,” rather than, say, nailing their lines or hitting their marks.
Since those scenes were originally shot on location, Doig says this required reshoots indoors with a green screen. His quintet is much better now, though, he says, because “the cats just needed some camera time to get adjusted.” These days, they lounge about in their de facto trailer, a five-by-nine-foot tricked-out cage on wheels with shelves and a litter box that transports them from sets. Like the true professionals they are, they’re silent during filming and save their talking time for home.
The biggest hurdle may not so much be cantankerous cats, but the fact that star Shipka is allergic to them. It’s more than just some sneezing, too: she broke out in hives during her first month on set. (“The cat is the one cast member I don’t get along with,” she told Vulture earlier this fall.) Shipka’s hair and makeup teams, and others who routinely come into contact with her, couldn’t even spend downtime on set de-stressing by petting the cats for fear of contamination. That’s also why Sabrina and Salem aren’t prone to cuddling.
Still, Aguirre-Sacasa says the writers didn’t have to rejigger any scenes because of Shipka’s allergy; they only realized this was a problem in episode five of the first season, a bottle episode with intertwining story lines that requires our furry hero to save the day.
“You’ll notice in that episode in particular, even though there are a lot of moments between Sabrina and Salem, she never once picks him up or touches him,” he says.
As for the cats themselves, Doig anticipates career longevity after their big break. “As long as they’re physically capable and their appearance is acceptable, then [cats] can work for 15 years,” he says.
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