Planet of the Apes movement choreographer and actor Terry Notary says playing an ape takes strong legs and an ability to reach a kind of effortless, meditative state. If performers consciously try too hard to take on ape-like qualities, Notary says, it “makes the performance look crappy.”
Crappy ape performances would have killed War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment in the Apes franchise. Human characters spend much less time on-screen than hyper-intelligent chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his band of smart apes. By this point in the film series, most of humankind has succumbed to the simian flu, a virus that all but eradicated human populations while boosting the brainpower of non-human primates. The last surviving people are hell-bent on destroying the remaining apes, who just want to find a peaceful home in a post-apocalyptic world.
The film leans heavily on the apes’ relationships and struggles, rendered through a combination of actor performances, motion-capture technology, and visual effects. And the apes come off as much more convincing than campy thanks to Notary, who played Caesar’s trusted confederate Rocket and coached the other actors on their performances. In a video interview, Andy Serkis called Notary “the greatest unsung hero of this entire franchise.” I recently spoke with Notary about shedding human habits, becoming an ape on-screen, and his cast’s strange, silent, quadrupedal hikes through the Vancouver woods.
What does it take to play an ape?
When actors come in, they say, “Well, what do I do? How do I be an ape?” And it's not about doing anything. It's about figuring out who you are as a person. We have to become something in order to fit in and survive in this society we've developed, right? So one of the best things about becoming an ape — or any character, really — is that you have to de-condition.
We do this one exercise where we sit and stand out of a chair. We'll start to become aware of the natural tensions that some people drive with their hips, or with their knees. So we'll undo all these tensions and create a neutral body. And then you're not bringing in any baggage, any stuff that's gonna make this character the same as the last character you played. And you can actually start to pepper in those little things that work for the character from this clean place. It's untainted.
The difference between human and ape is that we have more shit piled on top of us. We multitask, we're caught in our minds. So when actors realize how to soften the connection between their mind and body, they go, “Oh my God! I don't have to do anything.”
Then we'll start to find the first position foundation as an ape. So you start to get into the anatomy. There's the bend in the knees, there's the hips slightly tucked under, if you're a chimpanzee. The back is flatter if you're a gorilla. But it always goes back to allowing the human conditioning to fall away. When you see someone pretending to be an ape, it looks absolutely shite. I'm serious, it's almost sickening. And so it's a lot about calling out that conditioning.
For me, it's about making a good film and great characters — but first and foremost, it's about making the actor more aware, so they can become a better actor. Most of the actors that do play apes have told me that it's been one of the most profound things they've done, because you have to be so honest with yourself. That has happened for me through this character Rocket. He is that open, vulnerable, grounded, connected, feeling creature that I aspire to be all the time. There's an honesty that is so fun to play. It's a profound experience, it really is. I'm starting an exercise company called Quadrufit, and we're going to take people through this. It's going to come with a set of arm extensions, so you don't have to be on an Apes film in order to experience that.
What other specific points help actors become a chimp vs. a gorilla or orangutan?
When you're looking through their perspective, with chimpanzees, it's as though their attention span is a little shorter. So they're more of a point-to-point, ADD-feel — which is kind of like how I am. They're more wiry, they're a bit more emotionally driven. Boom, boom, boom, the emotions will drive them into action, and then they sort of catch themselves after the action is instigated.
With the gorillas, I feel like there's much more depth and calm and gravitas. There's a degree of measure that the chimpanzees don't have. Like, if you threw a tennis ball at a gorilla, they wouldn’t flinch. They travel through thick space, and a large wake travels behind them. There's a majesty, and almost this pride, and a posturing. Chimps are much, much more in their front body. The gorillas seem to be much more in their back body, looking out from the inside.
And then you have the orangutans. There's a softness, and kindness, and there's almost this glint of humor that lies behind everything that they do. There’s this old-soul sort of wisdom. And with that comes this cool, unhurried, decisive, linear way of moving through space. They just choose a way and they go. It's deliberate and thought-out.
Did you study live apes?
Hours and hours, and days and days at the zoo. And I got to play with some chimpanzees. They were twins, Jacob and Jonah. The first time they ever hugged me, I was like, “Oh, okay. Back to the drawing board. Now I know what this is. It's not about pretending to be an ape. It's about having that deep connection.” When they hug you, it's like, “Oh, that’s a hug.” Like, they hug into you.
That was an eye-opening experience, just getting to play with them, and get into their heads and see how distracted they were, how point-to-point they were. How amazingly, incredibly efficient and economic everything they did was. And how strong they were. It's a relaxed strength. It's not musclebound. It's not gym strength at all. It's an intense, core, deep, dense strength. And then I got to go to Singapore and play with some orangutans, and the mom was letting me hold the baby. They just look at you with these big eyes, so sweet and open. Like the soul is right there — it almost scares you, you know?
Pictures of you in the motion-capture suit playing Rocket show you acting with your face a lot. Does the motion capture include your face, too?
Yeah, we have a head camera on. We have dots on our face, and all of the performance we do with our faces is translated onto the faces of the apes. WETA [Digital, the New Zealand-based visual effects studio] is at the forefront, and Matt Reeves, the director, is just an incredible storyteller. So he's super into the little nuances of every expression and how it translates into the story.
After three movies, did it get easier? Do you have to retrain yourself and the other actors for each film?
We had about 10 or 12 new characters that we had to train up for this film, as well as the experienced cast ensemble that has been in the last three films. I wouldn't say it gets easier. It gets harder, almost, because you want to give that performance that you know WETA is going to be able to translate through the character.
Before, I kind of thought, “Well, you know, if I messed up a little, [WETA] will probably end up fixing it.” But that's not the case. The performances we deliver are the ones in the film. We had six weeks of training, and we had lots of time to rehearse and go, “Okay, time to be real. Here we go, let's just show our souls, let's lay our souls out on the table and let people see it.” That's what's going to make it look good. We're not playing anything. We're just showing pieces of ourselves.
What kind of strain does this role put on your body?
You will have sore legs. You know, you're always kind of sore, which is great. I love it for that. Everybody comes off these movies super fit. I wouldn't say any one type of ape makes you more sore. But the chimpanzees do run a lot. So that's when you really do feel it the next day.
Do you have the actors do any specific cross-training?
We go for two-hour sessions where we just play apes, and we don't talk. We communicate with body language and grunts and sounds and just expressions. That was a big part of our training program. I would take them on these trails out in Vancouver, and we would go for hours through this path, hopping among rocks, through creeks, and down the road. Occasionally you get a biker coming by who stops and tries and talk to us, and no one would answer, and he'd just be creeped out.
We'd just practice hopping up onto a rock and then coming back down. And we'd walk over here, go lean against the tree, and everybody would do the same exercise — hoot, holler, boom, charge, all without any dialogue. I wouldn't have to say a word, I'd just do it and they would imitate. It was just like, you know, a troop of apes.