CGMagazine recently got a chance to chat with Karin Konoval about her years of bringing Maurice to the big screen, just a few short weeks from the release of War for the Planet of the Apes.
How to interview an orangutan? That is the question. Well, maybe not quite. The task at hand for this particular assignment was to interview Karin Konoval, an actress, artist, and writer who for the last six years has portrayed the most beloved orangutan in blockbuster cinema (not that the competition is stiff, but still, she’s been wonderful). Konoval is currently best known to sci-fi fanatics as Maurice, the thoughtful, warm-hearted rock of the ape clan slowly taking over Earth in the current iteration of The Planet of the Apes franchise.
In case you somehow missed this brilliant revival, it all started in 2011 with Rupert Wyatt’s sleeper blockbuster that revived the Apes mythology to tell the story from the perspective of a clan of apes who were abused and made super intelligent by thoughtless scientists and are now fighting for control of the planet. Director Matt Reeves upped the stakes a few years ago with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and in a few weeks, it’s time for War, in a film that, at least from the outside, feels like it might be the concluding chapter of a trilogy.
Throughout it all, Karin Konoval’s Maurice has been a constant. The character was a circus performer who learned sign language and how to fear humanity during his time in that unfortunate career. He bonded with Andy Serkis’ hyper-intelligent ape leader Caesar early on, since they both shared sign language. As the uprising has grown into a war for the planet, Maurice has been a conscience and extended heart for Caesar.
He’s the empathetic core of the ape army. It sounds crazy, but in these surprisingly deep yet unapologetically ludicrous blockbusters, Maurice is a potent emotional core. A CGI orangutan marvel that has never spoken a ward out loud yet communicates so much. A big part of that is, of course, Konoval, who has been responsible for every movement and expression of that performance, big and small. Through a motion capture body suit and limb extensions, the unassuming actress has created one of the most indelible apes of the series without a single line of dialogue to aid in her characterization.
CGmagazine talks to Karin Konoval about monkeying around through the audition process, studying real orangutans, finding a character beneath the effects, and all the other challenges of this unique role. If you love Planet Of The Apes, motion capture performances, or even just thoughtful chats about filmmaking, prepare for some joy.
CGMagazine: When you were initially contacted about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, did you assume that it would be a ‘talking apes in makeup’ picture like the previous movies?
Karin Konoval: I had no idea. The first thing that I got a call about was an audition notice for an “Untitled feature film looking for mimes.” So I thought, “What?” I called my agent and said, “I’m not a mime, I’m not going.” He said, “Well, its chimpanzees.” And I said, “No, like I’m really not going.” I didn’t know how this would be done. Initially, you get a call as an actor to go audition as a chimpanzee, the last thing you think about is how it’s going to be done. You just think, “I want to get through this audition without embarrassing myself and get out of there.” So, of course, the audition led to a callback to specifically play an orangutan. I didn’t realize that it was a male orangutan. I had no idea.
CGM: Had you done any motion capture work before that point? Were you intimidated at all by the process?
Konoval: No. I had done a lot a lot of hard suit prosthetic roles in the past; I had never done any motion capture. I can say that hard suit prosthetics are pretty brutal. You’re sealed in latex for hours and then you have to survive to do a role under all that, and the endurance required is pretty unholy. So wearing the grey suit and the wires and the camera and everything isn’t as much to deal with. What it allows you to do as an actor is focus on your performance. You’re not sitting there worrying about your fingers getting glued together. It sets you free of all of that, but at the same time, it is that much more incumbent upon the actor to establish the full integrity of the character. You have nothing to hide behind. You’re not filling a mask. I found that to be enormously challenging, but ultimately freeing. It just meant that I had to realize I was going to do everything. I am Maurice’s physicality, his weight, his voice, his thoughts, the way he climbs, the way he rides a horse, all of that is up to me. There’s no costume to give me any of that.
CGM: As someone who has worked in movement before, what were the first things that you were able to latch onto to portray an orangutan? Or perhaps even a chimpanzee before that stage in the audition process?
Konoval: Well, I didn’t spend too much time on the chimpanzees. I just tried to get through that audition. I was hoping they would forget about me because it felt kind of goofy (laughs). But then when they kept bringing me back and when I got the call to audition for an orangutan, I really didn’t even know what that was. So I actually went down to the children’s library in my neighbourhood and pulled a book off the shelf. And from the moment that I pulled that book out and saw an orangutan on the cover, I can only say that I could feel a curiosity from inside that was way beyond an acting curiosity. That led me through. As for the physical stuff, the training on quadruped stilts was wonderful, but then I had to find my own orangutan way with that because they move differently than chimpanzees. So that was a huge part of it. The upper body strength required was immense, so I had to find that. I also had to find the vocals and teach myself to long call. I would say that the key to Maurice that pulled everything together was when I went to visit Towan the orangutan who became the heart and soul and inspiration for Maurice throughout all three films. Once I found my inner integrity as Maurice that way, a very quiet and still place, that was the key. That was the moment.
CGM: I gathered that you’d spent a great deal of time observing orangutans for the role and I was curious if you mostly get physical traits for your performance or if there are deeper, inner qualities that you found while observing those animals?
Konoval: Oh it’s way beyond that. The physical movement stuff is a part of it, but it’s nothing compared to the huge, rich, inner and psychological life that goes on. I follow different orangutans in different places. There’s a family of orangutans in Woodland Park Zoo who I have been visiting for six years now and documenting, just for myself. I’ll go down for two or three days at a time. This would have gone on even if there weren’t additional films. Once I met them, it sparked a personal journey for me that I’m sure will go on for the rest of my life. What I get from them is so rich and so deep and varied. All the choices they make, their emotions. My journey with them over the last six years has been on every level. And crucially, the quality of sentience and what they think about; all of those things.
CGM: Beyond portraying another species, what has it been like for you to develop Maurice’s personality and growth over these three films? He’s had very specific arcs in how he’s become Caesar’s partner and learned to empathize with humans. I’d imagine as an actor it must be such a unique and rewarding experience to develop all of that character work within the framework of also playing an orangutan.
Konoval: Well the physical challenges remained behind everything, especially as a 55-year-old female actor. That’s been a pretty amazing adventure. But in terms of Maurice’s psychology, this has actually become very simple for me. The scripts are so well written and War for the Planet of the Apes is such a beautiful piece. What Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback have on the page, to begin with, has such integrity, especially for Maurice. It’s no different than any other character than I’ve played because the writing is so good. I just have to follow that guide. Inside that, it’s amazing how it picks up on what I have learned over time is a very orangutan way of responding to the world from a place of stillness, observation, and listening. Of course, in relation to Caesar in particular, Maurice’s major role is as his confidant, his adviser, and his conscience at times. That role and that relationship between them has deepened and grown and is at its richest during this particular storytelling. That’s not a difficult thing to access. It’s actually quite simple. It just requires going to this very quiet inner place. And playing off of Andy Serkis in these things has been magical—that man is magic as an actor. So I would say that’s all really easy. Quadrupedal running and climbing is hard, but playing Maurice with Andy? That’s easy because Andy is such an incredible performer to work with.
CGM: Has the bonding between yourself, Andy Serkis, and the other actors portraying the apes been as strong as I’d expect over the three films? It’s such a unique process for all of you that I’d imagine it would form strong bonds not unlike those that you portray in the film (just, you know, human).
Konoval: There is indeed a special bonding/understanding that develops between those of us who’ve had the opportunity to work on the films, but I’d say it goes well beyond the ape actor community on the films. The incredible Weta Digital performance capture technicians who are with us every step of the way, the AD’s, everybody. Each film definitely has a sense of “ape community” that everyone seems part of in one way or another and that’s a wonderful thing. That said, I’ve found my journey playing Maurice necessarily solitary at times. His place within the group is so still, so observant. It’s been a treasure to work with Andy Serkis and Terry Notary through all three films and go on this amazing journey together. The talent, energy, commitment, generosity, and grace of Andy and Terry, both professionally and as human beings….I feel so blessed to work with them. What a gift.
CGM: How much of yourself and your performance do you see in the final product once all of the remarkable digital effects work has been added? Watching the final Maurice much be so surreal for you. Did it change your approach to your performance on the sequels after you finally saw what the finished Maurice looked like in Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
Konoval: Well, it is always wonderful to see the finished Maurice in his full digital makeup! As the performance of the character is me, it’s no different in most ways than the way I see or would view my performance as any other character. So I can’t say it’s surreal. I recognize and remember every beat, look, thought, choice, and movement the same as I would with any other character I’ve played. It’s not something separate. It is the performance I gave. But it’s still wonderful to see the finished film and finished Maurice. The things that affected and influenced how I approached Maurice in Dawn and War were the deepening and growth of his character within the scripts as well as how my personal study of and knowledge about orangutans grew—particularly my experience observing and knowing Towan. I hope I’ve been able to bring a corresponding depth to my portrayal of Maurice in his orangutan integrity.
CGM: I’m somewhat fascinated by the scene in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in which Maurice connects with the boy over Charles Burns’ Black Hole. I adore that graphic novel, but found it to be such an intriguing choice given the dark portrait of humanity and discrimination that Burns portrays. I was curious if you and Matt Reeves discussed what appealed to the character Maurice about that book? I’ve always wondered, so this answer would really put my mind at ease!
Konoval: I confess I don’t recall any particular discussions with Matt that might enlighten further! For me as an actor, the moment in seeing the book was as much about the simple fact that it was a book, a story with pictures, that Maurice found so intriguing and such an incredible gift to be given. In essence, the bonding with the boy Alexander was the heart of the book’s meaning to Maurice, especially coming from Maurice’s past history as a performing circus orangutan, and being very distrustful of humans. So the book, and the gift of it from Alexander, was a pivotal moment for Maurice.