The Planet of the Apes franchise has come a long way from the days of fur and latex masks. While the practical effects of the late sixties and early seventies films had an undeniable charm, today’s state of the art motion capture technology makes it possible to portray the saga’s primate protagonists in photorealistic detail.
However, there’s one thing that technological innovation can’t replace: the need for talented actors who know how to make the movie’s non-human stars come to life. Actor Karin Konoval has been in the entertainment business since the eighties, but her biggest role to date is as “Maurice”: the gentle orangutan protagonist of the Planet of the Apes reboot series.
With War for the Planet of the Apes due out on July 14, we asked Konoval what it takes to play a convincing orangutan.
When you’re done reading our interview, get in touch with your own primate heritage with Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal, learn what happens when humans try to teach a chimpanzee to be human with Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess, or find out how it all began in Pierre Boulle’s classic novel Planet of the Apes.
Unbound Worlds: You’ve been acting for a long while, with parts in The X-Files, Supernatural, and a whole lot more. How did you land the role as Maurice?
Karin Konoval: Isn’t that an amazing thing, if you think about it? I still shake my head. I’m 55 now, and I was 49 years-old when I got a call one day to go out for an audition for “an unidentified feature film casting for mimes”. That’s what the call was for, and I thought, “I’m not a mime, and I’m not going.” My agent called back and said that it wasn’t actually a mime: It’s a chimpanzee. Well, I’m not a chimpanzee, so now I’m really not going. Then I decided to play ball and go anyway, and that’s where it began.
With my dance background and the fact that I’ve played a number of different characters — I’m a little bit of a chameleon as an actor, I know — I went in for that first general audition, which produced a callback, and they eventually asked if I would come in as an orangutan. I knew nothing about orangutans, but at that point it was becoming interesting. I walked down the block to the library and pulled a book off the children’s shelf on orangutans. The moment I saw a picture of an orangutan, I knew that I had to learn more — even on a personal level.
Why did Rupert Wyatt cast me as Maurice? He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time, but it existed, and it has been seven years of an astonishing journey getting to play Maurice.
UW: I understand that you’ve had some orangutan coaches.
KK: That’s a good way of putting it. I would call my main orangutan coach Towan. I went down to observe Towan in 2010, a mature orangutan who lived at Woodland Park Zoo, and we had a very special connection. Besides all of the other research through books and videos and what-not, Towan, through all three films, was the major inspiration for Maurice’s heart and soul.
UW: Orangutans are the only arboreal ape. It has to be trying to play an animal that has such a completely different physiology from your own.
KK: It is a totally different physiology from humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. You’re absolutely right. There are a couple of things about orangutans: Their arms are almost double the length of their legs, and all of their power, even when quadrupeding on the ground, comes from their arms. Their hands and feet function as hands, like with fingers. Even for a push-off step like from the back of the foot like a human does, I had to use my whole body differently. The upper body strength is a very challenging thing to come up with and I spend a great deal of time at the gym training muscles that I don’t necessarily use in the other parts of my life.
UW: Maurice is my favorite character in the movies. He’s calm and circumspect. How do you project these things?
KK: I actually feel that he has an innate orangutan integrity that is no different from Towan’s or any of the other orangutans I’ve been fortunate enough to observe or learn about. It’s a very deep-thinking, very specific place of being in the world. It is noting, observing, and listening to everything around. When Maurice takes an action or communicates a thought, it is very specific: Nothing is ever gratuitous or a toss-away. Everything means something. That’s the way that I come at it, and it is like all of the orangutans I’ve learned about. It’s certainly the way that Towan always was, for sure.
UW: What do you think is essential to playing an orangutan? If there was one thing that someone would have to get right, what would it be?
That’s a really good question. Seven years ago, I would have said that it’s learning how to quadrupede a lot — it’s just brutal. Now, I would say that it is learning to trust in the powers of stillness, inhabiting a place of deep silence, and observing the world.