“I promise, they are a fun group and all like each other.” This is what I was told when I entered a conference room at the News Corp building (this being the home of Fox News will play an important role in this interview, so keep that detail in mind) to meet with Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis, Steve Zahn, and newcomer Amiah Miller about their new movie, War For the Planet of the Apes. (Now, if you’re wondering if it’s intimidating to interview four actors at once who all know each other and have camaraderie and inside jokes, while you are the odd person out – yes, yes it is.) This is why I was given a reassurance and, from the outside looking in, it really does appear to be true.
War For the Planet of the Apes is in a unique position of being poised to be a summer blockbuster, but also being the vision of its director, Matt Reeves. And yes, it was a little weird having Woody Harrelson in the room – who is obviously going through the opposite situation on the Han Solo movie with its recent change of directors – while discussing how Apes was (at least in the realm of major studio produced blockbusters) relatively left alone. And when you watch it, you get a movie with real stakes and real characters – and, yes, most of those characters are apes. (They’re led by Andy Serkis’ Caesar, who is getting serious talk of an Oscar nomination for his performance – something the Academy hasn’t recognized in the past, but here the Apes team makes their very strong case for Serkis.)
Ahead, Harrelson, Serkis, Zahn, and Miller talk about what a unique project this Apes movie turned out to be – and Harrelson has some comments on Rupert Murdoch, directly from the heart of Fox News.
You four have to be happy with the response so far. The Rotten Tomatoes score alone…
Serkis: What’s the score?
Last I looked it was at 93 percent.
Harrelson: Hey, does anyone ever get more than that? That seems like a big number. How do you get a 99? Has any movie got 100 percent?
Get Out was close and then one of the last reviews gave it a negative and it hit 99.
Harrelson: Get Out, is that the scary one? Wow. Go figure.
Zahn: Kids dig it.
I cannot believe War For the Planet of the Apes exists. I mean that in the best possible way.
Harrelson: It’s definitely not light fare.
Serkis: Yeah. The great thing about the Apes thing is it’s a brilliant metaphor. And so it is entertainment, it is a blockbuster movie, but it’s also, obviously, intelligent and the way that Matt has handled this material has been incredible and he’s got a real passion for it.
Before Rise came out there were a lot of reservations, not it’s considered this remarkable trilogy…
Serkis: [Laughs.] It’s the best primate trilogy. Without question.
When you look back at that first one, did you wonder if this is going to work or not?
Serkis: There was nothing kind of tongue-in-cheek about it, I think. Because the original film was amazing. I mean, it was extraordinary. But as they progressed, those movies, they got diluted in terms of what they were doing. And then there was a sense of it being not entirely serious anymore – or not really having anything to say. And I think to actually make the prequel, to go back in and start to examine them as if they were real apes, apes who are evolving, was a really genius kind of master strike.
Is that why the rest of you wanted to be a part of this third movie? Steve Zahn doesn’t do a lot of movies like this…
Zahn: I mean, anything good, you’ve got to fight for. And they thought of me for this. I was on their radar. But I had to read for Matt, thank god. Because it would have been daunting to go into a job like this with just some kind of offer. I mean, this always makes you nervous as an actor. I’m going to still be petrified because I don’t quite understand the process, which is actually really simple. I overcomplicated it in my head. The reason these work: this movie stands alone on its own, even without a trilogy, and it’s because Matt’s a simple guy and knows how to tell a story. The more simple you can do something this big – it’s real primitive, man. If you concentrate on character, that’s what people respond to.
Amiah doesn’t even speak and we learn a lot about her character.
Miller: Yeah, everyone was just so talented, and like the actors, and the sets were just so realistic. And Matt just put me in that mindset, so I was just reacting to how I would react without speaking.
Harrelson: I’ve got to say, she made me realize how much of acting is non-verbal. Like, she expressed so much without saying a word. Phenomenal. Just phenomenal.
Woody’s character is this awful, broken person. But we learn why. You don’t side with him, but we understand understand why he’s broken now.
Harrelson: That was in the early talks I had with Matt, because I was concerned that I don’t want him to be too just stark evil. And he was totally, yeah, let’s work on that. I think it’s better, because you see those kind of things where people are just like, “That’s an evil character,” and there’s no explanation. Like even the most evil person, even [Rupert] Murdoch…
Wow, you’re going for it.
Harrelson: I know now he likes his children…
He’s probably listening. This place is probably bugged.
Harrelson: Yeah, no doubt. But you know, man, I’m saying, you’re human. You’re not all evil. It’s meeting in the middle!
I am so delighted by this.
I’m not just saying this because Woody is here, but lately in the news has had stories about directors not having a lot of authority on the vision of a movie, and this movies seems very much a director’s vision.
This seems rare now with a franchise.
Zahn: I never felt on set like I had to act faster. And I tell you, you sit on sets, especially with something this big, and you’re under pressure to produce – because it’s a big machine. I never felt like that on this. It was like doing theater. It was like we were doing a six-week rehearsal of some play. It was just wonderful.
Harrelson: Matt’s so cool that way, you know? There’s no rush.
Serkis: We have to shoot everything in three parts. It’s just like the pressure to come up with scenes on a daily basis, the pressure to get through the day. But he never, ever came in and went, “Right. The camera’s going here, you’ve got to stand here.” It was just like, let’s rehearse the scene, let’s talk it through. That is rare. That is incredibly rare with this kind of filmmaking, you know? And it did feel like making an independent film, all the time.
Zahn: Isn’t that weird, though, that that’s rare? And it’s real simple. That’s the secret, right? Everybody wants the secret recipe to a great movie and they look at the wrong cupboard. It’s real simple. You just spend time, rehearse.
The drumbeat for Andy’s performance to be recognized by the Academy is much louder this time…
Zahn: Well, that performance is brilliant.
Harrelson: He’s very humble, but I will say this: Andy is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. Phenomenal actor. And the motion capture: it’s him performing! You know? It’s like throwing make-up on a performance or something. Like it’s still his performance! His eyes, his movements. So I agree. Absolutely.
Zahn: Yeah. Look, it’s hard to play a cop. It’s hard. It’s harder to play a cop who’s a chimpanzee. It’s that simple. It’s like, fuck, are you kidding me? I don’t understand what’s so hard to figure out about this.
Serkis: The secret to performance capture acting is there is no secret. It’s not a type of acting, it’s not something that you do differently. The process is exactly the same. It’s a different bunch of cameras filming the performance. And what’s great, actually, is Steve, having gone through this process, and him facing the same frustrations. People coming up, “Did you do the voice of Bad Ape?”
Wait, people really are asking that?
Zahn: Yeah, it’s frustrating to have done something that I’m really proud of, because it was so difficult.
Serkis: Yeah. Honestly, people will say to me, “So in the scenes that you did with Woody, were you actually there?”
Serkis: Honest to God. And I go, “Yeah, where do you think I was? In my trailer?” I just don’t get what part of this people don’t understand. But, you know…
Zahn: And people in the business. It’s not just like my neighbors in Kentucky. That’s hard enough. “Wait, that’s like CGI, right? Oh, so it’s computerized.” Like, you don’t even know what you’re talking about and you’re just… I don’t tell you how to plant your tobacco.
Serkis: The thing is, we have been talking about the fact that performance capture is acting for about 17 years and there just does not seem to be any simple way of explaining it. Because if we were wearing makeup and doing exactly the same thing –if we were wearing the original makeup say from the original 1968 version – people kind of go, “That’s acting.”
Zahn: And it would have been easier as an actor! Because I’d look at you and go, “You’re an ape. I can see it!” Like Halloween, if you dress as Zorro, you fucking feel like Zorro, man, because you look like Zorro. This is hard. I’m wearing unitards. We look like a performance art group. That’s what we look like. So it’s hard to fucking be a monkey when you’re in a gray outfit with a helmet on.
Harrelson: But to that point, I felt like at first it’s a little kind of daunting, with the dots and and the mocap camera and everything. But then within a day or something, you’re accepting you as an ape – and you move like an ape, you talk like an ape. But you really d0, you totally accept you’re an ape. I didn’t have any scenes with you, unfortunately, but I would have accepted you. [Laughs.]
You had an Apocalypse Now vibe going. Was that in your head?
Harrelson: No. I think it was in the writing, obviously they were inspired by Kurtz, but probably not necessarily Apocalypse Now. Maybe from the book. But, I don’t know. Yeah, that character, I remember being profoundly affected when I read Heart of Darkness years ago, and so somebody just had that idea. But I certainly wasn’t trying to [Harrelson breaks into a Marlon Brando impression.]
You were not doing that. That would have been great, though.
Harrelson: [Still doing Brando.] I should have just gone for it.
I suspect Steve and Amiah hung out a lot on set considering all the scenes you two have.
Zahn: We had a blast.
Miller: Yeah, he’s like my brother from another mother. Yeah, I had never tried seafood before. Like, I had no interest.
Zahn: Yeah, she’s like macaroni and cheese and chicken.
Well, macaroni and cheese is very good.
Miller: No, it’s chicken, fries, and watermelon. But he took me out and he ordered…
Zahn: Oysters and everything.
Miller: Yeah, and I tried all of it.
Zahn: We had a lot of fun.
Miller: I tried jellyfish, too.
Miller: Yes. Yes, and I remember it. Yes, I did.
Zahn: Okay. All right. Stop yelling at me. We TP’d each other’s trailers.
Miller: I just TP’d his hotel room.
Zahn: She TP’d mine and I had to explain to the maid the next day why I had used five rolls of toilet paper in the trash can. I was TP’d, you know? Anyway, it really was fun. I thoroughly enjoyed going to work every day on this job. I really did.
A lot of actors say that and don’t mean it. I believe you though.
Zahn: Yeah, and we were in Whistler [British Columbia] and we were on the mountaintop. And when you work with people who are really good and competent, there’s no crap, there’s no attitude. It’s fun. People are competent. And it makes for a really cool experience.
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