Before Karin Konoval could fully inhabit the character of a mature male orangutan in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, she first had to find him in the eyes of a real-world counterpart.
Rise was to be the launch of a new Planet of the Apes film series. Konoval had been cast as Maurice, a loyal and expressive male orangutan who forges a close friendship with protagonist chimpanzee Caesar (portrayed by Andy Serkis).
Almost immediately upon being cast, Konoval (Travelers, iZombie, When Calls the Heart) immersed herself in research and practice: reading books, watching videos, and training hard so that she could maneuver quadrupedally, climb, long call, and sign, as orangutans do. Konoval’s performance would be recorded via motion capture technology; the Vancouver actress and dancer would need to move, gesture, think, and react like an orangutan in order to deliver an authentic performance.
“I’ve always been a 5,000 per cent worker,” says Konoval in a recent phone interview. “I dive in full bore, and I leave no stone unturned in trying to find a character’s integrity.”
But despite all of her study and training, “I was missing that thing that I feel as an actor [where I go], ‘Okay, the character has landed within me, now I’ve got it,’” she recalls.
Enter Towan, then a 41-year-old orangutan living at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Konoval had come across a web video of Towan absorbed in the act of painting. “Here was this incredible orangutan painting with the same level of focus and clarity as any human artist would,” marvels Konoval, who is also a painter.
And so, the actress boarded a bus to Washington and observed Towan in his habitat through a window. After a time, the roles reversed and Towan began to observe Konoval from a distance, too – until he decided to take a closer look. “He literally came right up and his face was two inches from mine on the other side of the window,” Konoval says. For 20 minutes, he studied Konoval “thoroughly inside-out, and I just basically let myself be studied, and everything came into focus in those 20 minutes. It sounds kind of simplistic, but that’s exactly where Maurice began.
“I can’t even tell you what it was that he gave me in that, but it was like he was revealing himself to me at the same time that he was seeking to know me,” adds Konoval, who says that she carried the energy of that single day with her through the filming of Rise. “He was searching me clean, and in being searched clean, he gave me Maurice.”
You can spot glimpses of Towan (who died last year at the age of 48) and his kin in all of Konoval’s performances in the Planet of the Apes films, the latest of which – the locally shot War for the Planet of the Apes – opens in wide release next month.
Serkis returns as Caesar in the highly anticipated film, which also stars Woody Harrelson as a ruthless colonel leading a human army. War for the Planet of the Apes features several Vancouver actors in key ape roles, including Aleks Paunovic (Van Helsing) and Sara Canning (A Series of Unfortunate Events).
Konoval credits screenwriters Matt Reeves (who also directs) and Mark Bomback with penning a script that “tracks a journey of a mature male orangutan with complete orangutan integrity. What they’ve put on the page is so gorgeously simple and refined and precise and entirely in keeping with everything that I’ve been learning about orangutans on the side the whole way through.” For his portrayer, Maurice is a beautiful character to explore because “he does nothing gratuitous,” says Konoval. “He’s the watcher. He’s the observer. If he takes an action or communicates a thought in whatever way he does, it’s very precise. He doesn’t lose his temper wildly for no reason, and the depth of what he commits to as a character is very much in keeping with what I’ve observed in the orangutans I’ve come to know.”
“The richness of their psyches, their psychology, their emotional life – it’s so rich, and subtle, and precise, and it’s really wonderful to be able to explore this through the character of Maurice,” she adds. “It’s also amazing, as an actor, to get to explore a journey of a character of another species and gender through three films.”
Konoval advocates for real-world orangutans via several conservation organizations. “I’ve long felt a responsibility to portraying Maurice and his orangutan integrity, but also very specifically to what I had received from Towan,” says Konoval. “It’s been one of the coolest gifts in my life to get to know orangutans and the people working on behalf of their conservation and care.”
• War for the Planet of the Apes opens on July 14. You can follow Karin Konoval on Twitter @KarinKonoval.