With “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Minnesota native Steve Zahn has landed the biggest part in the biggest film of his career. There’s only one caveat: He doesn’t actually appear on screen because he’s playing a chimpanzee.
But he wasn’t just monkeying around. He chimp-walked through scene after scene of the production, his knuckles dragging and his knees bent so sharply that he needed Epsom salt baths to ease the pain every night.
“For six months I had to learn to quadruped, and my thighs became so strong it was unbelievable,” he said.
The movie, which opens Friday, was done in motion capture, a procedure in which actors’ bodies are covered with dots of tape. A computer uses the dots to create a representation of an object, in this case an ape. Because the actors weren’t restricted by bulky ape costumes, they were able to move much more freely, including running, jumping and, as the script required, tumbling to the ground.
“I went into this not really knowing anything about what motion capture was,” he said. “I was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I was petrified the first day.”
He quickly learned that there’s nothing phoned-in about this deeply technological form.
“When you see us quadrupeding together across a prison yard to get away from bullets, that’s exactly what we’re doing. In that location, too,” he said. “It’s not like we were in some studio with green screen, reacting to something that wasn’t there.”
When a scene shot in snowbound British Columbia looks like it was cold, it was cold, he said, and when it looks like they were in pain, they were in pain. Playing the ape characters had to become so secondary that they could focus on the emotion of the scene.
Zahn wore 51 dots on his face so the computer could convert his expressions to the face it was generating for his character. Zahn has a special gift as an actor with his soulful, expressive eyes, which allows him to speak volumes with a gaze. He was able to add that element to the character because “the camera is always recording you, at all times. Those dots on your face really record every movement and they can incorporate that. You can see even the tiniest expression through all that technology, every blink, every moment when I looked away.”
Not his first animal role
Zahn lends his unmistakable voice, expressive features and gymnastic physicality to a key character. As Bad Ape, the nervous sidekick to the series’ heroic protagonist Caesar, he gives the film crucial doses of comic relief.
Zahn, the son of a Lutheran minister, was born in Marshall and graduated from Cooper High School in New Hope. Although he studied at the American Repertory Theater’s school for acting at Harvard and has spoken in movies as a pig, cat, hawk, shark, bear, chicken and dinosaur, nothing on his résumé prepared him for this role, he said.
He had to adjust to the fact that none of the actors looked anything like what they were playing. “I think if we had been doing it with people in ape suits, it would have been easier” for the performers to get into character. “You’d look at them and think: You’re an ape,” he said. “But you were doing it beside people wearing a helmet with a camera, and 51 dots on their face, and a gray unitard. The pressure to become an ape was much greater.”
In free moments between shots, he would go off with stuntmen who had worked on earlier films in the franchise “and pretend to be chimps.”
But while there is well-documented research on how apes look and move, there are no precedents for how they speak. Bad Ape’s sound and cadence, which echo the anxious tenor of the legendary Barney Fife, the bumbling, lovable, deputy sheriff on the 1960s TV comedy “The Andy Griffith Show,” was entirely Zahn’s creation.
Director Matt Reeves “was very concerned about how I’d talk in relation to the other apes.” His character, a zoo escapee, “lived alone, so you just play it in the moment. If you think about ‘How am I sounding,’ you’re not acting.
“The beauty of acting is you just get lost in it, you play the character, and you hope that it works. You just interact with each other like on any other movie. Except on this one you’re squatting as low as I could do to the ground and my legs were shaking so hard that I wanted to stop, and Matt was shooting on digital, where a take can last 30 minutes. I was terrified my back was going to go out. It’s crazy.”