Interview with Karin Konoval, Maurice in War for the Planet of the Apes


By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

Making a film that heavily utilizes motion capture technology creates an interesting conundrum for actors – it makes them the unseen and unsung heroes of the piece. But for actor Karin Konoval, the challenge doesn’t lie with the technology, but in putting forth an authentic performance that captures every emotion of the character she’s playing. And in War for the Planet of the Apes, she has to flex her muscles both literally and figuratively in portraying a character the complete opposite of herself – a 300-pound male orangutan named Maurice.

Maurice is ape leader Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) right-hand man, and as such, Konoval’s relationship with Serkis mirrors Maurice’s with Caesar: Serkis advised her as Maurice advises Caesar. The relationship between the two apes has evolved over the course of the three-film franchise and will next be seen in July’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

Konoval recently spoke to Nerd HQ about the upcoming movie, what it took to prepare to play Maurice and the physical complexities therein, why this is such an important and relevant series, and more.

The first film in this franchise came out six years ago. With technology advancing as fast as it is, how has making these films been different from one to the next?

That’s probably a good question for WETA Digital in terms of the specifics of that. But what I can say is that as an actor, what I’ve certainly noticed is we’ve gotten to go to more and more challenging environments. The environments that we’ve been able to film in, that they’ve been able to bring performance capture technology into have become more and more challenging. So now we can film in sleet and snow and rain and that kind of thing. Which makes it more challenging for the actors! Another thing that I’ve noticed as an actor is that when we did, say Rise [of the Planet of the Apes], the body wiring we had was perhaps not as sturdy as one might have liked it to be. I can remember at times getting tangled up in my hammock as Maurice and that would pull out a wire or shatter something, and you’d have to go back and get it re-attached. So by the time we got to War [for the Planet of the Apes], the body wiring was sturdy and at a level that could sustain being out in the elements, and could sustain me jumping on and off a horse, then put on arm stilts and go running or whatever. So it had a real durability to it. And the other major thing I’ve noticed as a performer, is – you know the camera on the helmet? It used to be quite a large thing that quite got in the way of your field of vision. And now with War, it’s this teeny-weeny circle. So it’s not intrusive at all in terms of connecting with the other actors that you’re working with. So those are the major things that I’ve noticed, but that’s just from an actor perspective.

There is such a specificity involved in motion capture, with Andy Serkis arguably being the king of the field. What have you learned from him about the craft?

I would say that playing the role of Maurice is more about playing the orangutan and less about the technology. It’s not a different kind of acting as soon as you put on the gray suit and the wires and everything. The challenge is playing the orangutan Maurice with integrity – psychological, physical, everything of a mature male orangutan. So I have learned a great deal from Andy, but it really has nothing to do with the technology itself. What I’ve experienced with Andy is his grace, and his excellence and talent as an actor is unmatched, so to be working with him has been amazing for me. It was amazing on Rise and the relationship between Maurice and Caesar has deepened and grown, so obviously [the journey] to War has been incredible. But I would say the things I’ve learned from Andy have had nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with the craft of acting and to be in a scene with him with his level of focus is extraordinary. That man is incredible. He’s magic.

Yeah, I feel like there’s no one like him, especially when it comes to motion capture.

Oh, yeah. But as I said, working with him and working on this role has less to do with motion capture and more has to do with his fine talent as an actor. Because what we’re doing out there, it’s not a certain type of acting that’s particular to the technology at all. As a matter of fact, when we first started on Rise, I actually said to Andy early on when I was still nervous and shy, “Mr. Serkis, could you tell me if there is a particular type of acting you have to do when working with this technology?” And he adamantly said no. He said it’s the truth of the character and the truth of your objectives and with every single thought, it’s like you almost have to be even more honest. There’s nowhere to hide within this technology. You don’t have to make any sort of faces or anything like that. What it allows the actor to do is to explore a wide range of characteristics and you have to take on the physicality of the character you’re playing, but that’s less about the technology than it is about having a skillset as an actor to embrace a wide range of characters, of which that he is a master, for sure. No question.

Andy Serkis and Karin Konoval on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

So take me back to when you first were cast as Maurice. What kind of research did you do to get ready to play a 300-pound male orangutan?

What sort of research didn’t I do is the shorter answer! I read every book that was written about orangutans that I could buy, and it’s not like there’s tons and tons, so it wasn’t a long list. But yes, anything I could get my hands on. I watched every video. I learned to walk quadrupedally on stilts and the training under [stunt coordinator and movement coach] Terry Notary was exhausting. And of course my own practice was exhausting and something I would do every morning. I sort of got into a rhythm of going out to the park every morning before people weren’t awake yet and running around in the trees. It’s very cardiovascular. If you ever get a chance to try it, you’ll see what I mean about in about three steps, like, “Oh, this is what this takes!” So yeah, I was doing the training and going to the gym for weight lifting for Maurice’s arm strength and yoga for his flexibility. Training myself to long call, because the vocals of a mature male orangutan are very particular and have a huge resonance, so I needed to build that up in myself. And then of course I had the opportunity to observe Towan the orangutan, who has basically been the heart and soul of Maurice for me for all three films. He’s a real orangutan who I base Maurice on.

Maurice is a very smart character, an observer, a teacher, a leader. What can we expect from him in War for the Planet of the Apes?

Maurice’s first role no matter what is as Caesar’s confidant and his advisor and as their relationship began to blossom in that way in Dawn [of the Planet of the Apes], it has increased and is now even more significant through the storytelling of War. So it’s a deeper and richer journey. Maurice has more confidence to express himself to Caesar in different ways. He’s always looking out for his well-being, so he would never do anything to go against Caesar, but there are times where Maurice might challenge Caeser with an action or communicating a thought that may not be appreciated by Caesar right off the bat, but is something that is in Caesar’s best interests. So I think his journey just grows richer and deeper and more interesting in this film. And the script that Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves gave us to work with is so fabulous, I can’t tell you. It’s all there on the page and I think it’s going to be an incredibly compelling journey to watch this film, I really do.

As the title implies, this film deals with the war between apes and humans. Why do you think this is such a popular story – why does it resonate with people – and why is it such an important story to be told in today’s world?

Wow, that’s a really good question! I don’t know if you specifically mean this about the war thing, but as for understanding great apes and the evolution and stuff? Gosh, I’m at a loss to answer that. I know that from my own perspective, the opportunity to explore the sentience and emotional journey of a character of another species has been one of the most amazing acting challenges I’ve ever undertaken in my life. Perhaps in a similar way, as audience members following this franchise or this incredible story going way back, it’s just an endless fascination. Certainly the discussion of humanity – and I don’t mean humanity as humans, but inner decency and nobility of purpose – becomes more crucial all the time and that is at the heart and soul of this storytelling as well.

War for the Planet of the Apes hits theaters July 14, 2017.

Karin Konoval and Amiah Miller in Twentieth Century Fox’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

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