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Exclusive: Some People Call Me Maurice - An Interview with "War For The Planet of the Apes" Karin Konoval, Part I

Karin Konoval
(Copyright Gordon Dumka , 2017)
by Patrick and Paul Gibbs

Breakfast of Chimps
(Photo Copyright Patrick Gibbs, 2015)
Throughout our lives, which we (being twins) have mostly shared, we have had two equal passions: one of them, as anyone who follows our reviews and other musings for The Bearded Trio can tell, is the cinema. Ever since seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in 1981, a darkened theater has been our happy place, and that love has taken us on many adventures, both in the theater and behind the camera. But even before that, we had another obsession, which is equal, if not greater: primates. Apes and monkeys are probably the only thing people who really know us might think of before thinking of our obsession with film, and those who know us well have (in some cases, grudgingly) grown to get use to constantly running across things such as the photo to the right.

As such, it should come as no surprise that we grew up with a fondness for Planet of the Apes, or that the prequel trilogy Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War For the Planet of the Apes (2017) ranks among our all time favorites. The best, and by far the most emotional, cinematic experience we've had this summer was seeing this series wrap up so beautifully as one of the great trilogies of all time, and escaping into a darkened theater at Regal Cinemas, watching a marathon of all three films (and if you ever get a chance to watch the films back to back, we highly recommend it.).

Maurice with young chimpanzees in
Dawn Of The Planet of The Apes
(Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
One of our favorite characters in the franchise has always been Maurice, the old orangutan whom Caesar meets while in captivity, and who goes on to become perhaps his most trusted adviser. It may partially go back to our obsession with King Louie in Disney's  The Jungle Book (the very first film we ever saw), but Maurice just instantly had us hooked by his charm and presence. It was therefore quite a happy surprise when Rob Wainfur, the big cheese here at the site, messaged us to tell us that Karin Konoval, the gifted actress who portrays Maurice, had shared our review of War on her Facebook page.  We were pretty ecstatic about this, especially having been so moved by the character in this most recent chapter in the series, and up until then, the only connection we'd with any member of the cast was the time James Franco discovered that Patrick had sneaked into his private bathroom on the set of 127 Hours (but that is a story for another time, and less interesting than it sounds.) As film critics, having our rave review make the page of a cast member was a nice little feather in our caps, but we decided that we wanted to get a bigger one (or at the very least, one feather for each cap.).

 So we reached out to Karin, and she was generous enough to grant us this interview, which has been a joy for us, and has only added to the amazing experience we've had with these special films. Her other credits include such television favorites as Arrow, The X-Files, MillenniumPsych, Stargate: Atlantis, Fringe,  Supernatural, The Good Wife and the all too short lived series version of Minority Report, as well as playing the role of The Wicked Witch in Tin Man with Zooey Deschanel and Neal McDonough. Her film career has included appearances in 2012, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and the upcoming Woody Woodpecker.

Just based on our brief correspondence in setting up this interview, we could go on and on about her kindness and grace, her devotion to her art, and how getting a chance to see an inkling her love for Maurice and the Apes films has given us an even stronger connection to them, but the best way to share all of that is just to share with you the complete interview, as follows:

Karin Konoval at the New York Premiere of
"War of the Planet of the Apes" 
Patrick - Coming into this, were you a "Planet of the Apes" fan at all? Was it intimidating to step into such a legendary Hollywood franchise?
I had seen the original 1968 film on tv at some point when I was a kid, but beyond that I wasn't familiar with the Planet of the Apes stories and films. It was a brand new world to me when I was cast as Maurice in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." What I found most intimidating -- or at least, scary exciting! -- was the challenge in front of me as an actor: to portray a mature male orangutan character in all of his physical, psychological and vocal integrity. It was also incredibly exciting to suddenly have this gift of an opportunity to work with Andy Serkis, who I admired greatly - and of course the moment I began working with him my admiration only grew. So those were the two things most on my mind when I became involved with the franchise.

Patrick - Not knowing your background in terms of training, just going by by looking at your filmography . . .  this role was quite a leap from what you normally do. How did it come about that you got the opportunity to audition for Maurice? How did you feel going into it? And were you cast as Maurice or the court clerk first?
The court clerk role that I also played in "Rise" was something that happened later, after my work as Maurice had wrapped. There was a new scene added to the film and director Rupert Wyatt had the fun thought that I should play this role....having played Maurice, who became a close friend to Caesar, for me to then play a mean animal control office person who couldn't care less about Caesar. Regarding the other roles I've played throughout my career, I have to say that both on stage and on screen I've had the good fortune to play a very wide range of roles - so much so that when I was younger, at least regarding film and tv work, I used to wish I was more recognizably one "type" in terms of casting. Now I'm grateful that I never have been, because it's given me the opportunity to take on more and more interesting roles, and thankfully that opportunity continues to expand. Of course, playing a mature male orangutan certainly is about as great a challenge of a role as I've undertaken! How did it come about that I auditioned for Maurice? I was invited to a somewhat generic audition for chimpanzees in an untitled feature film. That's the only information I had. I went to it reluctantly (I thought it sounded silly and I would be very bad at it), then I got a callback, then another callback to audition as an orangutan. I didn't know what an orangutan was. I did a lot of research and preparation very quickly. I went to the callback, thinking that this would the the role of a female orangutan, but when I got there director Rupert Wyatt told me this was for the role of Maurice. I'll never forget what Rupert said: "Maurice is old, he's fat, and he's from the circus." And all I could think was: "HE????

Karin Konoval, along with final image of
Maurice in War For The Planet Of The Apes
(Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox) 
Paul - We've been amazed at how consistent the vision of the characters has been, and how seriously and respectfully the filmmakers have treated them, especially considering the change in directors during the trilogy. Were there any distinctive differences in the way Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves respectively directed you and approached the characters? -
I have loved working with both Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves enormously. Obviously given the expansion of Maurice's role in the stories I've spent a great deal more time working with Matt Reeves on the second and third films. And you are absolutely right about how seriously and respectfully the vision of the characters has been treated throughout, and the integrity of storytelling. This is also a great credit to the writers involved in these films -- Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback. Maurice's role in "Rise" was actually quite small, I don't think more than fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time? Rupert guided me gently and meticulously throughout. First, he had the vision to cast me in a role that quite frankly I didn't know I had it in me to play. Second, he encouraged me in the direction of greater and greater stillness with all I did, and to trust in that. Working with Matt Reeves through "Dawn" and "War" has been a total gift. As a director he's an intimate, gentle, untiring truth seeker. His care and respect for storytelling, and for guiding us as an ensemble to our very best, has given me two of the most treasured film experiences of my career.

Karin Konoval as Maurice
and Amiah Miller as Nova in
War For The Planet Of The Apes
(Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
Patrick - Over the course of these films, you and other actors have had to communicate many thoughts and feelings, often complex thoughts and feelings, using few to know words. In order to do that effectively it seems like it would require a deep connection to the character and really being rooted in the moment. Was this challenging? Do you think this effected you as an actress and how you approach a role?
Playing any character well - with or without words - requires a deep connection to character and being present in the moment, and also (perhaps above all) really understanding and respecting the story being told, and knowing one's character's place within it. So no, I don't think there was any larger particular challenge re those things inherent in the fact that Maurice has largely communicated through sign language, or silence. But, that said, certainly clarity of thought with every moment of the piece becomes much more important when you are expressing through silence, through a look or a gesture. A good portion of Maurice's character journey is understood through my/his eyes. So I do think I learned quite a bit as an actor through this process, mostly in terms of refining clarity of thought in character, and trusting in just having that thought, letting it be seen through my eyes. Also trusting in stillness. Yes, playing Maurice has taught me a great deal about trusting in stillness.

Paul - It seems like it would be challenging to give such an emotionally honest, in the moment performance while implementing the amount of physical technique it must take to realistically portray an orangutan. How do you keep the mechanics of the role from distracting you from the emotions?
That's an awfully insightful question, and indeed on "Rise" very early on in the filming I did feel somewhat in bits and pieces with my work. Learning to walk and run quadrupedally takes a great deal of practice and focus (and cardiovascular training!), and that alone absorbed much of my attention for a long time. And beyond that, finding Maurice's physical integrity as an orangutan in all ways - how I would sit, turn, hold my jaw, climb, jump, swing, etc etc. Finding his vocals -- teaching myself to long call as an orangutan, finding the other throaty sounds and grumbles and what not - all of that had particular challenges that required specific practice. Learning how to land Maurice's weight - he's 300 pounds, I'm 125 - that was also a challenge that I had to explore in different ways. During "Rise" we attached weights to each of my arms to help me land his weight, and I still wore them through the first part of the filming of "Dawn," until one day I discovered that I was able to authentically land each step without the help of the weights. It's been a gradual process throughout for the past seven years, getting to the point where I no longer had to remind myself of this or that physically, and could simply be Maurice. I did receive the most crucial help with this about a month into the filming of "Rise" when I went to observe Towan, the orangutan who from the day I met him became my inspiration for Maurice throughout these films. From that day on, despite the ongoing physical challenges, I had only to think of Towan to get straight to the heart and soul of Maurice.

Patrick - Maurice really seems to connect with children. What was your working relationship with the younger actors, like Kodi Smit-McPhee and Amiah Miller, like? Did you spend time building a rapport with them?
I loved working with Kodi and Amiah both a great deal, we truly had a wonderful working relationship together. With both of them it was a very organic and immediate understanding and rapport, that we maintained with ease through the filming. Just great.

Karin Konoval/Maurice
War For The Planet Of The Apes
(Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
Patrick - Performance capture is a form of acting that really fascinates me because of the barriers it breaks down. Casting according to body shape, type and even gender kind of go out the window. Andy Serkis referred to it as "digital make-up", which I think is a great description. I have a good amount of experience acting under heavy makeup, and I've chatted with Ron Perlman and Doug Jones about the process of acting under heavy  makeup. You kind of have to make everything  bigger, more theatrical, and yet keep it real at  the same time. 
How is performance capture acting in comparison? 
I've done several "hard suit" prosthetic roles myself, and indeed given the heaviness and thickness of the latex mask you do have to make it come to life more like a mask, literally use more facial muscles and enliven the mask. But performance capture is completely different. It actually requires the reverse. The clarity and honesty of thought and intention is the most crucial, because the technology, the cameras, are  picking up every blessed muscle twitch, every everything. The integrity of movement, of gesture, must be complete -- in other words, I MUST fully inhabit and "become" Maurice -- the same as I would for any other live action character I play. Given that Maurice is a mature male orangutan, that makes it all the more challenging. But no, it's definitely not about making stuff bigger. It's about refining your work to a pinpoint, if anything.

Patrick - Do you think you'll do more performance capture work in the future?

Who knows? No one's asked me to yet.

                                                                       *      *       *

In part two of this exclusive interview, we'll talk more about Maurice as a character, the real orangutan who provided inspiration, and Karin's experience working on the Planet of the Apes films. Please join us tomorrow . . . Apes together strong!

                                                    Click Here To Read Part II

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