Most of the apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are either angst-ridden or war-mongering, which makes orangutan Maurice such a lovely exception. Peaceful and curious with an irresistibly playful face, Maurice would rather bond with humans and learn about their graphic novels than get caught up in his fellow apes’ internecine squabbling, and while Maurice’s temperament provides the dark and dramatic film with a lovely surprise, the even bigger surprise is who plays that character: actress Karin Konoval, who used the magic of motion capture to become a different species and gender. “I’ve always been a chameleon as an actor,” Konoval told Vulture, “but this is a first.”
Konoval’s Apes co-star Andy Serkis earns most of the press attention for his motion capture performances — and rightly so, since Serkis has been a pioneer in this field since his groundbreaking gig as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy — but look beyond the strong work Serkis turns in as lead ape Caesar and you’ll find stories like Konoval’s. There’s nothing about the 53-year-old, 120-pound actress that would immediately suggest she could play a physically formidable, 260-pound male orangutan, but Konoval is at the frontier of a new art that truly does imply that all bets are off when it comes to screen acting.
Still, even Konoval herself was skeptical when she first got the call to audition for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the 2011 predecessor to Dawn. As an actress, she could boast dance training but had no extensive background in creature movement. “It struck me as a bit of a joke, but I went anyway,” she said. The audition was for a chimpanzee role; the callback, a few weeks later, was for Maurice the orangutan. “I didn’t even know what an orangutan was!” she laughed. “So I went to the library a block away and pulled out a picture book, and something just happened in the first moment that I looked at the face of this orangutan where I was completely struck and intrigued.”
Over a series of continued auditions that included movement training with arm stilts and improvised, in-character tasks like eating a bowl of potato chips in front of director Rupert Wyatt, Konoval won the job. And yet, for as committed as she was to the role and how adept she’d becoming at mimicking ape movement, there was still something missing. A month into Konoval’s Rise prep work in Vancouver, she happened to read about Towan, a male orangutan housed at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and she traveled there to observe him. “He studied up and down my face for about twenty minutes, and somehow in that twenty minutes, Towan magically gave me Maurice,” Konoval remembers. “As an actor, I’d found his core.”
She’d also found something else there, something more intangible and difficult to explain. After Rise wrapped and became a box office hit, Konoval continued traveling to the Seattle zoo every few weeks, painting and communing with Towan and his fellow orangutans. “They’ve really changed her life,” says director Matt Reeves, who brought Konoval back for Dawn. Konoval agrees: “It’s almost like there’s this otherworldly quality to them. When I’m with them, I definitely feel like I’m the student and they’re the teacher.”
They also changed the approach to her character. After getting to know those apes, “I felt the responsibility of portraying Maurice with orangutan integrity,” Konoval said, and that responsibility meant enduring grueling physical challenges. “For my steps to register convincingly during Rise, we attached an extra five pounds to my arm stilts, so that with every step I took, I would give Maurice his appropriate heaviness. That made it incredibly difficult, especially when I was running and trying to keep up with the chimpanzees. Brutal on the shoulders and joints, absolutely brutal.”
The better she got at inhabiting Maurice, the less Konoval needed those arm weights — “Over the last few years, this sense of heaviness without those weights has finally landed in my body, thank god” — but that doesn’t mean that her work on the sequel was any easier. “There were lots of other challenges that took over and replaced that, like climbing up and down these hillsides,” she said. “You might see a shot in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that’s maybe fifteen seconds long, but we would have spent 15 hours running up and down the hill in the mud to get it.”
Still, it was all worth it to play a character like Maurice, who’s become something of a fan favorite over the last two films. “I really can’t explain why that is, except to think about my own visceral reaction to meeting orangutans,” said Konoval. “They struck me as magical creatures.”
Perhaps the role was simply meant to rebalance Konoval’s karmic scales, since in addition to playing this beloved new screen character, she has a long résumé as a character actress that includes one of the most terrifying characters ever on television: the incestuous, murderous matriarch Mrs. Peacock in a notoriously envelope-pushing episode of The X-Files called “Home.” Konoval appeared on the series twice (the first time, she played the fortune teller in an equally iconic X-Files episode, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”), but as the Peacock mother, physically deformed after generations of in-breeding, Konoval’s face was covered in latex and she was shunted under a bed, bound to a coffin box that gave her the illusion of appearing to be limbless.
“I’m pretty claustrophobic, and I have to say that it was just about the scariest thing that I’ve ever done,” she remembered, laughing. “It was just terrifying — I had a mask over my nose, I couldn’t move, it was dark, and I was under there for hours. At the end of that particular day of shooting, I got home and I pretty much had a nervous breakdown.”
Still, at least she could use that pain in her role: “Mrs. Peacock shrieking is pretty much Karin shrieking! No wonder it scared the living daylights out of everybody.” That it did — “Home” was banned from Fox after one airing, never again to turn up on repeats thanks to its violent content. “I thought that was really neat!” said Konoval. “Now, I’m not a big fan of things that are gory or violent, but there’s some pretty sophisticated thinking behind that X-Files episode. I just thought it was really cool.”
And while she plays a normal human being in the upcoming BBC America series Intruders (created by Glen Morgan, who co-wrote “Home”), Konoval would be happy to don either latex or motion capture dots if a future role calls for it. “I do transform quite easily,” she said. “To fully go into a character and take on their energy and physicality — but to do it in a way that’s not a caricature, and instead fully transform — is something I just love to do.”