Director and Stars Travel Back to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set in a much darker world than audiences were introduced to in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A decade has lapsed, with humanity devastated by the simian flu, meaning only the strongest survived. Among those are Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), who find themselves at the brink of war for who will become Earth’s dominant species — and on the other side of the battlefield is Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his fellow genetically evolved apes.

Oldman, Russell and Serkis, alongside director Matt Reeves, spoke with Spinoff Online about their experience continuing the iconic sci-fi franchise, the state of the Earth and their characters when the film opens, the challenges of promoting the movie many months after its completion, and more.

Spinoff Online: Matt, I want to start with you. Here you are, coming into this film, you didn’t direct the first film. It exceeded expectations, it was quite a big hit. How much pressure was that to you?

Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis

Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis

Matt Reeves: It was intimidating in that I had tremendous respect for Rise. I loved what Andy did and what Rupert [Wyatt, the director] did with the movie. I thought it was great. It was too enticing an opportunity to pass up. I had been a fan of the franchise since I was a kid. What I loved about Rise is that it got into the emotional lives of the apes in a way we didn’t get in the first movies. I just thought that was amazing, and there was a real opportunity to do something new with this movie that the last movie didn’t. That’s what we’re trying to do.

And at the same time, you have to keep in mind that the very first movie that’s 50 years old — you’re working towards that. Does that pose extra challenges for you as a director?

Reeves: Well, that’s actually the great part about it. First, you know what you love about it — we knew we loved gorillas on horseback and guns and all of that, but the idea also is that it tells you where you’re going. What I love about knowing there is Planet of the Apes is that’s the trajectory. So the question becomes, “How do you get there?” What are the stories about getting there? The mystery of what happens is not a part of this world. The question is, “How did it happen?” which makes it all about character.

Andy, I want to talk to you next. I’ve been excited to interview you for a long time, and I’ve never had a chance. I’m curious about the acting challenges of motion capture. You’re an accomplished actor, yourself. To me, it always feels like the motion capture acting is a little more theatrical than TV/film acting. Is that true?

Andy Serkis: I wouldn’t say so, no. In terms of the process of embodying a character, building a psychological profile or background and creating a voice — it’s exactly the same. I think you have to think about performance capture as another technology, as another set of cameras that films your performance. Obviously, if you’re playing a character like Caesar, who has ape qualities to him, you have to do your research. You have to study the behavioral nature of — in this case — a chimpanzee. For me, it always starts with character. Whether I was playing a live-action character or a performance captured role, the difference of approach is little.

Keri, Gary, tell me a little bit about the characters you play. Keri, you play Ellie, and Gary, you play Dreyfuss. Tell us a little bit about Ellie.

Keri Russell with Kodi Smit-McPhee

Keri Russell with Kodi Smit-McPhee

Keri Russell: Ellie is one of the few surviving humans left after the virus has taken over. She was a nurse with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] trying to fight the virus, and I think the main thing with those of us left, we’ve all lost a tremendous amount of loved ones in our lives, and we’re all damaged survivors and tough and making the best of this makeshift world we’re in — with makeshift families and relationships. That’s how the adventure for me begins.

Gary, what about you?

Gary Oldman: For me, it’s much the same. He was a member of the community, locally to this commune now where we live. He is forced to make the best of a bad job. You’ve got to piece it together and he’s a resourceful, go-to guy. I guess he’s the head and lead of the community. As Keri said, we’ve all — when you meet us in the movie and when it starts, we’re carrying a lot of baggage. It’s 10 years on since the last movie, so we’ve had the disease and the outbreak of the simian flu, which has wiped pretty much the whole Earth’s population away, and then the chaos that was born out of that. We truly are — I mean, you would have to be a survivor just to get through it.

You’ve been through a number of sci-fi and genre films at this point in your career. Planet of the Apes is one of the big ones, though — it’s been around for a long time, it’s legendary. If you were to rank all the genre projects you’ve been a part of, where does Planet of the Apes rank? Were you a fan as a younger guy?

Oldman: I was a fan. As a kid, I watched Batman on TV, but I wasn’t a comic book guy, so that wasn’t something that — but Apes, in a way, it’s a part of my childhood. It’s like Matt — you root for the apes and you obsess over that makeup, which to me at 9 years old watching it was real. It was scary. That whole opening of that ship crashing — I mean, it’s one of Heston’s best performances. I think it’s wonderfully directed. So it was a real honor to be a part of the history of it, to be a part of the franchise — and more so than Batman or Potter, because it is culturally — it’s been around longer.

Andy, I want to finish up with you. You’ve been Gollum, you’re Caesar here — which ones do you feel closest to? If you were to rank them, which characters do you feel closest to?

Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman

Serkis: Yeah, you do invest in these characters, you really enjoy playing them when they’re happening, but you always have to live for the moment and whatever the next thing is becomes the next important thing. I have a huge affinity for Gollum — not only was it a turning point in my career because it opened up a whole portal into another way of working, and it was untried and untested, so there was a sense of making it up as you go along. The finding of that character and the building of it in the movies was great, and working with Peter Jackson was an extraordinary [experience]. He’s an extraordinary man who has affected me and enabled me to do so many amazing things since. It really was a huge turning point for me.

But Caesar is probably more challenging, and has been more challenging since the word go. There’s so much that’s unsaid with Caesar that has to be communicated with just being and feeling and then being careful not to over-humanize, but at the same point, you have to convey a certain amount of emotion. From an acting challenge point of view, Caesar has been much more difficult.

He seems much more complicated than most people would think on the surface, because there’s a tenderness to him, but there’s also this incredible aggression — and you have to go from one to the other pretty quickly. In the first film, you did — and the challenge might be even greater in the second film because of the war breaking out.

Serkis: That’s right. Where we meet Caesar, he’s older, he’s a family man — I keep saying man because I never distinguish between the two — it’s really bizarre. But he’s the leader of a community, he’s struggling with all the weight and responsibility of keeping a lot of different kind of apes together. You see a lot of weight that he is carrying, though.

Oldman: I think it’s funny, though — you were saying about what’s the favorite. This process that we’re now in is a year — oftentimes anyway — it can be a year, or even more. What you’re essentially doing is you’re talking about old work. If they say, “What’s your favorite movie, what’s your best work,” I think you want to say, “Next week’s.” It’s just because of the nature of the beast, you’ve got that time to edit and put together — especially a film like this, which Matt is working on nine days a week until midnight. But it is funny when people today have said to you, [Keri], “We love you in The Americans,” and they’re talking about an episode that was shown two nights ago, but you shot it six months ago.

Does that make doing these junkets a little crazy, because you have to time travel back?

Russell: Yeah, you do!

Serkis: There’s no time traveling back for Matt!

Reeves: It’s unfinished for me!

Oldman: I should say, the only exception of this film, which is finished old work for us –

Russell: It’s next week’s work for you!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives July 11.

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