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The world’s favorite ape king is set to roar his way back onto the big screen in Kong: Skull Island.
For nearly 90 years, King Kong has shocked, and often horrified, audiences as iterations of the story of the towering titular ape have been told on the big screen in five separate decades. While the character is one of the most widely known in cinematic history, the actors who helped bring Kong to life often did so under the guise of near anonymity.
Heat Vision caught up with actor Terry Notary, who, through the magic of motion capture and CGI, brought the latest version of the great ape to the screen. Notary, no stranger to mo-cap or playing primates (he has portrayed a chimp in each of the recent slate of Planet of the Apes reboots) opened up about playing an “adolescent” Kong, getting former Kong actor Andy Serkis’ blessing, and even dropped a few hints about the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
What’s it like to portray a motion-cap character?
It’s funny, because you want to make it different, but when I start building a character I do the same thing with each of them, which is start with a blank canvas. It’s like painting a picture. I don’t want to bring any residual from anything else that I’ve done. But at the same time you want to start with a foundation that is blank and simple. Then you do your homework and you study all the Kongs that have been done and see how you can pay homage to those but not replicate anything, make something unique. One of the interesting things about this character is he’s an adolescent and he’s lonely. He’s got a burden and a weight on his shoulders and it was kind of like playing a 14-year-old that’s trapped in the life of an adult. He’s a protector. The whole movie is pretty much an introduction to him and who he is and him coming into himself.
How’d you get into the mind of a giant ape?
I had to just draw down into this place that was just like, ugh, heavy. It was like this heavy teenager. But then it worked and the character just came to life. The amazing thing about motion capture is everything translates. Your slightest emotions translate through the suit and into the character. It was fun. It did not take a long time. It took three days of motion capture to get it all done.
Yeah, because we were shooting against a clean plate. The character is so big that I couldn’t even be present during the live-action filming of the character. So when we’re jamming in the motion-capture studio, I’m looking at all the clean plates, and you’ve got Cambodia and Hawaii and Vietnam and all these places and matching to those shots the scenes that we needed to do. When you’re playing an enormous character, it’s another whole thing. You have to just drop in so deep and heavy. You can’t ever come out to be in the human zone or else it just all falls apart instantly. It was a fast and furious discovery process. Having played so many apes in my life from all the films I’ve done — I’ve done four ape films before [Kong].
You’re in the rare position of someone who not only has played an ape before in motion capture, but also worked side-by-side with the last actor to portray King Kong on film, Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s 2005 film.
Andy and I are best buddies. We’ve done nine films together and counting, so it was cool. I just said, “Hey, they want me to play Kong. That’s your character, dude,” and he just said, “Nah, you do it. I’m handing the reins over to you.” He’s a buddy, he’s a true gentleman and amazing person. If you ever get the chance to meet him you’ll love him instantly. He’s a special guy.
You mentioned Kong is an adolescent in this latest film. With future projects planned for the character, are you looking forward to maturing the character?
Kind of, yeah. You start thinking about how he’s going to grow up, obviously. You kind of want to plant a seed, and you kind of know what the seed is, what it’s going to grow into, but I think he’s going to grow into this real protector, a noble man. The next one he’ll be in his prime and he’ll be a budding gentleman. (Laughs.) A budding warrior who has even more responsibility and more to deal with now that everything else has been unleashed. Again, the burden is the real juice of the character. That’s what drives him, that’s what keeps him from just being this wavering, “What do I do with myself?” guy. He’s lost his family; he’s lost everything. He’s got to uphold this sense of duty. With that responsibility comes the depth and the richness that I think is going to grow into the character.
This is a character that has been around for decades. What kind of research did you do for this role?
You watch the 1933 version with Fay Wray, which is amazing. That version is, I think, my favorite, just because that first image when he comes up to her, she’s tied up and he has this look in his eye — It was just terrifying. And it was so simple. It still holds up. And Andy was amazing in his version. Just that relationship he had with Naomi Watts was just beautiful and loving and caring and sweet, so you just fall in love with that character. This story is a bit different, it’s more of an introduction to this character, with the relationships with the humans just getting started in this one.
Even though Kong has many human qualities, he is still an ape. Did you study actual primates to help nail the character?
Yeah, I definitely studied apes. It’s funny because when I first started trying to play an ape, way back in 2000 [for Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake], I was kind of imitating what they do. And it was like, “This is not working. What is it?” Then I got to play with these two chimps, Jacob and Jonah, they were 4 and 5 years old, and it was like, oh my God, they’re just open and real and honest and they’re not head-driven. They’re not socially conditioned like we are. I think that is something that, while they have an awareness on an innate level, it is not like this idea of how our identity is all fake. It’s all B.S. If you can let go of that and just absorb yourself in what you’re doing, you’re truly being present. So that is the biggest challenge in playing an ape: letting go of all the bullshit. It’s so therapeutic. I’d like to take that philosophy and apply it to all my characters.
I’m working on four characters right now. I’m working with Josh Brolin and three other actors [in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War], and I’m playing Josh Brolin’s right-hand bad guy in the film. I can’t say the name of the character or I think Marvel will sever my head, but I apply those same principles of what it means to drop bullshit and just play a character truly evil. And it’s working. (Laughs.) It’s truly working.
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