Nominee Q&A

'The Square' Star Reveals Backstory on That Memorable 12-Minute Museum Gala Scene

Courtesy of Magnolia

Terry Notary, who stars in Sweden's Oscar-nominated entry, opens up about how the scene in which his performance artist character terrorizes a black-tie crowd came together.

Anyone who has seen The Square, Ruben Ostlund’s art satire, remembers “The Scene.”

It’s just 12 minutes in the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time: Oleg, a bare-chested performance artist, terrorizes a black-tie crowd at a museum gala in Stockholm. Grunting and whooping like a chimpanzee, leaping from table to table, he turns the uppity affair into a clip from the animal kingdom. In those 12 minutes, the crowd of wealthy Swedish socialites transforms, civility drops away and they turn on Oleg with a brutality that shows them as little more than apes in tuxedoes.

The scene is a perfect encapsulation of The Square’s overarching theme: that art, and the trappings of civilized society, are a thin veneer hiding our underlying brutality. For actor and movement coach Terry Notary, who plays Oleg, the scene was a rare opportunity for recognition.

Notary, 49, has spent a career playing monkeys onscreen: He was the alpha chimp Rocket in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy and King Kong in Kong: Skull Island. He was a movement coordinator on Andy Serkis’ upcoming Jungle Book-inspired Warner Bros. movie, Mowgli, and Disney’s live-action re-imagining of The Lion King. But before The Square, no one ever recognized him on the street.

“I’ve spent 15 years performing under the radar, doing motion-capture and greenscreen,” says Notary. “The process is exactly the same, it’s just as intense. But it wasn’t till I literally saw The Square, saw the movie, that I realized: ‘Oh, God, is that my face up there?’ For the first time, people are asking me, ‘Are you in a movie? Are you the guy from The Square?’”

Ostlund said the inspiration for Oleg came both from late punk rocker GG Allin, who was notorious for his wild performances (he once defecated onstage) and from Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik, who used to play a wild dog, at one point getting arrested for biting a member of the audience. But for Notary, Oleg was based on a Russian acrobat he knew from his days with Cirque du Soleil. “We were drinking together, and he suddenly dove across the table and punched another guy in the face,” Notary recalls. “Then, he stood up, hugged the guy and started drinking again. As if nothing had happened. That mood, moving from happy to horrific in a blink of an eye, was what I wanted to capture.”

The scene itself was shot in four days, the first of which was a blocking rehearsal in the ballroom, without the 300 extras who’d be playing wealthy art donors. Ostlund gave Notary little instruction beyond the broad beats of the scene.

“He said, ‘Walk in, at first scared, then playful,’” says Notary. “Then chase away the alpha male in the room [Dominic West’s character, Julian, a snooty American artist] and breed with the prettiest girl in the room.”

Ostlund didn’t tell Notary that the crowd he was taunting, throwing water over and pushing around, were in fact drawn from the actual ranks of Sweden’s 1 percent, including some of the country’s wealthiest art patrons (“They were so into it,” Notary says).

Ostlund did dozens and dozens of takes, but each time Notary would change things up. “I’d ignore the person who wanted to be picked and taunt the one who was trying to avoid me,” he says. “It became like live theater. Every time was different, so I stayed surprised and so did they.”

The result is “The Scene,” 12 minutes that, in the words of the Square producer Erik Hemmendorff, “will go down in movie history.” And, just maybe, in Oscar history as well.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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