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war for the planet of the apes

Wingman Wednesday

Michael Adamthwaite

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Filmmaking has come such a long way since the days of the original “Planet of the Apes.” In 1968, the primate costumes that populated the film were more than enough to captivate an entire generation of science fiction fans, but compare them against the range of performance and realism of the current cast from the blockbuster “War for the Planet of the Apes” and you instantly understand why a swirl of Oscar buzz has already begun for the finale of the trilogy.

We recently sat down with Michael Adamthwaite who plays Luca, Caesar’s gorilla lieutenant in the film, to discuss how playing a primate is not about playing it human, why backstory was so important, and how he had to take everything off in order to inhabit the mind of an ape.

TrunkSpace: How important was it that the actors involved in the film take a very human approach to the performance aspects of the primates and has that helped lead to the franchise’s overall success?
Adamthwaite: You know, I would definitely say yes. The only sticking point where I would change is that it’s not about apes or primates being human. Quite the contrary, I would like to think that the evolution of the simian virus itself, it didn’t make apes more human… it just gave them a new level of consciousness and a new level of awareness. I mean, we’re all sentient beings with or without the awareness of ourselves in biology. Apes and other animals, they’re not guests the way we are. They’re total in their biology. They’re total in their bodies. And they have an awareness that we don’t really have.

There’s a squirrel, sitting on a limb, thinking, “Oh, I wish my tail was puffier.” Well guess what, he gets snatched up by the eagle. Distraction… you’re dead.

They’re very, very present.

But yeah, no, it’s not about apes being human. This is about them, after so much time, discovering that they’re so much more. It’s a weird and wonderful world.

TrunkSpace: So with that in mind, from a performance standpoint, do you still look to discover Luca’s backstory for yourself?
Adamthwaite: Oh, absolutely. I mean, think about his beginning and that was really where I had to start. Obviously he was established in “Dawn,” the second film of the trilogy. All the apes were victims of this circumstance where they, through no fault of their own, were at the same installation with Caesar when he purposefully released the virus and brought intelligence to that one group. But through the simian virus passing through humans, other groups of apes became infected and discovered through no fault of consequence, or even awareness of their own, that they were getting smarter.

So these other groups were popping up and Luca was one of the apes who lead the real gorilla push in “Dawn” for the security and that real battle at the bridge. So it was connecting from the first moment, realizing who he is and what his role is in the community. Everybody has a job. You have a purpose. You have something to do every day in an ape community. So, the apes have their own, I guess, hierarchy. And of course, we know from the history of the franchise that the gorillas, given their size, are kind of like the heavy artillery. They’re the muscle, so there’s always been a militant component to their role in the community.

And Luca is no different. He’s the trusted lieutenant. He’s loyal. He’s serving not only the first family, Caesar and his wife and children, but he’s also in charge of the whole guard for the entire community where they live in this beautiful hidden fortress. So he very much has a clean and defined purpose.

And that for me was really easy to gravitate towards because from very early in my life to about my late teens I was involved with the PPCLI (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) as a cadet. I have a long record of cadet service so I knew instantly how to be militant, how to be big, how to be intimidating, and how to be loyal. That was well-ingrained in me from very early stages. I feel like I was meant to play this character in a way. I know actors say that but sometimes, you just go, “Yeah! It’s true!”

TrunkSpace: And in way it is true because you audition for the character and put yourself in the best position to be seen as him.
Adamthwaite: Yeah, I think so many times as an actor you just have to cross your fingers. But then you start to do the math and you think, “How many people must have read for this?” Or, “How many could have read for this?” And then you eventually just start to say, very humbly, “Well, I’d like to now just step into that place where I know that I was made for this role and that this role was made for me.”

It’s a pretty humbling realization.

TrunkSpace: In terms of the process itself, it’s so complicated to pull off and yet it’s still so grounded in the roots of acting. Did that process force you to look at the idea of performance differently?
Adamthwaite: Oh, absolutely. And I mean, Andy Serkis has said it from the very moment that he started getting the attention that he so richly deserves. It’s not any different than acting. People say, “Should there be an Oscars category for motion capture?” And the answer is, no. They’re actors. We’re actors. We’re performers. The technology is brilliant… it’s mind-blowing. Every layer of code, and shade, and hair, and skin, and moisture… it’s absolutely breath-taking. My brain was fighting itself the whole time seeing the movie. This is real. This is not a visual. This is not a trick. These are real. And I myself, just as a fan, as an audience member, was able top go to a completely different place. But working in it is no different than being on stage.

There’s been an interesting request for this on Twitter that I’ve noticed in a lot of feeds where people would love to see a cut of the film without the ape renderings. “What are they really gonna look like?” And the answer is, guys, it’s gonna look exactly the same except it’ll be as if the actors didn’t have their makeup on. They didn’t have their wardrobe.

And they dress us. There’s a department and they put our makeup on. It just happens to be, they use computers. That’s it. It’s very much like any other job I’ve ever had, but the intensity level is so off the charts. Andy has, again, set the bar so high. It’s been a huge whirlwind rush to be a part of this whole process.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned wardrobe. Actors often say that they were able to inhabit their character’s headspace once they put on X, Y, or Z. With not having a physical wardrobe to meld with, did the motion capture stuff sort of become your wardrobe?
Adamthwaite: In a way, we were very much naked from the beginning. And I don’t use that in a sort of comedic way and I’m not trying to taboo. Terry Notary’s role, not only as Rocket but as the movement director/coordinator, was to put us all through ape school and his job was very simple. “Bring nothing. Come as you are. You are not trying to become an ape. You’re trying to become a sentient being in a body.”

It might sound crude, but we’re all just made of meat. We’re all just organic engines, whether you have a consciousness that’s evolved or not. So really, for Terry, it was all about stripping all of us down. Because we wear masks, we wear walls. We put things up, we hold people at bay. We have our motivations. We have our ego. All those things that we have to protect ourselves because society has become what it is. We don’t really need that as apes. Our family is our family. This is a group that’s evolved from grooming each other and sleeping together. They have no clothes. They have no possessions. All they have is each other and that requires that nakedness. It requires that vulnerability. It requires that complete and total commitment.

We spent hours in the woods on our arm extensions running and jumping, climbing things, sitting, and just being in nature listening to the creek. And it was just… it was amazing to connect. There wasn’t really putting anything on, it was taking everything off.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is in theaters now.

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Wingman Wednesday

Aleks Paunovic

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Just so we’re clear, TrunkSpace is not monkeying around with this interview.

And yes, while that was a terrible pun to lead into our chat with Aleks Paunovic of the upcoming “War for the Planet of the Apes,” we’re not going to apologize, and here’s why. As unfunny as it was, it actually applies. Paunovic is deadly serious about his craft, and even more so, he’s passionate about the work, right down to his memorable guest spot on the series “Supernatural.” The excitement he absorbs from playing his various roles, including that of Julius the vampire in Syfy’s “Van Helsing,” is apparent in every aspect of his delivery. This is a man who genuinely loves his job and is grateful for every opportunity he receives, which is a breath of fresh air in a world where it seems so many take so much for granted.

We recently sat down with Paunovic to discuss season 2 of “Van Helsing,” how he’d like to share even more, and how playing a primate means playing human.

TrunkSpace: We have to start with something that is a big guilty pleasure of ours here, which is “Supernatural.”
Paunovic: That’s awesome!

TrunkSpace: You guested as Gunner Lawless in “Beyond the Mat,” one of the more memorable episodes from last season and we’re curious if getting a small taste of that universe has opened you up to the very passionate fanbase?
Paunovic: Well, I was in two more episodes before that as two completely different characters.

TrunkSpace: That’s right. You actually played one of the skinwalkers in one episode, right?
Paunovic: Yeah! And it opened me up in that realm because the fans are so on point that it was surprising to me because I started getting people noticing me or contacting me and doing that whole thing because I was a part of the show. But then, Gunner Lawless and that wrestling episode, to me, was just a gift for a role. And everybody that’s a part of that show just embraced me with taking on such a great role. I got to learn the wrestling aspect of it and it was just a blast, man.

TrunkSpace: What’s so great about that series is that it’s sort of a hybrid of comedy and drama. When they do the comedy it’s gold and when they do the drama it’s heartfelt and that “Beyond the Mat” episode is a perfect example of that.
Paunovic: Yeah. I totally agree. I just love what they do with that show. There’s a reason why it’s going 12 years. I just love how they mix the drama and the emotionality with the humor of it. I just love how they make that work and not a lot of shows do that. So again, I was really blessed to be a part of that.

TrunkSpace: Going from a series that is often about vampires in “Supernatural” to a series where you play one in “Van Helsing,” from an actors perspective, we have to imagine that playing in that science fiction/genre sandbox must be a load of fun because you really get to step out of reality for a little bit.
Paunovic: That’s right on point. That’s exactly it. You nailed it. For me, it’s such a blast because you literally get to… when you’re a kid you play Cowboys and Indians or you play whatever your imagination can take you to. I’m kind of still doing it, so it’s kind of fun that I can jump into a show like “Van Helsing” and really kind of explore the “what ifs” and really drop it down into a reality based type of thing, even though it’s fantastical.

TrunkSpace: You’ll be returning as Julius in season 2 of “Van Helsing,” but do you have any idea where his arc will take you?
Paunovic: We’re in the middle of shooting it right now and all I can say is that I’m over the moon with the arc that has happened with my character. And even the show… the first year you kind of hope that fans connect to it, but as a well oiled machine, especially with Neil LaBute at the helm, we’re really gearing into season 2 and it’s feeling amazing. I cannot wait for people to see where Julius has gone.

TrunkSpace: In a time of leaks and spoilers, we understand why NDAs exist, but at the same time, it must be difficult to not be able to discuss something like that when you’re so excited about the work.
Paunovic: Dude, I’m busting at the seams. I’m rocking my mind about how much I want to talk about it or Tweet about it or Instagram about it because, no joke, when you see this season and what my character is going through, you’ll go, “How did he keep that in?” But for me, I get the surprise aspect of it and I’m really looking forward to the surprise and for people to kind of get blown away with a lot of the things that are happening with Julius. Yeah… I’m busting at the seams, man. I cannot wait for people to see this season.

TrunkSpace: Something else we’d imagine you’re pretty excited for people to see is “War for the Planet of the Apes.” When you landed that role, what was your initial thought with getting a part in such a storied franchise?
Paunovic: Well, it was a little trippy because, like you said, it’s such a storied franchise. I saved my audition side because I thought that was it. I was just celebrating the fact that I got an audition for it. I never thought that it would go anywhere further. To me, it was just like, “I got an audition for ‘Planet of the Apes.’ That’s awesome!” And end of story. That was it for me. And then it grew into about five auditions until I finally got the role and I was still shaking my head at it. And then going to work and… it’s next level.

Matt Reeves who directed it and Andy Serkis, who was phenomenal… Andy was an extension of Matt Reeves and them working on this project together was just a joy to be around. Being a part of it, again, is next level.

TrunkSpace: The last film in the franchise is, although fantastical, so grounded in reality. And the trailer for “War for the Planet of the Apes” seems to carry that torch forward while also playing off as very intense. It seems like a crazy ride.
Paunovic: It is. Honestly, the mood on set was never like the fantastical aspect of playing primates and playing apes. It was literally like, we’re telling a story and this is the story we’re telling in the most real sense. So there was no feeling of it being not in reality. That was the cool thing, especially with Andy. Andy took it all very seriously and helped everyone along with it. So, the new characters that were introduced… we got to basically be guided by Andy/Caesar, but the last thing we ever thought was that it wasn’t reality. That was the cool thing.

TrunkSpace: So in playing Winter, did a lot of it rely on the physicality aspect of playing a gorilla?
Paunovic: It’s interesting. You would think, and even when I was going to the auditions you would think, but the bottom line was the acting. It was the emotionality of the character and the story that these characters were telling. Each character has their own story and you cannot get away with… like, for instance… it’s emotionality and telling the story first, primate second. That’s just how it came down. When we first started, it was all about sitting and being vulnerable and open with the story that we were going to tell before we actually got up and did any physicality as a primate. Matt Reeves and Terry Notary were big believers in that it’s about story first and then everything else falls into it afterward.

TrunkSpace: Well, the key is that as an audience you stop seeing them as primates and start seeing them as characters, which was more than successful with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
Paunovic: Yeah. And that’s all Matt Reeves. Matt, Terry, and Andy… those three really helped everyone dive in. The last thing that we did was wanted to be apes. Everything first was story, so we got really lucky.

TrunkSpace: So it sounds like it’s more of a drama than an action tentpole?
Paunovic: Totally. Absolutely. Absolutely!

TrunkSpace: So with a movie of this size there’s obviously a lot of marketing materials and merchandising. Are we going to see Winter represented in any sort of cool merchandise and does it kind of blow your mind to see that kind of stuff?
Paunovic: You know what? You’re the first person to actually mention it to me and I just went, “Oh my God that’s right. I could actually be an action figure.” That just kind of blows me away. That would be cool.

TrunkSpace: I addition to your acting career, you have also been producing, particularly with one film that caught our attention called “Puppet Killer.” What is it that drew you to the producing side of the business?
Paunovic: One of the reasons why I love the producing aspect of the business, and I really got serious about it with a film called “Numb” that I was a part of, it’s the connection and relationships and troubleshooting on set that I really took pride in. Taking charge and jamming with the other producers and director and figuring out ways that we can make this work and make that work and help the story. I absolutely loved it. So when I had the opportunity to do that with “Puppet Killer,” which is a film coming out that happened to just be super fun… and Richard Harmon who is in “The 100” is a part of it also. We just had a blast shooting it and the producer role was basically one of those things where I just wanted to take on a little bit more responsibility and help the film along. I can’t wait for it to come out.

TrunkSpace: So is producing something you want to continue to pursue in your career?
Paunovic: Absolutely. I do love being a part of something more than just getting hired as an actor, do my thing, say bye to everyone, and then I’m out. I love the aspect of the long haul and being a part of it and building those relationships. Going through those trials and tribulations of making a film or a series and kind of everyone standing tall and believing what they put down. For the film “Numb” that I did, that was like four years before we actually went to camera. Almost five years before we went to camera. So that journey when we actually did go to camera and then we wrapped the last day… that was just way more emotional and rewarding than anything else where I just jumped in as an actor, so yeah, I’d like to do more.

War for the Planet of the Apes” arrives in theaters July 14, 2017.

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