How a real human-ape friendship inspired The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

The director and stars of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, now in cinemas across the Middle East, speak to The National

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Life mirrors art in The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. In the new film, set 300 years after the events of the last, the legacy of the character Caesar looms large, as later generations struggle to fill the once great leader’s shoes.

Kingdom’s set had a similar such shadow looming large over the proceedings. The great Andy Serkis, widely considered the godfather of motion capture performance, was the key to the previous trilogy’s success. His portrayal of Caesar brought depth and skill like we’d never seen before in a digitally rendered character, and has given every actor since a template on which to follow.

Thankfully for the director and crew of Kingdom, Serkis was happy to impart that wisdom on the next generation.

Director Wes Ball tells The National: “Andy told me, ‘there’s one thing you have to make sure the actors know. You cannot pretend to be an ape.’

“They really had to focus internally on that – it’s about digesting and understanding what it means to be an ape. So they spent weeks at a kind of ape school, where they just learnt to improvise, to move, to talk, and be an ape,” Ball continues.

“It went down to every detail. They even had to hole themselves up, sit in a room not doing anything, but just feel like an ape – to breathe like an ape. So that way, when we were shooting the movie, they’re no longer thinking about it. Because thinking is the enemy – it had to be second nature. It had to be something you can believe in.”

For Owen Teague, who stars as Noa, the new film’s hero, ape school became more than just learning to be an ape. It wasn’t long before he found that the training bonded him with his co-stars stronger than any project he’d done to date.

“Your defences are down in ape school. Because of its very nature, you’re already in a kind of vulnerable position. So you immediately form these connections with the people you're in the moment with that transcend the scene. It’s really extraordinary,” says Teague.

Kevin Durand, who plays the film’s antagonist Proximus Caesar, felt that connection most strongly on day one.

“On my first day on set, Owen came over to me completely in character as Noa. And I was very much still Kevin at that moment. I was looking around, thinking, ‘oh gosh, he’s going to want me to bring out the ape!’ I hesitated, but he was reaching out to me. I looked at him and thought, ‘OK, just go with it. Be open.’ And then my chest popped up. And I went into it, too,” says Durand.

Teague adds: “It was amazing. I literally watched Proximus appear in front of my eyes.”

Freya Allen, who plays a human character in the film, had no idea what to make of the moment.

“I remember seeing this from a distant and I was like, ‘what the heck?’” Allen says.

Undeterred, the two then stood there for 45 minutes, Durand explains, and had a long conversation in character as apes, explaining how they saw the world and what was driving their individual stories until they truly connected, both as actors and as people.

“We found so much in that one improv,” says Teague.

But for Teague, the most important moment in the development of his character came away from his collaborators. The actor, who is from Florida, spent a week at a chimpanzee sanctuary close to where he grew up. There, he met one particular chimp named Noel, who spoke American Sign Language.

“Wait, what?” Allen says to Teague as he explains this to The National.

“Yeah, she speaks some ASL,” Teague adds casually.

Teague and Noelle became fast friends. “She would tell me things she likes to eat. At one point, I had a camera with me, and she pointed to it and asked if it was a water bottle. I said ‘no, sorry’ and so she immediately lost interest,” he says.

But the moment that really stuck with him came after the two had become friends. One day, Teague returned with a bandage around his finger after a small injury.

“She looked at my finger, and pointed at it, and asked me if I was hurt. I said, ‘yeah, but I’m OK.’ She just wanted to be sure. They’re very sensitive creatures,” adds Teague. "That was really useful."

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas now across the Middle East

Updated: May 13, 2024, 6:13 AM