“I’d played a wide range of roles but I thought this is really pushing it,” the actress joked on the New Orleans set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where she was shooting the blockbuster last year.
She decided to give it a shot since it was unusual and felt like something new.
Knowing that it would be a challenge, she went to the casting call and encountered “20-somethings who were doing splits in the hallway” in preparation, some of them were even acrobats. But, with her nuanced and soulful interpretation of the character she capture the role of Maurice.
So, who is Karen Konoval, the actress who was able to portray a male Orangutan and make him so memorable? Read on…
Konoval’s acting career began in and has been based primarily in Canada. Born in Baltimore, she moved north to Edmonton, Alberta, when she was a child. Today, she resides in Vancouver, where she works as a respected and well-known theater actress with numerous credits to her name.
She’s won several Jessie Richardson Awards for best lead actress for performances in various theatrical productions, and has appeared in numerous feature films. TV audiences around the world know her from guest roles on popular shows such as Fringe, Supernatural, The Good Wife and The L Word, to name just a few – and she’ll soon be seen in the highly anticipated BBC series, Intruders. She was impressive as the Wicked Witch in the mini-series Tin Man, and one of her most memorable roles was as Mrs Peacock in the X-Files episode Home that was deemed so disturbing it was actually taken out of TV rotation (yes, she played the creepy mother).
Despite her diverse experience, she says the biggest challenge of her career was to bring life to a character where she wouldn’t even show her face — at least not in the usual way, but only via ‘motion capture’ technology where reflecting markers captured her expressions as Maurice, the Orangutan that she played in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and reprises in the sequel.
Karen made film history as the first woman to play a male ape in motion capture.
“I’d read books on Orangutans and saw this beautiful female and thought that was what I was going for. Then I learned that Maurice was male, old and fat. “And I thought, ‘seriously?’,”, she says laughing, ”but (director) Rupert (Wyatt) saw something in me that I didn’t see at the time. And it became a magical journey.”
Like all actors in the movie Karen went through “ape school” under instructor Terry Notary. She learned how to move on all fours like a heavy ape instead of a slim actress gliding down the red carpet. She also needed to find the voice for Maurice – just ask her about learning to lower her voice and perfecting the Orangutan’s “long call,” She also produced all Orangutan grunts and noises made by Maurice when (s)he wasn’t using sign language to communicate. Look for her early in the film when Maurice is teaching writing to ape kids and other wonderful scenes throughout this marvelous movie.
Konoval studied and based Maurice on real primates from zoos – Bruno in Los Angeles and Towan in Seattle.
Playing a primate over a couple of months is “physically brutally challenging” she says – even the second time around. Which might be why there aren’t more women doing this insane job.
In Dawn, Konoval is joined by Judy Greer who plays a female ape named Cornelia in motion capture – everyone else wearing those funky grey suits with reflecting markers are male.
Asked if she feels like a role model for actresses to get roles that are complex and unusual roles like this one, she replies “I do not feel like a role model. I’m most grateful for opportunities to play very interesting characters – like Maurice – and can only hope that the opportunities continue for me. But I hope more women pursue roles like this since it was a very rewarding experience for me.”
Why we Chose Her: Everyone talks about Caesar played by the wonderful Andy Serkis, who is undoubtedly the King of Motion Capture. But audiences also fall in love with the quieter Orangutan Maurice. And we need more actresses who make bold choices, don’t shy away from a challenge and aren’t afraid to invade the male-centric motion capture acting category.
Fun Facts: The name Maurice is a nod to actor Maurice Evans who played the Orangutan named Dr. Zaius in the original Planet of the Apes. Other actresses who’ve brought characters to life through motion capture in films include Zoe Zaldana as Neytiri and C.C.H. Pounder as Queen Moat in Avatar, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf. Can you think of more — excluding those who’ve created wonderful characters in video games, where casting females is more frequent? Let us know in the comments!
Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes opens July 11th.