Steve Zahn on ‘War for the Planet of the Apes': ‘Bad Ape Is the Hardest Acting Job I’ve Ever Done’

“If I didn’t have experience in theater before this I don’t know if I could have done it,” actor tells TheWrap about his motion capture debut

(Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers from “War for the Planet of the Apes.”)

In one respect, Steve Zahn’s experience performing as the show-stealing Bad Ape in “War for the Planet of the Apes” is rather similar to the situation his innocent, silly character finds himself in. Much like how Bad Ape finds himself joining a team of apes who have been through hell and back together, Zahn was the newcomer to a team of actors who, starting with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” six years ago, have become a tight-knit team. Combining their talents with motion capture technology, the group has told the story of how Caesar and his family have risen from research facility captives to the inheritors of a new world.

And Zahn was the new kid on the block.

In an interview with TheWrap, Zahn spoke about what he learned from mo-cap legend Andy Serkis and his fellow ape cast — led by Karin Konoval and Terry Notary — and how playing Bad Ape was like “being in a small independent movie” and was “the hardest acting job I’ve ever done.”

When you were building Bad Ape’s character, what inspired his mannerisms and personality?
The character was so lifelike on the page and so in opposition to the other apes. They’re all so brooding and heavy and he’s excitable and his brain’s working faster than his mouth is. So, the mannerisms were just of this being. I didn’t think “chimp” as much. I was just playing a guy.

I spent time working with Terry Notary, who plays Rocket in the film, on the chimp aspects, and that’s when everything started working together. The first day we filmed, all the aspects just naturally came about. I remember whenever I said “oh” I would point to my mouth and my lips made a circle. It’s as if I was mimicking whoever taught me how to speak.

When a character is that great, it just naturally happens. Working with Terry, Andy, Karin and Matt [Reeves, the director], I was just nervous starting out. It was this big-budgeted machine these people have been working on forever. It’s hard enough just to play a character, let alone a character who happens to be a chimp. But I was totally blown away by Matt and his approach, where he let us rehearse every scene until we got it. It was a lot like being in some small independent movie, and you have the time to really explore. If you told me that’s what this film was going to be like, I would have laughed.

Andy Serkis and the ape cast had been working on these characters for six years. What sort of tips did they give you for working with motion capture?
Surprisingly, there weren’t any really specific guidelines. There was no “move like this” or “do it like that.” There was none of that! Any tips were only about character. When I started working with Terry, Andy had already started filming and I had two weeks to prep. Not once did Terry explain anything technically to me. First day, I thought we were going to run around in the woods and try being a quadruped and watch some videos and that would be it. Instead, we just sat in chairs and talked about the essence of an ape. I thought I was back in conservatory. It’s funny. People think when you do roles like this, it’s just another world, but it’s not! It’s the closest thing I’ve ever done to theater.

Were there any gags you loved doing or any scenes that were really tough to film?
To me, the only scene that was really set up as humorous was the binocular scene, and I didn’t think that it was going to end up in the film because of where it is in the story. But it just works, man. But there were other scenes that were very demanding, like jumping off of a horse while we were filming the horse chase. When I got to my mark, I have to jump off this horse like a chimp would, and it has to be effortless.

Other times the difficulty just came from the fact that we were shooting digitally, where you can have 20- to 30-minute-long takes. With film you get to have a break because they need to reload the reels. But one of the first scenes I shot was the scene where Bad Ape crawls out of the chimney. Matt had me keep doing it over and over again and it was getting to the point where my legs were shaking, and Andy laughed and said, “Matt, I think we need to stop for a minute.”

Once all the work was done, what was it like seeing Bad Ape for the first time, knowing that it was your ape?
It was a moving experience. Matt showed me a scene during reshoots and I was completely floored. You see so much of yourself, these little tiny traits. I remember noticing takes when I watched Bad Ape, and not because of what I said, but because of what I did. It’s very profound every time I get to watch it, and not just because of the character. Now I’m watching it for little things, like the way they had the fur react to water.

We previously spoke to Andy Serkis, and he said that he hopes the “Apes” films help mo-cap performances get recognized in the same way live-action performances do. After working on “War for the Planet of the Apes,” what are your thoughts on motion capture now that you’ve experienced it yourself?
To be honest, this was the hardest acting job I’ve ever done! If I didn’t have experience in theater before this I don’t know if I could have done it. I mean, I do feel like I’m tooting my own horn when I get asked this, but you have to be really good to do this stuff! I would go about doing this performance as I would if I was playing someone who was paralyzed or had a limp, and it’s just amazing to me that just because you don’t recognize my face somehow it’s considered some different form of acting.

I think Andy in this movie is just doing one for the ages. He is absolutely phenomenal and he should be recognized for it. Yeah, awards are whatever, but [motion capture] should be considered equivalent. Aside from the avalanche, everything you see was just us, running out there in the woods of British Columbia.

This interview has been edited for clarity.