For Karin Konoval, the actress who plays the kindly Maurice in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, orangutans have become more than just subjects to study for a role.
Before playing the motion-capture creation in the first film in the rebooted franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Konoval went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to observe Towan, an orangutan known for his painting skills. But between the films, she began visiting the orangutans of the zoo for her own "personal reasons," having become fascinated with the species. That became a resource as she took on the role of Maurice again. "I’ve learned so much from all of the orangutans," she told The Wire. "When I began to play Maurice in Dawn the amount of inspiration from each of them in all kinds of different ways informed by portrayal of Maurice."
Towan was the original inspiration for Maurice, and Konoval decided to visit before filming Rise. "After observing him for a couple of hours at a distance he literally jumped to the window and pressed his face to mine, and he studied me," Konoval said. "It was in the 20 minutes that he was studying me that gave me, sort of by osmosis, what I’ve called the 'key' to Maurice. It was a very magical 20 minutes." After the zoo learned that Towan had an influence on Konoval's work in Rise, the zoo invited her for a "personal introduction" to Towan in November 2011.
When Konoval goes to the zoo she sits as any visitor would, but paints so that the orangutans can see. In that way she says she engages in a "painting conversation" with them. Melati, she said, likes to pick the colors Konoval uses to paint. "Melati will point to a color or she’ll shrug like 'I don’t care' or she will shake her head no, like, no, I don’t want that," Konoval said. "The way Melati has reached out to her son Heran to groom him, that’s become part of Maurice," Konoval explained.
Heran, who is Melati and Towan's son, will also "sometimes take a stand about something," which has become part of Maurice's person. One of Heran's gestures worked its way into a lovely scene of ape and human bonding in the film in which Maurice reads Charles Burns' graphic novel Black Hole with Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the teenage son of Jason Clarke's human protagonist, Malcolm. "Maurice bangs the ground in excitement when he gets it," Konoval said. "That’s something directly from Heran. Heran when he gets excited about something, like if he’s just stuffed a bucket full of hay or if he’s done something else that makes him really happy and proud of himself he’ll bang the ground in excitement like that."
The fact that Maurice shows an interest in the arts in that scene with Alexander was a happy coincidence for Konoval. "It was a wonderful flipping of the relationship in a way, it’s sort of where I’ve been for the last couple of years is the perspective of Alexander, looking at an orangutan and now I was actually able to actually go inside and actually be the orangutan I was relating to for the last few years, if that makes sense."
Chinta has a way of applauding that Konoval used for Maurice. "There are certain ways, say, the orangutan Chinta, she will, when she’s happy that I’m about to start painting, she will give this little happy clap clap of her hands," Konoval said.
When Dawn was filming in New Orleans, Konoval said she had the opportunity to go down to Atlanta to visit with Chantek, an orangutan well-known for his ability to communicate in American Sign Language. Maurice, as well as many of the other apes in the movie, sign. "Over the course of those three days I taught myself a little bit of extra sign language so that I could try to initiate a conversation with him and to my astonishment twice we actually had a brief exchange in sign language, which is really wonderful," Konoval said. "By that point we had already begun filming and we had filmed quite a bit before I met him, but it affirmed the way I was signing as Maurice for me." Konoval said that in one of the exchanges Chantek actually joked with her. She asked him if he wanted to paint, and he said, "with what?," not having any tools at his disposal.