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Interview: Steve Zahn talks ‘War of the Planet of the Apes’

Without question, Steve Zahn has been one of the most reliable actors to work in Hollywood in the past two-plus decades. Zahn’s list of credits is long and impressive — ranging from his breakthrough role in director Ben Stiller’s romantic dramedy “Reality Bites” and a starring turn in Tom Hanks’ directorial debut “That Thing You Do!” — to a turn opposite Eddie Murphy in the smash comedy “Daddy Day Care” and more recently, a memorable recurring guest turn on TV’s “Modern Family.”

Yet for all the comedy Zahn has done, he’s had a fine share of serious film roles, too, including the adventure drama “Rescue Dawn” alongside Christian Bale and “Dallas Buyers Club” opposite his “Sahara” co-star Matthew McConaughey.

All told, the Minnesota native’s ability to stretch himself across the character spectrum has come to serve him well, and was no doubt a factor in his casting him in the pivotal role as Bad Ape in writer-director Matt Reeves’ new sci-fi thriller “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

In a phone conversation from New York Wednesday, Zahn said he still can’t quite get over how the wizardry of computer artists added layers onto his motion capture performance to create a living, breathing simian; yet without losing the essence of the emotions he provided just beneath the surface.

“It’s a crazy experience when you first see yourself as an ape,” Zahn recalled of the first time saw footage of Bad Ape. “I was actually moved by it. It was a moving experience. It’s hard to explain.”

Bad Ape is a highly-evolved, former zoo chimpanzee who managed to survive an intensifying conflict between humans and apes as the simians continue to evolve as a species while the human population struggles to survive. And despite his desire to keep to himself, Bad Ape proves to be a valuable ally to Caesar (Andy Serkis) as he and a small band of apes seek the location of a bloodthirsty military colonel (Woody Harrelson) who is hell-bent on eradicating his enemies before Earth becomes a planet of apes.

“My view of Bad Ape when I read for Matt was that I didn’t think of him as this comedic character — I told him that I thought of him as a tragic character, ” Zahn said in a phone conversation from New York Wednesday. “He was living in the mountains and had lost his friends, and was dealing with his seclusion by collecting stuff and becoming a hoarder. When Caesar and the others show up, he’s so excited to have companionship — and he bonds with Caesar over the incredible losses they’ve had in their lives.”

Reeves does, naturally, take advantage of Zahn’s comedic gifts at times, but even then, they’re more in moments of situational comedy than set-ups for a laugh.

“I knew that Bad Ape would be funny in opposition to Caesar,” Zahn said. “His pace is different. He’s quick, he can’t stop talking, he can’t stop thinking, and he’s always rocking back and forth. I knew that would have levity in this really dark story, and Matt agreed. But when I auditioned for the role, it was for a very moving scene, and Matt was moved by it and he will tell you that’s why he hired me. He also, knew though, that I had the ability to find the humor in things.”

Ape for Oscar

Already being lauded by critics as one of the best movies of the new “Planet of the Apes” trilogy as well as one of the best movies of the year, Zahn is hoping that above all, Serkis’ third performance as Caesar is the charm with voters from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Serkis, Zahn said, should not be judged on his motion-capture acting abilities, though, but his acting abilities.

“Andy’s performance in this movie is profound. It is one for the ages,” Zahn, 49, said. “I remember somebody asked me, ‘Was it like taking a master class from him in motion capture acting? ‘ and I said, ‘No. Working with Andy is like taking a master class in acting — period.’ That’s what we’re doing. We’re not doing any other thing.”

Zahn added, however, that motion-capture does certainly have its advantages.

Steve Zahn as Bad Ape in War for the Planet of the Apes (photo 20th Century Fox) final version

“It’s one of the greatest tools you can have as an actor, because you can literally play anything you want,” Zahn observed. “Andy went from playing Gollum to playing King Kong. What an incredible thing to do. I was new to it with this film and I really didn’t know what to expect, and it was the most challenging acting job I’ve ever had. I’m extremely proud of it.”

Zahn does believe, though, that for awards voters to honor the craft, they need to be exposed to a lot more motion-capture to get a greater understanding of it. And even though Serkis has been perfecting the craft since his days on “The Lord of the Rings” movies, some people simply don’t quite get how motion-capture performances are achieved.

“It really irks me — and Andy just laughed when I emailed him about it — when I read a line that said, ‘And Steve Zahn lends his voice to Bad Ape.’ And that was written by someone in the business. I thought, ‘Lends my voice? ‘ Oh, my God. I was pissed! I emailed him and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been dealing with this for 17 years.’ I really felt for him when he said that. He’s an incredible actor.”

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Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes

VIDEO:  Watch Tim’s review of “War for the Planet of the Apes” on KARE 11 (NBC).

“War for the Planet of the Apes” (PG-13)

Director Matt Reeves and Caesar motion capture artist Andy Serkis team together once again for “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third and perhaps best film in the new “Apes” trilogy that began with the 2011 prequel “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

“War for the Planet of the Apes” picks up a few years after the events of the second film “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” where at the conclusion, the rogue ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) tricks his fellow simians into a conflict with the surviving humans of a worldwide plague. While the humans and evolving ape society managed to live apart with nothing more than a tense atmosphere between them, Koba’s deadly meddling was enough to ensure that apes and humans would never live in harmony.

With the ape population growing and the human population decimated, a bloodthirsty military heavy known only as The Colonel (the always great Woody Harrelson) looks to eradicate the earth of all apes, beginning with their leader Caesar. Inflicting a huge loss on Caesar after he infiltrates the apes’ stronghold, The Colonel successfully draws his target out into the open; leading to the deadly confrontation that Caesar has so long fought to avoid.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” no doubt has its share of battle scenes as the title promises, but at the heart of the film there’s so much more, including parallels to the darkest part of America’s past. With a proper balance of action and a meaningful story, Reeves has easily constructed one of the best films of the year, complete with stellar performances by Serkis, Harrelson, Karin Konoval (reprising her role as the wise orangutan Maurice) and Steve Zahn — who plays a former zoo chimpanzee named Bad Ape (the words used to admonish him) who learned his traits from humans.

With any luck, the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will stop ignoring sci-fi films and motion capture performances (particularly Serkis’) and award “War for the Planet of the Apes” with all the attention it so richly deserves come Oscar time.

Lammometer 9 (out of 10)

Copyright 2017 DirectConversations.com.

AUDIO: Listen to Tim’s review of “War for the Planet of the Apes” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard.

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Movie reviews: Tim Lammers talks ‘Conjuring 2,’ ‘Now You See Me 2,’ more on KQRS

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Click into the media player at 12 minutes in to hear Tim Lammers‘ reviews of “The Conjuring 2,” “Now You See Me 2” and “Warcraft: The Beginning” on KQRS-FM.

Tim Burton Book 2
Click book cover for info on how to buy!