Talking animals are nothing new to Steve Zahn. Over the years, in various kids' movies, he's played a wise-cracking circus bear, an alley cat and a couple of different pigs. He was even a pterodactyl once.
Still, when Zahn was first approached about playing a chimpanzee in the upcoming "War for the Planet of the Apes," he had a hard time wrapping his head around the idea. Simply lending his voice to an animated critter was one thing, but creating a fully developed, three-dimensional simian character using performance-capture technology was something else entirely.
"I had no clue whatsoever what it entailed," Zahn, 49, said by phone recently from his farm in Kentucky. "I was like, 'Oh, they can't just make me an ape – I really have to be an ape!' Then I got nervous."
For the latest chapter in the sci-fi-action series, in theaters July 14, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback wanted to introduce a new ape character who would feel fresh and unfamiliar – no small challenge for a nearly 50-year-old franchise that's featured all manner of talking gorillas, orangutans and chimps, from thoughtful scientists to brutal generals to venal politicians.
Reeves and Bomback landed on the idea of a sweet-natured chimp who escaped from captivity and now lives alone in the mountains. Lonely and desperate for contact, this simian hermit, who was simply called "Bad Ape" by his abusive zookeepers, is discovered by the ape leader Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) and recruited to guide an expedition to a human military camp led by a ruthless colonel (Woody Harrelson).
"Bad Ape just felt like a kind of voice we'd never had in any of the movies, and it allowed for a lot of heartbreak but also a tremendous amount of humor," said Reeves, who also directed the series' previous installment, 2014's critically acclaimed hit "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." "To play him, I wanted to look for comedic actors who also had great dramatic underpinnings in their performances. Steve's name came up, and I got very excited."
Reeves set up a Skype meeting with Zahn, who was in Puerto Rico at the time shooting the erstwhile Amazon series "Mad Dogs." He asked the actor, who has frequently been cast as a comic sidekick, to try reading a few scenes. That quickly sealed the deal.
"I knew Steve was going to make me laugh, but we did this heartbreaking scene about Bad Ape's past and he made me cry," Reeves said. "He was so nakedly emotional in that vulnerable way that the character needed to be."
In the run-up to shooting, Zahn watched countless YouTube videos of chimps in zoos to try to get in the proper monkey head space.
"The interesting thing is I found the most compelling videos were of chimps that were just sitting there, doing nothing," he said. "How do they sit? What are they focusing on? I would just study them."
The task of translating Zahn's performance into a fully realized, photo-realistic ape fell to the VFX artists at Weta Digital. To help guide the look of Bad Ape, Reeves had sent Weta a photo he'd found on the Internet of a chimp that seemed to be smiling a sweet, hopeful smile. But until he started seeing the first rendered footage, he wasn't sure exactly how the character would come to life. "As the translation begins and you see the first glimpses, it becomes very exciting," Reeves said.
For Zahn, seeing himself onscreen for the first time as Bad Ape was truly mind-bending. "It was trippy, and I was really moved by it," Zahn said. He paused, grasping for the right words to describe the experience. "It's hard to explain. It was just beautiful, you know?"