War for the Planet of the Apes: Steve Zahn Talks Playing ‘Scout’ in Caesar’s Army

We sit down with Steve Zahn to talk about his first mo-cap experience, War for the Planet of the Apes, and what his character represents.

When I first sit down with Steve Zahn, star of War for the Planet of the Apes, he’s looking out the window of a Manhattan aerie, studying a scene 50 floors below. It’s a little over two weeks to go until Christmas, and across the street, past Columbus Circle, there’s a small city of tents set up on the southwest bank of Central Park. We didn’t know it at the time, but within the encampment is the locale’s famed “Holiday Market,” a kind of outdoor, Dickensian bazaar wherein shoppers can get their upscale Christmas buying done while enjoying a faintly quainter, boutique atmosphere.

I didn’t learn this myself until I later walked into the seasonal spot, but my interest was compelled due to Zahn’s own strong curiosity in what was occurring there. Why are there so many folks congregating when the wind was cutting through the park like a whip? A desire in Zahn to explore such things makes sense, as by his own account he plays the “scout” to Andy Serkis’ proverbial general in War for the Planet of the Apes.

The day before our interview, Zahn had been onhand alongside director Matt Reeves to introduce a cornucopia of new War for the Planet of the Apes footage at the Fox Showcase. Amongst the footage gleaned were human soldiers with ape-hating slogans painted onto their helmets attacking a conclave of chimps in the woods; Caesar reluctantly taking a human little girl (who would later be named Nova) as a pet; and the introduction of Zahn’s character… a chimpanzee who calls himself Bad Ape, and who attempts to steal a horse from Caesar in the snowy Sierra Nevada before ultimately befriending the honorable leader by revealing, like Caesar, he too can speak English.

Considering it’s hinted in the footage that Zahn’s Bad Ape has escaped Woody Harrelson’s clutches in the past, and that Caesar is eager to force Bad Ape to lead them back to the human base in which Harrelson’s character resides, Zahn’s Bad Ape has profound implications for the franchise (and how it became a literal “Planet of the Apes”), as well as for how Caesar winds up in Harrelson’s prison by the end of the startling new trailer.

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We discuss all that, and how Bad Ape earns a scouting role in Caesar’s army, in the below interview.

Was motion-capture something you always wanted to do or was that something that just came with this project?

I didn’t really think about it. I mean, motion-capture was just something that was as foreign to me as anything. You know, it’s hard enough just finding a story or a character. That’s hard enough, let alone a process or a genre. I don’t go, “Oh, I’d like to do a horror movie next.” I just want to do a good story next, and hopefully it’s something you kind of want to do.

So motion-capture, I had no clue; I had as much clue about it as any person who’s not even in the business. “Yeah, there’s dots, and they kind of make you appear like you’re on the Titanic.” Fuck, I don’t know. So then when it became a reality, I started researching it, and I started looking at it, and I started watching things, and I started thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a really difficult process. This is going to be a very technical process where I’m going to have to change the way I do things. I’m going to have to adjust the way I work as an actor in order to be a part of this thing.”

Then I went to set and I started working with Terry Notary, who’s amazing. He plays Rocket, and he’s kind of the guy, the guru of the movement for these things. I started working with him and I realized, “Oh, this is nothing to do with technical.” We’re not even talking about that. We’re talking about what I used to do as a student at the American Repertory Theater [where I] talked about like character, and working from the inside-out. I was like, “Oh my God, this is nothing to do with [what I thought].” All that other stuff is to record what you do, and hopefully you kill it.

At the same time, filming in mo-cap on some of those snowy locations looked like a Revenant experience.

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Oh, totally, oh yeah. I love that movie. I watch that and go “holy shit;” I keep thinking about just how cold and wet they were. But yeah, you don’t realize—that’s why you take offense when somebody thinks, “Oh, it was computerized, so you guys weren’t really [there].” Even if it’s subconscious and it’s not even direct, it’s, “You didn’t really work that hard.” That’s the connotation when someone goes, “Oh, it was motion-capture. Oh, it was CGI.”

You were on those locations.

I go, “No, dude.” It was all day, it was fucking miserable, and we were wet, and it was really physically hard to do. I always worry about my back going, but it was Planet of the fucking Apes, man. And that’s what made it great! I loved every day because of that.

In this film, you’re Bad Ape, who can speak English. That’s very interesting, because up until now, only Caesar could. So could you talk about the dynamic between you and Andy, and what this could mean for the franchise?

Right, well that’s the first thing that—not to get too crazy in the story—you know when I’m revealed, when they find me, that alone is huge. Because up until this point, as an audience, and also as apes, they think they’re the only ones who have survived what has happened. The disease, and you know, that they’re the only ones, and that there’s the enclave in the woods, and there’s no other apes around. So they find another ape, which is huge. They go, “Wow, there’s another ape that survived? Could there be more?”

Then I speak, and they find out very quickly that I’m a chimp who escaped from the Portland Zoo. And obviously I was, at the zoo, taught how to speak. So I have that going for me. [Laughs] And my character is just—this story gets really heavy, man. It gets so dark, which is one thing I love about it. I love dark things. And it gets really violent, it gets really heavy and nasty. When you find me, it’s just, I think, a breath of fresh air. This guy who’s been through a lot of the same stuff, and shares a lot of the same experiences, but he’s just so excited to be with other apes. There’s just something really great about that.

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He’s also, I think, kinder and more deferential to humans than Caesar is. Caesar is very wary of the girl who will be Nova, but you give her your coat.

Sure, but he also wants them to stay. He gives her stuff because he thinks they’re going to leave. [Laughs] So it’s like, “See? So it’s all good! You want some food? Come take my shit.” But yeah, I think Caesar is, at his core, is a very empathetic kind of solid character with a lot of integrity. But because of this story, he really goes to a dark place, and he starts losing some of that. And I think Bad Ape, in a weird way, replaces that empathy or whatever.

Matt [Reeves] has repeatedly called this as a bit like A Bridge on the River Kwai.

Yeah, I thought that was really smart, I loved that!

I did too, and I can’t help but think that maybe your character is the William Holden in this situation.

[Laughs] The William Holden? Well, I guess, yeah, in a way. Kind of in a way! That’s a great movie to compare it to. It is like that; it’s about World War II, and it’s about this big bridge, and the Japanese, but it’s really about the guys in the camp. That’s what make The Bridge on the River Kwai so great, these stories of these individuals surviving, and that’s what this movie is. It’s a very good analogy.

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And you’re the reluctant escapee being sent back. Back into the thick of it.

Right. I know where to go. I mean, I’m the scout.

Continuing the Kwai analogy then, the trailer shows that at some point, Caesar and you all will be captives for at least a portion of the movie. Could you talk about what that sequence is like, and what is the dynamic between yourselves and Woody Harrelson’s character?

Well, Woody’s a bastard. [Laughs] He’s about as bad as you get, he’s a bad dude. Yeah, to reach where the animosity between humans and apes [goes], it’s really hardcore. I mean, you see it at the beginning with the names written on [the back of humans’ helmets]. I love that! I hadn’t seen it, so this was the first time for me too. But I loved that shot of the soldiers going up the hill in the thick woods, and this camera moves up along the back of the helmets with all that stuff written there. You know, “Extinct Species” and “Bedtime for Bonzo.”

Make America Great Again.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. But it’s really good, it’s really hardcore, and it reaches a new—it’s been two years since the last movie, and now they just hate each other.

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Do you have any scenes with Woody?

No. Well, indirectly. It’s really Caesar and him that have this, going through this [battle of wills].

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Do you all view this as the end of a trilogy or just the next chapter that gets us closer to Chuck Heston on a beach?

[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know, man. It’s so different from that, you really can’t compare it to the old movies. Those guys—I was just along for the ride, man.

Would you like to revisit Bad Ape?

Oh, my God? Are you kidding? It’d be great. It’s really one of my favorite jobs on three levels. Usually, when you say it’s your favorite job, that really means the people around me were good people and fun to be around, and challenging. That’s what usually [it means]. And that’s why some people are like, “What, Management? I didn’t even see that!” And you go, “It was great people and it was good work.”

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This one is like that, but there’s also just the fact that it’s Planet of the Apes, and the fact that you’re playing an ape, and the fact that it’s a huge budget and they let us play. I mean, it’s truly an amazing gig, man. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Thank you so much.

Yeah, thanks a lot.

War for the Planet of the Apes opens on July 14, 2017.