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Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis discuss 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

A scene from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" with Andy Serkis as primate leader Caesar
A scene from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" with Andy Serkis as primate leader Caesar
20th Century Fox

In "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (which takes places 10 years after the end of 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"), a growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar (played by Andy Serkis) is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth's dominant species.

Keri Russell, Gary Oldman and Andy Serkis on the "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" panel at 2014 WonderCon in Anaheim, Calif.

Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Jason Clarke are among those who play the human survivors. Oldman, Russell, Clarke, Serkis and movement choreographer Terry Notary (who plays Rocket in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" gathered for a "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" press conference in San Francisco. Here is what they said.

How did you get involved with the “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”?

Russell: I got involved through Matt Reeves, the director. Matt and I had worked over 10 years ago on a series called “Felicity.” We’ve had a very close relationship and have been trying all these years to find something to work on together. I never thought it would be “Planet of the Apes” but he called me last summer or last spring and said, “I’m doing this. Come do this with me.”

I think what’s special for me about this is just Matt’s partnership with the idea of these very big action summer movies, partnered with Matt’s sensibility, which is this incredibly detailed, sensitive, emotional storytelling. I think that can only serve a big summer movie. It's the kind of movie I’d want to see.

Oldman: In fact I was reminded last night that I received a letter from Matt. He wrote me a letter.

Russell: Oh, you did? That's lovely.

Oldman: That’s how I first got involved, and then subsequently spoke with him on the phone and had seen his previous work, so I thought the idea of Matt with this material was this sort of wonderful marriage. Then when I finally read the script I was shocked, I was surprised that it was this sort of very touching, emotional story about family and community. So that’s how I got involved.

Clarke: Matt did me a five-minute video where he acted the whole video out. He did a very good Caesar, too! No he didn’t, I wish he did. You know, a lot of the same things. It always starts with the script.

And I also I wanted to work with guys that are at the forefront of what this business is doing now on a bigger scale particularly, when you have the budget. The motion capture and the 3-D and what WETA was going to do.

And once again, it’s the people involved. It was Matt Reeves and a lot of people around town said he’s one of the smartest guys they know, a very diligent man, a very hard0working man. You know, a guy that cares.

And guys like Andy Serkis and Terry [Notary], who are the best at what they do. Have not just started what they do but continue to lead the way and educate the new guys that are doing it and really take it forward. That was one of the real attractions to it. [He says to Serkis] You had to come back!

Serkis: I had to come back. There was no option. Terry and I had an amazing time on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Terry’s an extraordinary human being. He’s the most incredible performance coach. He has taught every single guy how to angle out to be their species of ape. And to get to work with Terry again has been amazing, and we’ve worked on many other projects.

But my first meeting with Matt was coming off of having worked with [“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” director] Rupert Wyatt. What’s so great about Matt is that rather than direct coming in and [saying] “this is going to be my movie,” he actually really wanted to honor what Rupert Wyatt had done with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” And it’s in such a generous spirit of the way that Matt can be and have.

So when I sat down with him and had lunch he talked through the story where he wanted to drop anchor with “Dawn,” it was just spellbinding that he had absolutely isolated a very, very important thing about not rushing too far into the future, about landing where you could still see the apes evolving, still see a civilization that was being birthed and created.

As Gary was saying, not wanting to make an unbalanced sort of polemic on behalf of the apes but to look at a situation of unbalance in the world of two species struggling for survival. He’s done that with incredible tenderness, he’s been the most incredible director to work with because in the scale of such a big production and the scale of such a huge undertaking, he’s always absolutely zoned in on the most important thing, which is the emotional truth of every single character in the story and their dynamic.

Notary: I was upset when Rupert decided not to do the film at first. And then I went in to meet with Matt and I was like, “Wow. Wow. This guy is going to do a great job with this film.” It’s about story for him.

He wanted the apes to begin to create culture and communicate and have an intelligence that was percolating underneath these primal beings. I was like, “That’s sounds amazing. Let’s do it. I was honored to come back and sort of continue from where we left off and sort of continue the growth of the apes.

We learned so much on the first film. When we were on the first film we were like, “All right how are we going to turn these guys into apes? What’re we doing to do? Let’s try some arm extensions and try that, do tests.” We came up with something that was working and were like, “OK!”

By the end of the film we were like “OK, we got it!” We kind of got this now, so we started from there. And now we can start to work with the emotion and the nuance, that’s where we really started having fun. It was great to do this all. Loved it.

Gary, can you talk about your Dreyfus character? Do you feel like he was always before all this happened or do you think he sort of jumped on the chance to become a leader when he brought all those people together?

Oldman: There’s obviously a history between my character and Malcolm [played by Jason Clarke]. I like to think that he was a sort of designated leader, that it was not necessarily him stepping forward but because he had a history of being a police officer he was viewed as someone that was organized, organizational skills and resourceful in that sense. So it was one of those situations where or he may have just raised his hand and said, "Well, if no one else is coming through, I’ll do it.”

Keri, how was working again with Matt Reeves different and how was it the same? Have you changed a lot professionally or personally?

Russell: It’s funny because obviously the first time we worked together was on a small TV show about a girl going to college, but this something very different. But the truth is Matt has a very specific voice and a very specific way he sees the world and taste. His taste is exactly the same. We’re doing these scenes, these small, quiet, intimate scenes with Kodi [Smit-McPhee, who plays Malcom's son Alexander] in this movie and it’s exactly the same way he was all those years ago.

He likes people who are really vulnerable, who are trying so hard to be brave against all odds and that’s what he does really well. I think that’s what I’m so happy for Mattt about this specific film, especially working with Andy. He really captured that; he was able to capture that intimacy/good stuff in this giant arena.

Oldman: And he contaminates you with his energy. He really is so happy to be there. He loves the job so much and is so passionate about the process, about cinema. And about actors, isn’t he? He just contaminates you.

And it doesn’t even matter on a movie like this because there are days and things that are easily stacked against you. The biggest one being time; you’re a slave to it. The clock is ticking. but no matter how stressed he was he could always sort of come out of that with a smile on his face and say, "Yeah, what do you need?” So he’s quite remarkable. I think he’s truly a remarkable man.

Dreyfus has a memorable scene with an iPad. If there were an app that could bring peace or save the world, which would it be and why?

Clarke: I always had photographs rather than an app to remind me of certain things whether it’s, you often see people with a tattoo of “breathe.” On this one, I had a photograph I found, a couple actually on the Internet of the original ["Planet of the Apes" movie] that used dwarves I think or children in the suit and he’s standing there getting his hair combed just to remind me of the humor to have a laugh.

And then another one of the chimpanzees sitting and leaning back like we were really just taking a bit of sun and having some coffee, just to remind me of how close and the remarkableness of what we’re doing. I think a photo can always serve to take you back or to touch you on something.

Oldman: I’ve always used music and photographs for emotion. I mean, the family on the iPad are my family. They’re my kids, and that’s my wife and dog — in that order. The producers wanted me to submit some pictures so that they could sort of Photoshop them, as they often do in movies. I spoke with Matt and said, "If I can find the right kind of photo, then why don’t we just go with that?" That helped me with where I had to go.

What do you hope the audience will get from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”?

Serkis: Having the capacity to not be blocked down and prejudiced in times of great difficulty, in times of survival, keeping the channels of communication open and still try to find a way forward. I think that’s what this films all about. I think it’s about empathy, I think it’s about prejudice, and I think it’s about fundamentalism. Any form of belief system that shuts you off from having a true emotional response in seeing the plight of another person, species, culture.

I think it’s a real movie for our times, I really, really believe that this is a powerful movie that Matt’s made which will reach people and will resonate with them on a variety of different levels. They can be purely entertained, they can really take it to heart.

I’ve had more people come up and say in the last few days that this has been one of the most moving films they’ve seen. It’s quite extraordinary to think that you can be transported into seeing the human condition through this world, through this keyhole, and be moved by it, and made to think about where we sit in the world at the moment.

Did you learn something from playing these characters in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"?

Notary: I did. I found out a lot about myself playing Rocket. I really did because what I realized is that we’re all animals, really. When you’re playing an ape, we’re not playing apes. We looked at what made us human and looked at the social conditioning that make us and gives us our persona and our sense of self. You peel those layers away, and what you’re left with is this instinct-driven animal that is open and vulnerable, like a baby.

Going into Rocket is like dropping into himself, a deeper sense of who I am, which is no BS. It’s like shedding all the cerebral guard and just opening up. That’s what we went for as actors, finding their own inner ape and really building the character on that.

So all the actors you see playing apes, they’re not playing apes. They’re finding their own deeper self and sitting in that deeper frequency, and performing in that space. When you do that, you actually learn about yourself ... and all this superficial stuff, this idea of who I am is nothing. It was profound.

What’s a cool story from the “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” set?

Clarke: I remember sitting in a restaurant. Andy and [Terry] were cartwheeling past our window. [He laughs.]

Oldman: My first day working with Andy when the big doors open, fantastic moment that goes from black ...You see the apes, and I obviously turn to my pal here and say, “It’s a lot more than 80.”

I think there were about seven on the day, what happened to the rest of them? The horses were scared, you would startle the horses with your voice. Then the horse was hitting other horses. And so in the end, it was about seven actors in their unitard, sort of motion capturing suits sitting on step ladders they had got from Home Depot.

Serkis: Trying to show our strength. We're here to garden.

In a sci-fi/fantasy movie like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," do you struggle to portray people realistically when things have to be cinematic?

Clarke: You always want it to be real. The emotional side of it, that was the hard part of it. Being in a state of fear, to pretend there was a thousand monkeys is the biggest one, to reach for that state of being truly freaked out. I think that’s an interesting question.

I think we tried to look ugly or look real, look dirty, look sweaty. But also, I’ve hiked and climbed for a month and hygiene and cleanliness is important — for yourself, for health long-term. I think they struck a good balance. You do try to maintain for a certain level. Maybe even have lipstick on.

Russell: Every day I was like, “Where’s the eyeliner and blown-out hair?”

Clarke: But yeah, you do want it to be real as possible, of course. It was stinking hot in New Orleans in our gear, and it was stinking cold in Vancouver.

Russell: Matt really wanted it to be real. We really didn’t get to wear makeup and that kind of stuff. It was really sweaty and dirty.

Oldman: More so as a community, we were trying to get back to those things where those things really do matter, that we have a routine. I think the thing of health issues, maintaining oneself. So we were as a community trying to get back to that.

Serkis: It reminds me. I’ve got relatives who — they don’t so much live there now — lived in Baghdad and I’ll never forget about 15 years ago having a conversation with my cousins who lived in Baghdad. Literally I was on the phone with them, they were going to school to do their maths O-level and a scud missile flew down the street. You forget that everyone tries to find some sort of normality in the most bizarre, dangerous, crazy situations.

People who have lost their homes, lost their lives trying to rebuild them very, very quickly. I remember literally being on the phone, and life goes on. I’m on the other side of the world worrying about what I’m going to have for dinner, and you have a conversation with someone who’s been through that experience. It’s extraordinary.

How much of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was actually shot here in San Francisco?

Clarke: It was a couple of weeks, wasn’t it?

Notary: We did about four days running around on the streets with a great San Francisco audience cheering for us. It was awesome; it was really cool. We went to City Hall to do the scene there.

Yeah, it was about four days of running through the streets and sort of peppering in some of the mass exodus, the army stuff we did ... Yeah not a lot, I wish we did more. I really do

The “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” poster shows the Bay Bridge being destroyed, but that wasn’t in the film. In the movie, it was the Golden Gate Bridge, not the Bay Bridge. Why did that change?

Clarke: Yeah the weird thing is that that’s in the trailer as well. I’m thinking, “That was in the trailer. Where’d it go ?” I think they come up with increasingly interesting ways to market things and keep it surprising as well, that hints at what we’re doing and gives an idea because it’s so easy. We're saturate to give what we’re talking about or give it away. So I guess that’s the angle we’re probably taking. And it’s the Golden Gate Bridge!

What do you think “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” says about the role of leaders?

Oldman: Leaders have always got difficult decisions to make. It comes down to choices. And you’ve got in this kind of situation, my character is coming at this with, he is to some degree conflicted — as is Caesar, but he’s coming to it and all these people have been wounded and been injured, emotionally and physically in some way, so he is coming to it with that baggage, with this history.

That is revealed much later in the film, in a very beautiful way. Matt holds those cards close to his chest until he delivers that hand. And I can only speak for my character, but I think he’s a heroic character who makes the ultimate sacrifice.

There’s a lot to save if you’re going to come down on the side of humanity and humans. Then he really truly believes that he’s saving the human race, and makes the most heroic gesture. Even in times of peace and in times of war and extraordinary times that we’re showing here in the movie, leaders have to make decisions.

For more info: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" website

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