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Keri Russell and Andy Serkis take us behind 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

Keri Russell, Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves, Jason Clarke and Andy Serkis at the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
Keri Russell, Dylan Clark, Matt Reeves, Jason Clarke and Andy Serkis at the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
Carla Hay

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.

Gary Oldman, Keri Russell and Jason Clarke are among those who play the human survivors. At the 2013 Comic-Con International press conference in San Diego for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," Russell, Clarke, Serkis, director Matt Reeves and producer Dylan Clark gathered to talk about the movie. Here is what they said.

What was your specific vision for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”?

Reeves: To me, even though the movie deals with the viral apocalypse that comes from the last film, the movie is not a post-apocalyptic movie. What it is is that it starts in the world of apes, and you see what they’ve built: a primitive and majestic kingdom.

And you see a family and a way in which they’re coming into being. And they are thinking and wondering in this new creation, “Are the humans gone?” It’s all from their point of view.

And then, not too long into the story, they realize there are still humans, and it becomes a question of survival. And that’s what it becomes about: How can these two populations co-exist? Will it leads to violence.

And really, in that sense, I don’t think it’s a post-apocalyptic movie. That’s just an aspect. That’s what it looks in the city. But it’s really about the nature of these two populations and whether or not they can find a way to live together.

Did you study any apes?

Reeves: We spent time with them. Andy and Terry Notary, who is our movement specialist — he’s incredible — they showed me what it is to be an ape. We had a whole training camp where the actors get together. Because the story is so much about this family of apes, one of the things Andy wanted to do was for us to all get together and create what this world felt like, what articulation was like, language.

The thing that was important to me was that the story not jump too far from where things were in “Rise,” because in “Rise,” when Andy says “No!” in “Rise,” I think it’s so startling, it blew me away.

The thing that was exciting to me was watching the apes learn how to speak, watching all that happen. Obviously, there’s only three or four words in the first movie. We wanted this to be somewhere along the continuum toward the ’68 movie where, of course, they’re fully conversing. One of the things we did at the beginning was spend time exploring exactly.

Keri, now that you’ve done a “Mission: Impossible” movie and “The Americans,” were you ready to have a full-on action role?

Russell: [She laughs?] Am I full action hero in this?

Reeves: Absolutely. Very Lara Croft. What we tried to do is tell a story about all of these characters in a way that, even though there’s a grand action in the story, and she does have to do some grand action in the film, the thing that I was excited about and what blew me away about the first movie and why I wanted to work with Andy, it’s really about character. The reason that Jason is here and Keri is here is that we wanted characters who had the level of depth that Andy brought to the first film. She brings some action, but really she’s here because she brings a lot of character and depth.

Russell: I climbed down that ladder pretty fast. I was fast, wasn’t I?

Reeves: Pretty fast.

Russell: I wasn’t that fast. It really is what Matt said. It’s more of an emotional story, I feel.

How emotional does it get for your character?

Russell: To me, it’s really a story of survival. The thing I was sort of reading a little bit about before I started was this woman, this war journalist, someone who’s been through war and lost a lot of people.

That’s sort of where my character is. You’ve lost so many people that you love and dear to you, and you’re trying to create an existence from that at that place and trying to survive. And I think that’s the great the ape community as well. They’re trying to do the same. And that’s where the story meets.

Will “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” have overt references to previous “Apes” films or will it forge its own path?

Reeves: Let’s put it this way: We don’t do it in a sort of “winking” way. First of all, the franchise is something that, as a little kid, I was obsessed with. I wanted to be an ape. We all love those movies so much. But what was done so brilliantly in “Rise,” they call it a reboot or reinvention. I always wanted to be a gorilla when I watched the first movie.

What was amazing about what Andy did and WETA did and ["Rise of the Planet of the Apes" director] Rupert [Wyatt] did and Dylan [Clark] did in “Rise” was you did become an ape. You became Caesar, you cared about him, and connected to him. Really, the thing we wanted to carry forward was the emotionality within the grander context of the story that that movie had.

You all know that it leads to “The Planet of the Apes,” not “The Planet of the Humans and the Apes,” so the story’s really about, “Where does this fit along that?” So in that way, this references just the knowledge of what that first film is.

And within that, there are certain things within the canon, I guess you might consider them almost commandments and things that it does reference. They did it very cleverly in the first film. Our references are much more about trying to create a context for the world that Andy leads.

Andy, can you talk about the evolution of Caesar?

Serkis: I have to say because of the way that Caesar came into the world and was brought up by human beings, for me he was always an outsider. There’s a sense of not knowing who he was. He was brought up by a human being, and he believed himself in many ways to be a human being; he had many human attributes. He learns human belief systems though his father, James Franco’s character Will, who he believed to be a good man.

I’ll never forget reading the script for the first time and seeing the trajectory of that character, the arc of that character, and thinking, “What an amazing character he is.” And realizing, of course, it’s an ape. Take that away and you’d still have an amazing character who’s going on a phenomenal journey.

Here was this creature — and this is what people responded to — who was going through all these recognizable human emotions and feelings of being an outsider and being rejected and then finding his people. So now, going through to this next stage, it’s very much about Caesar having become a leader and not throwing away everything that he has grown up with as a human being.

So in a sense he’s finding his inner ape by galvanizing this group of orangutans and chimps and gorillas 2,000-strong. And trying to evaluate on a daily basis and not be an absolute leader but be open and empathetic. “How can I respond to this situation that I’m attending to?”

He’s also a father. He’s got a teenage son. He also has an infant child, he has a wife. He has a council. He has a very, very big community he’s responsible for in their survival. And then he has the choice of reaction to human beings who enjoys in a sense, and deep down, he wants to be able to communicate with. On top of that, how to communicate that.

One of the things that last time around, one of the beauties that Matt alluded to was the fact that they didn’t speak, so it’s a very pure, innocent way of experiencing what their thoughts and feelings were in this last movie. This time around, there’s an evolution; there’s an evolution in linguistics terms. I’ve found this to be one of the biggest challenges: how Caesar is spiritually, philosophically, how he is, how he commands, how he responds on a personal level.

So we worked in great detail in terms of creating that level of sophistication versus finding language. He communicates through the American sign language that he was taught, which has become a unifying way he communicates with the other apes. Then also human words that he’s beginning to be able to use. All the other apes are beginning to use gesture and ape vocalizations.

And, of course, the younger apes have been brought up in society and are learning to speak even better and faster than their parents, because that’s what happens. It’s a very rich and complex world that Caesar exists in, and he’s under huge pressure as the movie goes on.

Jason, how does it feel to be the lead action hero in a big-budget movie franchise? And can you describe your “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” character?

Clarke: It feels good. Four months in, it hurts [physically]. I think all of us really put ourselves out in this film. It feels really nice. I’ve known Dylan Clark, who gave me a call one day. I remember I was driving. I pulled over, and he said, “I’d like you to look at ‘Planet of the Apes.’” I was like, “F*ck yeah!”

I play, in a funny kind of way, a different mirror of Caesar. There’s many ways to talk about that. I play Malcolm, who was an architect, who has a son and lost a wife, who now has a new partner, who is trying to find a way for his family to stay alive.

That broadens to his community to stay alive, so he assumes a role in that. He finds his inner ape as well. Through the 10 years that we’ve had this apocalypse, this virus, this civil war and everything else that’s gone on, he’s lost a lot and he finds a lot about back through his interaction out in the woods — if that makes sense, without giving away plot.

Jason, were you a fan of the “Apes” franchise before you did this movie? Did you have any hesitation?

Clarke: I’d done a film called “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I worked with a guy called Greg Shapiro, who I trusted a lot. And after the phone call with Dylan, I spoke to Greg. He said, “Who’s the director?” I said, “Matt Reeves.” And he said, “Do it!”

At that point, I knew Matt’s films, and there was no question about it. I wasn’t thinking at that point, “Am I Charlton Heston? Great!” It’s deeper than our psychology.

As a kid, it was a bit more disturbing for me. I was very disturbed by it when I was younger. So there’s that level of watching the film again and you go, “I really like this. I want to be part of this on a number of levels.”

And there’s a part of it as an actor where you go, “It’s great that Fox and Dylan and Matt and Andy who’ve done all this work are putting a lot of money and effort into something they love and want you to be part of that.” It’s a nice feeling.

Matt, can you talk about the balance of making the film look realistic while still having entertaining escapism?

Reeves: To me, the great thing that you have going for you immediately is that they’re apes. You’ve got that. It’s amazing to me, what WETA does and how they transform them, but the key to the whole thing is what’s going on under it. What Andy does and what the other actors do when they’re playing apes in a way that’s emotionally authentic.

First of all, it was a world I was in love with since I was a kid, and I was really affected by what Andy had done and what the story was in the first film in “Rise.” I was like, “What is that about? How does that happen?” I asked them to show me the footage of everything that Andy had done: wearing the markers, wearing the camera on his face, wearing this crazy grey suit that they wear. I just wanted to see what he was doing. I watched it up against the footage.

I realized that the reason I was affected emotionally was because Andy, regardless of the fact that he was acting like an ape, was just a brilliant performer, actor. It was just so emotionally real. The thing that is always important to me in whatever I do is trying to find the reality in that. And the key is that you take the one element that is fantastical — which is that they’re intelligent apes — and you let that be the one fantastic element. Everything else is about trying to realize a way that feels grounded and real.

The first film ["Rise of the Planet of the Apes"] was shot much more on stage; it was smaller. This film ["Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"], because of what they’re creating in that kingdom, is out in the woods. So we went out into the woods, because I wanted to use as much available light as possible so you could bring in that reality. The key to everything was just about the emotional reality that these actors play. Once you do that, you forget about the fact that they’re apes.

We tried to create a story to connect to that would mean something to us. And then on top of that, you look back and go, “Oh yeah, and they’re apes.” And that’s the thing that will take you to this other level, because it allows you to tell a story that matters to you, because you have the cover of genre.

“What’s going on? What’s happening? Oh, it’s because this conflict is all because of these humans and these apes.” And that’s the way I try to approach it.

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