Peter Macon goes from North High School to Emmy Award to 'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes'

Movie and theater fans are getting to know former Minneapolis resident Peter Macon's deep, caramelized-honey voice, if not his face.

Macon plays a key role in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes," opening Friday. But, since he plays an orangutan — a character created with motion-capture technology that takes actors' movements and translates them into apes — audiences won't see his face. The same was true of his role in "The Orville," in which he played a grim dude named Bortus under a foam rubber mask, and of HBO's "Animated Tales of the World." The last one earned him an Emmy award, but for narration.

So why is his handsome face always off-screen?

"You and my mom both ask the same question," joked the Minneapolis North High School graduate, a Twin Cities theater veteran best remembered for the title role in "Othello" at the Guthrie Theater in 2014. "I don't know. I'm just a meat puppet, trying to make a buck."

Even if his face isn't visible, Macon said his Twin Cities training — at the Guthrie, with defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune and at Children's Theatre Company — helped prepare him for being a primate in "Kingdom." He plays Raka, a wise mentor to main character Noa, who is determined to avenge the massacre of his community.

"One of the most rewarding and challenging classes I've ever taken was two years of clown class in grad school, with Chris Bayes, a professional clown from Minneapolis, with Jeune Lune. That form of study really helped me hone my craft in such a unique and specific way. It requires ultimate vulnerability," said Macon, by Zoom from Atlanta. "These characters I've been able to play, be it an orangutan or an alien, it's completely feasible and based in reality and character work."

A visit to a Sydney, Australia zoo — where a zookeeper warned Macon to stay back because it appeared a silverback gorilla who was 15 feet away felt threatened — showed Macon how important eyes would be for his orangutan character.

"The way he looked at me said it all. So we went through [what it looks like] if an ape is experiencing anxiety or if an ape is experiencing joy or lethargy or anger or fear," said Macon. "A chimpanzee, when it's stressed out, has a really big smile. It's not laughing. It's really unhappy. Like a lot of times we smile and it's not laughing — it's 'I'll cut your throat but I'll smile.'"

For Macon, one revelation of his six weeks of ape training was that orangutans may be better prepared for survival than we are because their pride doesn't get in the way of doing what needs to be done.

"They have other ways of communicating and signaling danger but it's not ego-driven. To live in that space of an understanding that I am not the most important thing in the world, it left so much room on the table for other ways to experience each other, to grow and to learn," said Macon, who misses some aspects of being Raka. "It was great to take my human brain off and have an ape brain for six or seven months."

Macon is in the midst of an evolving project with two actors he worked with on his first professional job, at CTC in 1988, Lester Purry and David Barrow Wiley. It's a short film, or possibly a series of them, about "Othello," which will shoot in July. Macon stays in touch with lots of high school friends from Minneapolis, although he hasn't been back since the 2020 memorial service for director Marion McClinton.

The actor has found a groove in Hollywood but he said it took time to figure out what that was. Commercials, for instance, were a no-go for the imposing Macon, who describes how those unsuccessful auditions played out.

"'Hi, I'm Peter Macon. Buy Colgate.' No one's going to buy that. 'I don't trust that guy. He's up to something.' So I embrace that I'll be that guy who's trying to sell you toothpaste but really I'm tapping into your bank account. Or I'm an alien trying to pose as a toothpaste salesman," said Macon, recalling failed auditions with a chuckle. "Being told no 195 times, you kinda gotta listen."

Listen, and shift to a path that capitalizes on that trademark voice.

"No one's going to buy toothpaste from me and I've made peace with that," said Macon."I think the combination of my voice and my physicality is why I get the opportunity to play these kinds of roles."