George from “Rampage” isn’t just another CGI monster. There’s a real actor breathing life into the albino gorilla. And what motion capture performer Jason Liles had to endure in Dwayne Johnson’s latest film was sheer agony, he told TheWrap.
“I started studying my butt off,” Liles said. “Watching hours of docs, going to the zoo, watching behind-the-scenes shots of ‘Planet of the Apes,’ and anything Andy Serkis and Terry Notary were in.”
Weeks and months went by before Liles got a phone call to meet with Notary, an accomplished mo-cap actor who joined the project as choreographer, to train for the part. Once they got together, it became clear that Liles was more than prepared. After Notary gave him homework, Liles would say, “Yeah, I’ve already done that.”
“This wasn’t pretending to be a gorilla,” Liles explained. “We’re so close at our core to apes that what we have to do is ask ourselves, ‘what makes us human?’ It’s our training — how we interact with people and taking them and we just have the shed that training until we get down to a blank slate to what used to be an ape. And then we built a character from there.”
Both the physical and mental training to play George was strenuous, Liles said. In one scene, primatologist David Okoye (played by Johnson) discovers that his beloved gorilla friend George had grown dramatically over night. And of course, George doesn’t understand what’s going on with his body. To capture the emotion of confusion, Liles had to stage a panic attack, which, he said, took a toll.
“I’m one percent of a panic attack at the beginning of this scene and then I’m at 100 percent, take after take after take,” he said. “It was 15 hours, then 19 hours, of manifesting a panic attack, feeling like an alien chest burster was coming out of your chest. I had panic attacks as a kid so I knew where to draw from. George’s DNA is mutating and that has to hurt. He’s doubled in size and weight overnight, and he’s aghast, in pain, and constantly questioning himself: ‘Did I do something to deserve this?’ That’d be terrifying.”
The first couple days filming the panic scene were “some of the most demanding days,” he said. With snot running down his face at times, he would become George to the point where he never broke character on set.
“I would walk on set as George, do some exercises and I was ready. I would say ‘We’re good to go,'” he said. “When I walked on set, people would say, ‘Oh hey, Jason,’ and I wouldn’t respond because I was already in it. People got that really quickly. If it was an emotional day, I wouldn’t talk to you if you weren’t Dwayne or Brad [Peyton, the director].”
At the same time, Liles had to get the physicality of the gorilla down. He said he would go up to the mountains with Notary, walking like a gorilla for miles at an end on arm extensions.
“The first days were just likes miles and miles on those arms in the mountains,” he said. “It felt ridiculous — couple miles leading with the right, trodding, galloping, and then the third day I woke up and we couldn’t do anything because I was so sore. I work out every day, but my body, my butt, my legs, the muscles in my ribs were so sore. It was just muscles I had never used before.”
Liles has played a death god in “Death Note,” a gorilla in “Rampage” and an alien in “Men in Black 3” — and is acutely aware that he’s being typecast in non-human roles. He told TheWrap that at 6’9”, he was always told he was “too tall” for film, and that he shouldn’t even try to work in anything outside theater. When he worked on “Men in Black,” he understood there was a niche for tall guys like him, and that’s when he learned from actors like Doug Jones and Brian Steele.
“My idea was, get into Hollywood and then I’ll try to play humans again,” he said, adding that he’s been told that casting directors aren’t “sure we can call you in to play a human.”
“The height is one thing, but I also don’t have anything human to show them except for a student film from seven years ago, which I wouldn’t even show anyone. That’s our biggest challenge right now. I love playing non-human roles and using performance capture, but I’d like to walk on set and be a human and have a regular voice.”
Of course, playing non-human characters has its perks. He cited Jones, who has had a long career but many people don’t recognize his face behind some of his work, which, in turn, allows him to live a normal life without being recognized on the street.
“The biggest thing I found during my career so far is that there is no difference between acting as a human and acting in mo-cap,” he said. “The different is how the crew is capturing the performance. Andy Serkis, for example, is not a great mo-cap actor; he’s one of the best actors of all time.”
The same could be said about Liles, who delivers an emotional and stellar performance as George in “Rampage” next to one of the biggest and most bankable actors currently working in Hollywood. And Liles remembers first meeting Johnson, who welcomed him with open arms.
“It was both of our first days on set, and I wasn’t filming anything that day, I was just calibrating my suit for the primate lab scene behind the cage,” Liles said. “We had been told he would be coming in for pictures and we basically first met through the glass when he looked over and waved at me. I was, admittedly, nervous because he’s The Rock and I’ve been watching his movies for years, and I was about to meet him and act like we’re best friends.”
They met and shook hands, and after Liles got ready to leave, he recalled, Johnson told him to stay in case they want to take pictures, which they proceeded to do in the cage. They compared themselves and the relationship between George and Davis to Han and Chewy.
“I told him, ‘we only get to make this movie once, so let’s kill it,'” Liles said. “He was so into that. I told him, ‘We are Han and Chewy, and he goes, ‘We are Han and Chewy!'”
That relationship helped establish the emotional connection between George and Davis.
“Terry told me early on that you have to find something deep inside you so when you look at Davis, you will just feel the most intense love,” Liles said. “He rescued you, he’s been everything to you, he’s your brother, your father, your Han Solo. Looking at Dwayne, that was easy. He’s such a caring, loving person, for him to channel that more as Davis, it was easy to look at him and feel that connection.”
“Rampage” also stars Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Naomie Harris. It’s in theaters now.
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