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Terry Notary on going ape in 'The Square' and playing teen Groot in 'Avengers'; plus, an exclusive clip

The standout set-piece of Ruben Östlund’s savage art-world satire The Square, which took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, features a performance artist literally going ape while a roomful of well-heeled museum-goers look on. So it’s only appropriate that the director cast an actor who has plenty of experience getting in touch with his primal side: Terry Notary. Along with Andy Serkis and Karin Konoval, Notary has been one of the pillars of the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, donning a motion-capture suit to play the chimpanzee Rocket, who is introduced as a challenger to Caesar (Serkis) in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes only to become the ape ruler’s trusted lieutenant by this summer’s trilogy capper, War for the Planet of the Apes.

For a glimpse of what the actor’s monkeyshines look like without the mo-cap uniform, check out our exclusive above clip from The Square. As Notary’s ape-minded artist Oleg prowls the room, he sets his sights on fellow artist Julian (Dominic West), and provokes him into an intense confrontation. It’s worth noting that this is merely one small part of a sequence that continues well past the point of comfort for both the actors onscreen and the viewers in the theater. And that’s entirely deliberate: Notary tells Yahoo Entertainment that he and Östlund specifically set out to shake the audience out of any sense of complacency. “We’re using ape movement as an excuse to expose the truth in this group of people, and expose their weakness.” We spoke with Notary about a shattering moment from his standout Square scene that didn’t make the final cut, and what it was like playing teenage Groot in Avengers: Infinity War.

Yahoo Entertainment: How did your role in The Square come about?
Terry Notary:
Ruben called me up and said that he had this project that he wanted me to be a part of; we had a FaceTime interview and just hit it off right away. I signed on right there; I knew it was going to be a pivotal scene and that he wanted to do something special. Before shooting, we had one rehearsal day, and he was coaching me through all of these emotions, allowing them to come and go, recede and retract. I felt like I tapped into something, and thought, “I know this character now.” When we blocked out the scene, we came up with a rough structure of how I was going to navigate through the room. The extras were really the catalyst, because the room was so tense that you could cut it with a knife.

There’s a very real sense in the film that the director has just let you loose. Did he allow you to dictate where the camera would go or was it a collaboration?
It was a collaboration; he would block out the space where he wanted to me to go, but he’d also say, “I want you to move to this table, and allow something to happen there.” I tried not to plan anything; I wanted to go to that table totally unaware of what I was going to do and surprise myself and pick the person that didn’t want to be picked. Some of the extras would come up to me and say, “You can pick me anytime you want.” But I knew they’d have something planned, so I thought, “No, those people will never get picked.” [Laughs]

Terry Notary monkeys around with Dominic West in <em>The Square</em> (Photo: Magnolia Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection)
Terry Notary monkeys around with Dominic West in The Square (Photo: Magnolia Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection)

The one person you did have to interact with was Dominic West. Did you two plan how your interaction would go ahead of time?
We really didn’t know what we were going to do. I did meet him beforehand, and said, “Hey, Dominic, I love your work, man. I’m going to scare you out of the room!” I didn’t tell him that I was going to scream in his face.

Is the final version we see in the movie an amalgam of different takes or one take?
We shot it three times, and each time was completely different. I wanted to surprise myself and he wanted to surprise me. None of it was planned; it all just happened as we were going. It was just like jamming with a good jazz musician. I think the take’s that in the movie is the last take that we did. We were feeling like, “Let’s go hard on this one. No fear of making mistakes.”

Do you remember how the first takes differed from the third?
I think I was paying more attention to the girl next to him. I was really falling in love with her, and hating him. I wish I had some of the footage. It would be fun to see some of the scenes. On the first take, we got so into it that when he runs up onto the balcony, he took a vase full of flowers and threw it at me. It shattered all over the stage! It wasn’t a prop — it was full of flowers and water. At the time, I thought, “That has got to be in the movie!” It did not make the cut, though. And there wasn’t a full vase of flowers in the next take.

You mentioned earlier that the rehearsal process gave you a sense of who Oleg is. That suggests you really do think of him as a person, and not just a manifestation of our collective id unleashed.
No, he’s definitely an artist who sees a lot of weakness in human nature, and thinks that we are becoming completely soft and removed and need a little wake up call. His goal is to shake us up and show how complacent we are. If he had dialogue, he would have turned around and said, “How far do I have to go to get you guys off your ass? Do something!”

That strikes me as a reverse of what you do in the Apes movies. There, you’re taking an animal and asking the audience to find the humanity in him. Here, you’re in human form and reverting to something animalistic and primal.
That’s a really interesting point. Once you cross that social conditioning threshold that holds us back, we all become animals. Instantly. That was what we wanted to get across at the end of the scene when the audience finally has a breakthrough and thrashing Oleg.

You’re also part of a whole ape “family” in the Apes trilogy, whereas here you’re on your own. Did that isolation make it scarier as a performer?
It was absolutely scary, but also awesome because I used the fear to really propel me into things. You have to feel fear; it’s nature’s beautiful fire. It widens your peripheral vision, and makes you more aware. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me as an actor: to not let the fear go into your mind and start putting up stop signs and check posts in there. You let the mind be soft with the body, and then you allow the fear to wash through the entire vehicle and be the fuel. When I work with actors, we try to tune the instrument so that you can feel things and allow those emotions to wash through you. You allow the fear to happen, and then you react and you listen without trying to get too absorbed into the actual end mark that you’re supposed to hit.

Even as you lost yourself in the role, did you have a mental limit for how far you wanted to go?
I knew that I didn’t want to hurt anyone. An element of danger was good for the room; no one knew if they were going to get picked on or played with. But I didn’t want to throw anything, I didn’t want to break anything, and I didn’t want to pull anybody off their seat. I didn’t want to punch anybody and I didn’t want to be punched. And I was worried I was going to get punched in the face at some point! [Laughs]

Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Andy Serkis and Michael Adamthwaite on the set of <em>War for the Planet of the Apes</em> (20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Andy Serkis and Michael Adamthwaite on the set of War for the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection)

War for the Planet of the Apes closed out the new Apes trilogy this past summer. Would you still like to be involved in the franchise’s future?
Of course. Karin Konoval, Andy Serkis, and myself have come so far with our characters over the last seven years. When we’re on set, it’s a family. We know each other to the point where we don’t have to say anything anymore; a look can say everything. As our characters, we always tried to embody the moments without dialogue and make it feel like viewers could project themselves onto these characters and feel like they were real. It would be amazing to continue that and go further — to see where we go, and what could potentially happen in the next couple of films.

Do you feel a sense of ownership over Rocket in particular? Could you even see yourself playing another ape?
I’d love to play another ape. I’m sure Rocket’s going to have to die at some point! It’d be another challenge. I would really miss playing Rocket, because he’s the best version of myself. He’s subservient; he’s happy to be the server and the giver. He’s making up for past wrongs. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing — the whole guilt thing — but he’s pursuing redemption. He’s making up for being a jerk, and he’s got this desire to do right. It makes him happy to be complete, and not selfish.

Can you confirm or deny that you’re playing teenage Groot in Avengers: Infinity War?
Yes, I am playing teenage Groot. I’m having a blast with it. It’s really, really fun. I can’t say too much about him, but he’s coming of age, so you’ll see the teenager find a mentor to look up to and to model himself after. The character’s great, and the films are going to be great. We’ve got such an amazing cast and a great pair of directors at the helm. The Russos allow the actors to jam on scenes together to the point where it just feels great and everybody gets their moments.

The Square opens in theaters on Friday.

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