Move over King Kong! And move over Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson! There's a new star in town that's bigger than both of them — literally. In Johnson's new film, Rampage, a blue-eyed gorilla named George becomes infected with an experimental pathogen, which sets him on course to growing bigger and meaner until he reaches skyscraper proportions. The giant ape is played, via extensive motion capture, by a 6'9" actor named Jason Liles, who spent more than six months getting the simian character just right.
In Rampage, George and two other exposed animals end up on the loose and headed to Chicago, sending a paleontologist named Davis (Johnson) on a wild chase to stop them. Based on the Rampage video game, the film was directed by Brad Peyton, and also stars Naomie Harris and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
Liles (Men In Black III) chatted with SYFY WIRE about creating a realistic gorilla character, about acting with motion capture special effects, and about being the blue-eyed Chewie to Dwayne Johnson's Han Solo.
There's a picture of you standing next to Dwayne Johnson and you're dwarfing him. I mean, who dwarfs The Rock?
He's a shorty. He's a little guy. He looks big on screen, but he's a shorty. To me at least. (Laughs)
You had to have done a tremendous amount of research to get the movements and sounds down. Visually George looks real. But he moves in a very real way too. What did that involve?
That was a ton of research just by myself for about six months before I got brought on. I watched every documentary I could. I went to the zoo and watched them. I looked up behind-the-scenes interviews with people who played apes, like Terry Notary and Andy Serkis. A lot of looking at Koko the Gorilla, since she was raised from birth and taught sign language by Dr. Penny Patterson. But where it really came together is when they brought me on and Terry Notary, who played King Kong in Skull Island, taught me how to be a gorilla. And we logged miles and miles and miles in the Santa Monica mountains, and I don't know how many hours. I was probably on those arm extensions for a couple hundred hours before I got on set, and so it was second nature. They were really extensions of me.
The most difficult thing though is the psyche. Terry pushed me from the beginning. "You're not going to pretend or play or act like an ape." We are 96 percent identical in DNA to chimps. So his methodology is if we strip away the social conditioning and the culture and the habits that make us human, what make me specifically Jason, then at the core is 96 percent an ape, an animal. And if we can look out of our eyes and engage our senses without the manners and things that we're taught growing up in America or wherever, we can shed all that and just get down to a blank slate foundation. We can build the character from there organically. Rather than coming in as Jason and trying to put on a mask, I'm really shedding Jason and forming George. That was by far the most difficult thing.
Terry is an incredible coach. I could not have played George without him. The way that he is able to perfectly show you exactly what you're physically doing. I mean he comes from doing this for 20 years and being in Cirque du Soleil for years before that. With his body, he's incredible. Just like a vocalist who can hit a key on a keyboard, and they can match it. He can look at you and perfectly match it. "This is what you're doing. This is what you need to be doing. See the difference?" Then it's just that for weeks and weeks and weeks.
What about the arm extensions, which helps give you that movement?
The arms... They were created at Spectral Motion, which is a special effects shop here in L.A. for Terry when he played the monster, the creature in a movie called Attack the Block with John Boyega [years ago]. And then he used them in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because apes have longer arms, to get that anatomy. They've been in the Hobbit trilogy, tons of stuff. He's used them for awhile, but they're perfect for being an ape. They get the anatomy and then technically we take on the movement bit by bit... Like on a bike. You get on a bike and you're falling over and you can't quite balance, but once you get it the bike does the work. And so you just really learn to use no muscles when you're on the arm extensions. Really you're on all fours. I believe the statistic is that gorillas are the second most economic mammals, behind the sloth. So they don't use a lot of energy. When they do, they do, but they're very economic.
It looks like they're strong, but you relax into it and it becomes this fluid motion with gravitas and integrity. It took a while. It took the full three weeks of training with Terry, and then a month just by myself before I got on set to really become familiar with them and be able to move around as if I'm not even wearing them.
In Rampage, George is a real character that we care about. We're rooting for him. That's more than just movement. What was involved in bringing the George character to life for you as an actor?
It was a lot of work. Getting down to that blank slate foundation is the biggest and most difficult step. I can't just play a gorilla. That's like going into a movie and saying I'm going to play a human. It's a specific character and if you've ever had a dog or a cat, they do not have the same personalities. Every cat is different. Every dog is different. I asked Terry the first week, "Do you think of it as playing a gorilla?" And he didn't really answer the question. And the second week there was a moment where something clicked, and things were clicking every day, huge epiphany moments. We would go through like ten every day.
One day something happened. I can't even remember literally what is was. Just a scenario I was playing out as if I was George and he just snapped, "That. See. You feel that? That's not playing a gorilla is it?" "No, it's not. I'm just me. I'm me at the core." I never really think of it as playing a gorilla. In a weird way it's like a version of me if I was born as a gorilla. It's just me with the physicality and vocals of a gorilla. It's hard to explain but George is me. He really is. It's not playing George or playing a gorilla. George is me.
So George is you without the 4% of DNA.
Yes. Yes. The main thing we do as humans is we think. We're cerebrally driven and animals are not. We're all thinking things... or we're worried or excited about something later or tomorrow. And gorillas, they don't know that. If you watch them in the zoo, they're just there. They're listening, seeing. They see something and they go over to it. They're eating something. They're just here. So turning off that part of your mind and just engaging your senses and bringing in a soft focus it allows you to be alive in stillness. Everyone else projects who the character is on me. I'm just there. It's very difficult to explain. Very hard to put into a nutshell in words.
And yet George does have feelings and he cares about The Rock's Davis.
That relationship between him and Davis is really key. Director Brad Peyton told me first time we chatted, "You guys are like Han and Chewie." That said so much. They love each other. They have each other's back. They bust each other's chops. They've both got a bit of ego. That right there, I read the script, and I totally get the relationship. I got it.
What was it like to work with The Rock?
He's such a kind, loving, warm, respectful guy. He has no ego whatsoever. It's really amazing when you're around him just to see how giving and hardworking he is.
When you read the script... Well, you're a tall guy but George gets way bigger in this movie. You get to be a King Kong-sized ape in this movie. What did you think when you read the script?
I knew the special effects supervisor. He is a good friend, Colin Strause. We just did Death Note together, and he's actually who recommended me for the role of George. I was asking him, like, "How much of this am I actually going to be able to do?" And he said, "Pretty much all of it." I said, "Really? Like all the stuff. Like everything?" And he said, "Yeah."
Throughout production as George would get bigger, I'd be on a platform so my eye line was correct. Or if I had to run a distance, like when George got out of the zoo. They couldn't do platforms along that whole thing, so I had a little poll with a ball on top. And that was the eye line. We did that. Then up in the scissor lift I'm 25 feet up where George's eyes would be actually on set with Dwayne, so he could look up at me and act. And then we did all this stuff in what's called a motion capture volume in like a 25 by 30 foot carpeted area on a sound stage with about 30 infrared cameras all above us catching every bit of it. They can scale that up or scale that down. I played baby George in it too. That's me.
What's the difference between motion capture acting and regular acting?
That's something I figured out watching interviews of Andy Serkis. I was trying to figure out tips and tricks from motion capture, and I very quickly found out because he says it. Every interview asked him what tips and tricks do you have. "It's the exact same as any other acting." And I was like, really? Even though you're a chimp or a gorilla, it is the exact same. It's just you're wearing different clothes or different make-up. But definitely what I learned from Terry completely changed and revolutionized my perspective on how to create a character.
Before working on this I was playing and pretending and acting like characters. I was acting like something. And Terry showed me how to lucid dream while awake as someone in a different situation. I actually believed it was happening, and sometimes I'd come out of takes, like, "Whoa, that was weird. It felt like it was actually happening. Holy cow!" It changed my perspective on life, on animals, and completely revolutionized how I create a character, whether human, alien, gorilla, anything.
Here's a look at Rampage: