Vancouver actor Karin Konoval learns from orangutans for her Planet of the Apes role

A scene from War for the Planet of the Apes. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest in the Apes franchise reboot, is in theatres now. Like its predecessors, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), much of the movie was filmed in B.C.

Besides taking advantage of nearby locations, the rebooted series has also hired local talent. Vancouver actor Karin Konoval has seen her role as the orangutan Maurice increase with each successive film. Recently, Vogue said that, “Common sense, not just the times, are calling on the Academy to give Serkis and his ilk a chance, if not their due. This is a situation where Oscar seems hopelessly behind. In fact, we shouldn’t even be clamoring for Serkis to get a Best Actor in a Leading Role nom. . . at this point we should be after his costar, Karin Konoval, to get a Best Supporting nom. To be fair, Caesar might have the biggest scenes, but it’s her sagely ape, Maurice, who steals the show.”

Konoval was born in Baltimore and moved with her family to Edmonton, Alberta. She came out to Vancouver in 1981 to attend theatre school and has amassed quite a few acting credits in the local film and TV industry, as well as in local theatre productions. She also paints, and is the author of a children’s book, Jeffrey Takes a Walk in December. We talked to her about the movie series as well as her friendships with certain furry friends at the Seattle zoo.

Karin Konoval. Image courtesy Gordan Dumka.

Q: Do you remember your first movie or TV role?

A: I think it was on a TV movie called Firefighter. I think I played a secretary.

Q: Was that after doing a lot of theatre?

A: Yes. Most of my focus was on theatre for about 25 years, and lots of musicals, working at the Playhouse and the Arts Club and other theatres around town, and over at the Belfrey (Victoria) and places like that. I was mostly working in theatre when I started working on film. It was something I did when I wasn’t on a theatre contract.

Q: What have you noticed about the film and television industry over the years?

A: I’ve kept my focus steadily on it over the last 10 years. It seems very busy now. I’ve often found, given the work I do, when the industry seems slow it’s not necessarily slow for me personally, and vice versa. It does seem very vibrant and alive at the moment.

Q: You’ve done a lot of science fiction. Is that because people who do those kinds of shows watch those kinds of shows and you get typecast, or is it just that a lot of what’s filmed here is in that genre?

A: I think that that’s a lot of what is filmed in Vancouver. I have never felt in danger of being typecast (laughs). In some ways I wish I was more recognizably cast, but I’ve become very grateful for the fact that the work I’ve been able to do both onstage and on-screen is wide-ranging, and the opportunity to play incredibly varied characters has always been there for me. And it’s actually continuing to grow at this point. I don’t particularly think about the genre of things that are filmed here.

Q: Where does Maurice on the spectrum of difficulty or challenging roles?

A: I would say that Maurice ranks as one of the most rewarding and challenging roles I’ve ever played. The challenge in bringing Maurice to life is on so many levels. The whole performance requires physical training, the quadripedal movement, his vocalizations, the psychology of a character who’s not just of another gender but another species. The greatest challenge has been bringing the physicality into my body to give Maurice his weight. It mattered a great deal to me to portray him in full orangutan integrity to the best of my ability. So that’s been huge training over the years, keeping in practice with these things, and keeping my flexibility to do some of the things orangutans do.

Karin Konoval in an image-capture suit. Images courtesy Doane Gregory.

Q: Where in B.C. was War for the Planet of the Apes filmed?

A: We began filming out at Long Beach, on top of Mount Seymour, and up at Whistler, and out in Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park (popularly called the Othello Tunnels, near Hope). There was a massive prison set in Richmond. There were some studio-built sets within the scenes that were massive.

Most of Dawn and War have been exterior shoots in extraordinarily tough weather. Through Dawn we were working in sleet and cold in Alouette Lake for the first month, then we went into the extraordinary heat of New Orleans in summer. For War, I would say that the only sunny days were our first four days out at Long Beach. The rest was rainy and snowy and windy and very very cold.

Q: What can you tell us about Towan, the orangutan you befriended while preparing for the role of Maurice?

A: Towan was the orangutan who I first went to observe at Woodland Park Zoo in 2010. After doing a lot of book and video research, and I had begun my physical training, I felt that I was missing something in terms of landing Maurice as a character. So I took a bus down to Woodlawn Park in Seattle to observe Towan. He came to the window to see me and wanted to study me. Somehow, in the 20 minutes we spent together, I felt Maurice landed. After the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened, I was invited for an introduction to him and the rest of the orangutan family at the zoo. Towan was an artist and a painter like myself, so I brought him a gift of art supplies and had the chance to watch him paint. It was another extraordinary meeting. Since that time, I’ve gone back to visit every two or three months, and spend two or three days, bringing my own paints and painting for the orangutans to watch. Up until the time of his death a year ago, I got to know him quite well. I would say he’s one of the finest teachers I ever had—not just in terms of inspiring my work as Maurice, but on other levels as well. Getting to know and study orangutans is an incredible thing.

It’s also been amazing to be introduced to the world of orangutan conservation. I follow and support organizations in Sumatra and Borneo and the Center for Great Apes in Florida in whatever way I can.

Q: And we owe all this to a crazy French novel from the sixties.

A: Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963). It’s quite a fine book. I read it for the first time two years ago. It’s different from the ’68 film. But it’s a very unique novel, that’s for sure.

Q: What are your current projects?

A: Right now I’m shooting a lovely recurring role in the series Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency. I can’t say anymore, but I’m so delighted to be part of season two of this show.

Find our more about orangutans and orangutan conservation here

Towan, 2015, the inspiration for Maurice in the Planet of the Apes movies. Photo courtesy Karin Konoval.

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