Owen Teague Knows Exactly Why ‘Planet of the Apes’ Still Matters

Owen Teague Knows Exactly Why ‘Planet of the Apes’ Still Matters

This interview contains spoilers for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

I hate to simplify Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, which—I promise!—is very, very good. But when I Zoom with the film’s star, Owen Teague, I can’t scrub one question from my brain. In Kingdom (in theaters now), the twenty-five-year-old actor plays the leading ape, Noa. Given the movie’s better-than-you’d-ever-imagine visual effects, I have to know: Is it kinda messed up to see your own face realistically painted on a monkey’s?

“It’s freaky,” says Teague. “Like, it’s just me! But it’s also warped my brain a little bit, because now, when I see Noa on a billboard or whatever, I’m like, Oh, look…it’s my face.”

Of course, the similarities between Teague and Noa end there. In conversation, Teague—who’s also appeared in It and Netflix’s Reptile—is energetic, blissfully unthreatened by neighboring ape civilizations, and a little embarrassed by his temporary L.A. digs. (“Forgive my somewhat austere background here. I just got to L.A.”) He’s excited for the world to see Kingdom, which follows Noa, a headstrong young ape who goes on a coming-of-age journey through the same world that exists in the Andy Serkis-led Apes trilogy, only three hundred years later. Chronologically, Kingdom lives somewhere between the Serkis films—which showed us humankind’s downfall—and the 1968 classic, in which simians speak fluent English and enjoy medical care. In other words: In Kingdom, humans are low on the food chain, but the apes are still figuring their shit out.

The result is what’ll surely go down as one of the year’s best blockbuster efforts, with some sly commentary about our real-world politics. (More on that later.) Kingdom shines in large part thanks to Teague’s Noa, who seems poised to evolve into every bit the complex, can’t-look-away character of Caesar, played by Serkis. Here Teague talks about how he pulled it off—and what he hopes for Noa’s journey in a potential sequel.

a person in a suit
Seeing yourself in ape form? Just as weird as you’d think. “It’s freaky,” says Teague. “Like, it’s just me! It’s warped my brain a little bit, because now, when I see Noa on a billboard or whatever, I’m like, Oh, look…it’s my face.Disney

ESQUIRE: How much of your life has Kingdom taken up, from when you first heard about the part to this moment?

OWEN TEAGUE: Like, all of it. It’s funny—I didn’t realize how much of an experience of going back to childhood this would be. Because King Kong was a big thing for me as a kid, and just all of Andy’s work. And I was really into chimpanzees and gorillas. If you had asked me my favorite animal, I would have been like, “Apes.” So I had forgotten that part of myself a little bit. Suddenly, I was given this reason to rediscover that. It was almost like I had permission to get obsessed again.

During the entire film, I just kept thinking, Holy shit, do we actually have photorealistic apes now?

It is crazy. I saw it in full for the first time the other night. We’ve been trained into seeing bad CGI and thinking, Oh, yeah, that’s good! The first time Wes Ball showed me some of the footage, I was like, “Oh my God, Wes, this looks amazing. This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” He looks at me and he’s like, “Oh, that’s not done.” Like, what do you mean?!?

When I came back to the Esquire office after my screening—and told my colleagues that we’ve reached the movie-made-entirely-with-convincing-CGI-apes singularity—they thought I was crazy.

People still don’t understand what mo-cap is. It’s come a long way in terms of public perception from when Andy Serkis was playing Gollum. The [credits would say] “Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis.” And he is playing that character. But there’s still this thing where people will ask me, “So what, are you in prosthetics? Is it you?” And I’m like, “Oh, no, it is me. That’s my performance.” I hope [Kingdom] continues to legitimize performance capture as just part of the acting craft.

The animators are just so talented that they have perfectly translated [the performances] from human to ape. And it’s weird because I’ll look at Noa and I’ll see myself.

planet of the apes
“Noa’s voice was really hard to find,” says Teague, who worked with a vocal coach to perfect his character’s stilted speech. “The physical performance came very easy, but the voice is tricky.” 20th Century Studios

Kingdom definitely feels like a departure from the Caesar trilogy. It’s naturalistic, a little quieter, and inches closer to what we see in the 1968 film.

We always wanted to get a little bit closer to the time period shown in ’68. But the goal was to expand the universe and tell a slightly different story from what they did with the Caesar trilogy. We wanted to take this universe and see what else we could do with it.

The cool thing about this franchise is that every movie is a reflection of where we are as humans. I remember reading the script and being like, Oh, this is the Planet of the Apes story for this time. It’s not necessarily for kids but for people my age who are coming into a world where truth is sort of lost. The importance we once placed on the truth is gone. We’re this generation of young adults for whom reality is no longer a definable thing. That’s what Noa’s dealing with here. He’s learning all these things that don’t match up. It’s a very smart story to be telling right now: how people take history, twist it, and use it to their own advantage.

It’s like the Information Age Planet of the Apes.

It was the first thing that struck me about the scripts. This is the Planet of the Apes reaction to the autocrats that we’re seeing come up.

What’s your take on the last exchange between Noa and Mae?

It’s a goodbye, but it’s also like “I know this isn’t over. I hope the next time we see each other, we can still be civil and still have something that resembles a friendship—or at least a mutual understanding.”

This is entirely an assumption on my part, based on a few conversations I’ve had: Noa will have to deal with the human threat. Maybe he starts learning even more about the world, trying to form his own opinions and his own way of leading based on what he’s learned. The next movie and hopefully the movie after that is when he moves out of that role and into whatever it is he’s going to become.

That’s a smart way to think of the new films—an inversion of the Caesar trilogy, where we see a human-led rebellion against the apes.

That’s my fantasy.

How did you pull off Noa’s stilted way of speaking?

Noa’s voice was really hard to find. The physical performance came very easy, but the voice is tricky. Andy and I worked on this together—you want it to still feel like it’s coming out of a chimpanzee. He had a really good way of putting it: “You’re translating into another language.” It takes a second for Noa to get from feelings to thoughts to verbalizing them. It has to go through more channels.

The other thing was just using breath. I worked with a voice teacher. I would Zoom with him every other weekend, just to do some breathing and make sure that Noa’s voice was coming from somewhere in my lower abdomen. It was like scatting Shakespeare. If you’ve got three monosyllabic words, you want to hit that in a certain way and have the pauses support the meaning of that statement.

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What’s next for Noa? “I’m curious about what kind of leader he becomes and how he affects the Apes universe,” says Teague. “What’s his legacy going to be?” Disney

That’s impressive.

It was scary, too, because we’ve never heard of an ape that sounds like me. Andy’s got this beautiful, melted-butter voice. You listen to that guy talk and you’re like, Oh my God! You know. And so does Peter [Macon], who plays Raka. He’s got the voice of God. It’s insane. And then there’s me—there was a lot of fear of, like, Oh, is this gonna be weird for people to watch a chimpanzee who’s a tenor?

For me, it was weird that it was not weird.

Is it not? That’s really good to hear. I’m so close to it that I still don’t know if it works or not.

What’s next for you?

More than anything, I want to do a sequel and finish Noa’s story, because I don’t feel like we’re finished. I don’t feel like this is the end. He’s just figured out who he is. I’m curious about what kind of leader he becomes and how he affects the Apes universe. What’s his legacy going to be? And I want to see everybody again. I got to go to work every day and see my family, hang out, and pretend.

I [also] want to work with Andy. I wanna actually play a scene with him, because that would be so much fun. We’ve had dinner together, but we’ve never actually gotten to play in the same world.

I hope we just spoke that into existence.

I hope so, too.

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