Only an actor with a lot of skill and screen charisma can hold his own opposite Dwayne Johnson, but Jason Liles was able to do it in the recent monster movie "Rampage" without saying a word. All he had were his eyes, his posture, sign language, and some help from the visual effects department as George, the ape who goes from being best friend of Johnson’s Davis Okoye to being a gigantic, furious, and destructive monster after he is exposed to a gene-altering pathogen.
In an interview at San Diego Comic-Con, Liles talked about preparing for the role by studying apes, which parts of his body hurt the most after assuming ape posture and arm extensions, and what we might see in his next motion-capture role as two different monsters, one with three heads, in the upcoming “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
What motion-capture monsters have you played?
I played Ryuk in “Death Note,” I played George in “Rampage,” and I’m playing King Ghidorah and Rodan in the upcoming “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” I help bring them to life; I'm not the only person creating the performance. King Ghidorah is a three-headed dragon so it's hard for one person to play that; that's all I'll say about that.
I understand that you spent quite a bit of time studying the movements and the sounds that apes make. Did you go to the zoo or talk to the experts?
A combination of all of it. I knew about six months before they called me that it was going to be a possible role so I started studying my butt off, going to the L.A. Zoo just watching gorillas for hours, watching them be still but also watching them be alive in stillness. That's really key, not just running around but just being. I watched “Planet of the Apes” behind the scenes, “King Kong” behind the scenes and anything with Andy Serkis or Terry Notary. I watched a lot of Koko the gorilla who learned to sign, every bit of footage I could find on her, and tons of documentaries. You just type in “gorilla documentary” on YouTube. It's incredible the amount of stuff that comes up. So I found what was the most useful for me and just rewatched it and studied it.
Then I got brought on to the film and trained with Terry Notary who is King Kong and Kong in “Kong: Skull Island” and Rocket in “Planet of the Apes.” He's done so many characters and coached some incredible performances out of actors. He trained me for three weeks in the Santa Monica mountains on all fours, hundreds of hours of miles with these arm extensions, learning to engage my senses as a gorilla and strip down what makes me Jason and a man and an American and a human and just be an ape. So it was a huge process. He got it to where I could basically lucid dream while awake as a gorilla. I can't even describe it; I felt like I could fly at some moments. It was crazy.
With the arm extensions, it's really a completely different posture. That must have caused some muscle aches.
Some muscles on the sides of my ribs that you just don't use, your butt muscles, your legs, would hurt. My back was actually amazing because it's so healthy for your spine to be spread over all fours like that. But physically it was like I had never been on a skateboard before and Tony Hawk said, “I'm going to train you how to do the most amazing tricks in three weeks.” It was very intense and the third morning after two days training I was so sore from head to toe. I’ve worked out like five or six days a week for years, but I was so sore. It’s a different way of using the muscles so that was a whole thing in and of itself and getting that to where that was second nature was what we needed to do. It’s kind of how if you learn instruments you're thinking about it but then you get to where you don't have to look; it’s just happening. After about three weeks you got to that place.
But the most difficult part was the psychology, being able to see things and hear things and feel things as a gorilla, not as a human. Being able to turn off my mind and not think in terms of past or future but to be present being right now and just let my brain sit in a hammock, as Terry said.
It’s really two or three different performances because at first George is completely at home with humans, having conversations in sign language and very gentle but then he becomes much bigger and enraged.
Koko was a huge inspiration because she's the closest thing I know of that has so much footage, a gorilla being raised from birth for decades by a human and taught sign language. And then just the love that George has for Davis every time George sees Davis. That was a big thing Terry coached me on. He said, “We have to see and feel that love. He's everything to you. Whatever is inside of you has to be real. You don't have to show me anything but if you feel it, if you can find whatever it is, we will see it in your eyes and it comes through.” Dwayne Johnson makes that very easy. I really love him like George loves Davis, I really do. He is such a special guy.
But then the more physical parts of George like when that antenna comes on and triggers whatever he's been infected with, we treated that as if it was a completely different character. That's not George. That's just a monster who is just a sociopath who has this thing is ringing inside of every part of his body and he needed to go shut it off and get everything out of his way.
And next is King Ghidorah?
Yes, in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” I can't go into the exact details of how we do it but I help bring to life Godzilla’s all-time archenemy, King Ghidorah the three-headed dragon. I also help bring to life Rodan the pterodactyl. So to help play these iconic creatures, I believe for the first time in an American Hollywood film, it's just really an honor and a pleasure and a privilege. I mean, it's the Godzilla franchise!
You were able to study gorillas in real life. What about characters like these that don't really exist?
There’s no book on how to play a three-headed dragon or to play a part of a three-headed dragon so I had to look at real animals. I looked at lizards and snakes and Komodo dragons and I looked at the old movies. I just tried to see how I could help bring this character to life in the way that they want me to.
It's going to be beautiful; the visual effects are done by Moving Picture Company and Gilmer Sharon is the supervisor and he won an Oscar for “Life of Pi.” He's done some incredible work. I'm a nerd just like everybody else. I cannot wait to see the first peek and the trailer. I'm going to be watching that stuff so many times on YouTube.