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Planet of the Apes films aren’t easy to make. Blending human and animal behavior, social commentary and special effects into a compelling narrative are among the many obvious challenges of producing all the wildly popular (for the most part) Apes opuses released over the past fifty years.

Actor Pete Macon, who plays the wise orangutan Raka in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes–the franchise’s blockbuster tenth entry–learned about these challenges firsthand while preparing for the star role. This, as it turns out, meant the Yale-educated Macon, who’d spent five years in Shakespearian theater, was headed back to school.


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Kingdom, directed by Wes Ball for 20th Century Studios, tells the story of a young chimp named Noa who undertakes a dangerous journey with Mae, a human woman. Set hundreds of years after the Caesar Trilogy that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and ended with War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), the future of all the earth’s hominoids–human and nonhuman alike–hangs in the balance as the pair deal with a rogue band of the now-dominant apes.

Filled with unique, complicated characters, the movie would require  that most of its actors show their expressive range in motion capture (mocap) suits. This demanded nuance and versatility–qualities  Macon embodies. Besides being a prolific stage, television and film actor (best known for Shameless, The Orville and Family Guy), he’s also an accomplished visual artist known for his paintings and sculptures.

Finding time for these different creative ventures has never been a problem for him. “They all kind of work in concert,” he explains. “Visual imagery is always stimulating and just kind of helps the imagination work as well.” For his transformation into Raka, he “listened to a lot of Tibetan throat singing … before I knew that they were going to use sort of the throaty singing in the film.”



Peter Macon. Photo: Vivien Killilea


Macon’s casting as the wizened old ape began with a simple invitation to an audition. Landing the role, he felt, would require a balanced portrayal of the character–showing his range without being too over the top or too muted. That led to a crash-course weekend of “doing imagination work, studying orangutans, studying primates, studying sign language and then trying to make some choices for {the} audition tape without overdoing it.”

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He was over the moon when he won the part. “I told my wife it’s something that I really want to do,” he says. “It was the thing I’d come across most recently that was the most challenging. To make a talking orangutan real, there’s a lot that goes into it.”

That’s where Ape School came in. Six requisite weeks of it for Macon and many of his cast mates gave them a thorough comprehension of the anatomical, physiological and differences between primates and human beings.

“The muscular structures are different,”  he says. “The anatomy of the vocal cords {is} different. We spent a great deal of time understanding that, how to sit down, how to stand up, how to amble around. Then sort of layering emotions on top of that. And then layering in speech patterns, making things less colloquial and human sounding … but more, like, this is probably what it would sound like if an orangutan could talk.”



Macon as Raka. 20th Century Studios



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Macon recalls that he and his fellow actors initially interacted with each other in character. “We get to know our bodies and stuff as apes, you know?” he laughs. “So when we see each other, it’s shenanigans.” It was also quite revelatory. “We got to know each other as apes, and then we got to know each other as human beings, sort of secondary. I just really fell in love with these people as apes.”

Fast-forwarding to the film’s production, Macon recalls how a typical day of shooting was unlike anything on a standard movie set.

It would start with the actors donning their performance-capture suits.

“{It} has basically what looks like QR codes all over your body,” he says. “You just strap the camera onto your head, and you have these high definition performance capture cameras about six seconds away from your eyes. Then they run you through the works, like synching your suit up with all of the different cameras and all of the computer bays.”

The actors had to take into account precise body movements corresponding with how a real ape might ambulate, narrowing them down to fit specific situations such as riding horseback.




20th Century Studios


Macon reflects on the dichotomy of starring in a global blockbuster while remaining virtually unrecognizable as his character offscreen. It turns out this is nothing new to him, as he’d played the prosthetic-heavy Lieutenant Commander Bortus in The Orville.

“I think there’s a bit of a relief that comes along {with it},” he muses. “I can just kinda walk around and live my life.” But he does admit to wondering, “Is this gonna help me get another job? I don’t know.”

A working actor for 35 years, Macon takes a pragmatic approach to his career. He’s learned to expect the unexpected, and to him that’s a good thing. He calls the roles that come up “good surprises,” admitting it’s a bit strange never knowing quite what type they’ll be. “I think it’s kinda just part of my story and my journey,” he says. “Who knows what this is gonna lead to, but I take it as it is, and it’s pretty wonderful.”





In long-running movie franchises it’s often a tall task to keep successive entries fresh, entertaining and worthy successors to earlier productions. Macon proudly believes The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes accomplishes that by telling a new story while staying true to its origins. “This film focuses more on the diversity of the ape world and less about the conflict between apes and human beings,” he states. “Seeing it’s 300 years from now, and that the earth has really reclaimed itself, and human beings have sort of fallen off the top of the food chain… It makes us look at ourselves in this way, almost like a cautionary tale.”

Macon is confident the effort that went into the capturing the intricacies of advanced ape behavior will pay off for audiences.  “I’ve {watched} the film three times now, and I {always} see new stuff,”  he says. “If you go to zoos where they have these great apes … you can see how closely related they are to us on the chain on the DNA chain and how they communicate. They’re very political, and, they’re also individuals.”

If you think Macon sounds passionate about this movie, you’re right. For all the significant time–and extraordinary effort–he spent immersing himself in a role performed behind a digital mask, he wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity of a lifetime, playing Raka was only the next step in the evolution of his art and what is sure to be an ever-expanding acting career.




About the Author:


Born on the East Coast but currently residing on the West Coast, Andrew Martin has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines, blogs and other mediums  but most fondly remembers his Master’s thesis exploring the impact of the Boston Red Sox on social identity in New England. He enjoys writing about history, sports, culture and investing and recently published his first book–Baseball’s Greatest Players: 10 Baseball Biographies for New Readers, a children’s book about baseball history.

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