Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Enrique Murciano in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (David James/Twentieth Century Fox)
Another product of this cynical cinematic age of reboots and re-imaginings, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes seemed from the outset to be a cash-in designed solely to putt butts in the seats through brand familiarity. Instead, audiences were treated to a surprisingly cerebral summer smash, thus proving the old adage about books and their covers correct.
Of course, the film industry is only as jaded as its patrons, so when the inevitable sequel to Rise was announced, a familiar question emerged: Could it really improve upon the first one? Well, unfortunately for the naysayers, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sophisticated, moving film with a big heart and a lot on its mind.
Being that Dawn is something of a high-brow blockbuster, its cast is populated with indie and international thespians, as opposed to buff poster-boys. As such, when the producers needed to find an actor to play one of the film’s human antagonists, they skipped over the long list of stock mustache twirlers and set their sights on Kirk Acevedo, an authentic New York performer with major chops.
A graduate of NYC’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Acevedo first broke through playing gangster Miguel Alvarez on HBO’s prison drama “Oz.” Since then, Acevedo has made a name for himself with roles in shows like “Law & Order,” “Fringe,” “The Walking Dead” and the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. Though he has dabbled in film acting, with appearances in The Thin Red Line and Invincible, getting cast in Dawn represents perhaps his grandest foray into the cinematic world.
“There’s a big difference in the mediums‚” says Acevedo on bridging the gap between the small screen and the silver one. “I’m an edgy guy, and edgy plays more on film. Lighter, lighter‚ that’s what TV is. On film, I can be as dark as I want to be; that suits my talents.”
This edginess gives Acevedo a chance to shine in the context of Dawn‘s grim story. Set 10 years after the Simian flu has decimated mankind’s population, the film catches up with ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), now presiding over a primate enclave in the forest outside San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in the city, a small contingent of virus-immune humans led by paranoid Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) plots their next move in secret. A scouting group organized by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) absconds into the forest to search for a dam they hope to utilize as a power plant, but things go awry when Acevedo’s character, Carver, confronts and shoots a young ape.
Shifty-eyed and spiteful, Carver sows the seeds for all-out war through his unrelenting aggression towards Caesar’s subjects. Despite this inner darkness, Acevedo brings a three-dimensional quality to his performance.
“You can’t play him bad,” he explains. “If you’re playing a character who does bad things, you want to know why he does those things. The apes killed [Carver’s] family. I don’t like when other actors are basically one note and just see red. You, as an actor, have to find ways to let it breathe.”
Acevedo’s commitment to the role was also aided by the freedom allowed him by Dawn’s director, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield).
“Matt was very generous with his actors. I’m someone who does improv a lot,” explains Acevedo. “He was secure enough to let me play. He was able to humanize everyone.”
Indeed, though director Rupert Wyatt did a respectable job on Rise, Reeves truly elevates the material with his sober eye for character-based drama.
“Action films are like, ‘Hey, look at these explosions.’ We have that too, but we also have story. That’s something he was really able to balance,” says Acevedo.
Aside from the commitment to world-building on display, Reeves also cultivated an intimate synchronicity with effects house WETA Digital, using the most advanced motion-capture technology to depict the apes at the crux of the story in a realistic manner. Nearly half the film is dedicated to internal strife between Caesar and the mutinous ape Koba (Toby Kebbell)‚ two ostensibly computer-generated characters. Nevertheless, these scenes take on an amazing lifelike sheen through both the mo-cap performances and Reeves’ technical wizardry.
Acevedo was impressed by the process, but at times found it challenging.
“When [the actors] are in their [motion-capture] suits, it’s great. You use your imagination,” he begins. “Then there’s a lot of passes – one where they load a fake monkey, another where they have these silver balls passing by and [one] when there’s nothing there at all – when you’re touching them and shaking hands, you’re doing that with nothing. You get used to it, but the first couple of weeks, it’s difficult.”
Thus is the struggle of an actor in today’s VFX-dominated landscape, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down Acevedo any. Next, he’ll be seen in SyFy’s upcoming limited series based on the 1995 film 12 Monkeys.
“Another simian theme,” he jokes. “It’s post-apocalyptic, too. It’s fun; I love sci-fi. As long as they keep hiring me, I’ll keep doing them!”
Another day, another reboot. At times, it can be easy to become jaded by the way Hollywood keeps cranking them out, but as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proves, there’s no reason remakes can’t be just as emotionally resonant as any original film, so long as the people involved have an affectionate understanding of the property they’re adapting.
This concept is not lost on Acevedo, who explains, “I loved the [1968 Planet of the Apes] as a kid. I’ll always remember that great image of the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand. I was a fan.”
From a fan to a featured player, Kirk Acevedo and everyone involved in Dawn proves that the magic of cinema can span generations if we simply treat it with respect.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes releases in theaters July 11.