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Planet of the Apes : Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa Interview
© Jason Myers

In Planet of the Apes, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Krull, a servant ape/warrior. He is probably most recognizable to genre fans as Shang Tsung in the Mortal Kombat movie. He also appeared in License to Kill, Rising Sun, The Phantom, John Carpenter's Vampires, The Art of War, and this summer's Pearl Harbor. He's one of those character actors whose name you probably don't know, but every time you see him in something, you think, "I've seen that guy before." Tagawa stopped by the San Diego Comic-Con to demonstrate his ape walk, leap like a primate over a table, and, oh yeah, talk about Planet of the Apes.

Tagawa on becoming an ape:

After you spend 18 hours in an ape costume, you understand what abuse is.

Planet of the Apes is probably the most horrendous film I've been involved in terms of hours, of course, with the four-hour makeups. One of the first things that Tim Burton said was, "Uh, and you know, the makeups are [whispers] four hours." And I said, "Don't worry, I did Showdown in Little Tokyo. We did 12 hours of tattoos"…. Famous last words.

The worst part was, after the four hours, you go to work for a minimum of 14 hours to a maximum of 18 hours. Once, I worked 22 hours almost, including the time going back and forth, taking the makeup off.

I have to say that, after all that, it's been well well worth it.

Tagawa on his film career:

After this summer, and these two movies, Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes…. Certainly have come far from my start as a chief eunuch in The Last Emperor. You can't get stereotyped as a eunuch, huh? I spent the first half of my career going from eunuch to playboy in Rising Sun …. After that, of, course, Mortal Kombat and Johnny Tsunami . Shang Tsung and Johnny Tsunami, I mean, that's the range of a career. And now to play an ape….

Tagawa on the surprise ending of the original Planet of the Apes:

The ending, of course. We've never seen an ending like that ever again in film. And we've got a trick one for you, and the rumor is not true. We didn't shoot five endings, but um, you're really going to enjoy it.

Tagawa on Tim Burton:

I have to say Tim Burton was one of the most delightful directors I've ever worked with. It was very clear that he and I were raised the same way: playing by ourselves with our toys. It makes for a lot of imagination. I think him and I both didn't get past age ten.

That's one of the greatest things about being an actor… to be paid for enjoying myself so much. Halloween was always my favorite. Certainly with Apes, it gave us that opportunity for five months.

It took us five months. November of last year until about March of this year. We did go to ape school for two months, or three months. I went three months, because I was so anxious to get working.

Tagawa on the look of the female chimp played by Helena Bonham Carter:

A lot was in keeping with how they wanted her character to go and the way she played it, with a sense of femininity. I mean, how sexy can you be with sideburns? Certainly Helena played the character with sexual overtones, you know, but no, [laughs] there isn't the scene that everyone's talking about.

Tagawa, on if he would get back into the makeup for a sequel:

No. No. No. No, it's funny, I had thought about it. It was kind of like Shang Tsung. Mortal Kombat, right? Once you build a character like that…the last scene in Mortal Kombat, where he's just like pounding me, after all that it took to build this power and stealing souls, and I told them, I said, "You know guys, if you let me get beat up like this, why should I come back?" The little kid will go "Hey, dad, isn't that the guy who got beat up last time real bad?" And so, there's some characters that you want to leave as classic characters. If Krull doesn't come back, or whatever, I think, after having seen Apes the other day, I'm happy that Krull had his one shot. And if it works out, that'll be cool. If not, on to something else.

Tagawa, in response to question, "Do you know what Charlton Heston will be doing in the new Apes?":

Yeah, I do, but why should I tell you? I'm sorry, I just had to say that. Yes, I've seen the film, and yes, I know what he did…. So, he's Thade/Tim Roth's father, and he comes in for one scene. And it must have been most horrendous for him. 'Cause, you know, I put on the makeup probably about forty-five times. But to come in just for one scene and to have to do that for five or six hours….

Tagawa on martial arts:

My history with martial arts started when I was 13. I took Kendo, which is the bamboo sword, practice for using the real sword. A very very old art. I actually didn't start Karate until I was 21, which was quite late. I got very involved in it, and I went to Japan to study.

….And it became very much my concern that I wouldn't just end up competing. That's what they were driving us to, and I was not into competition. I was more into really what the spirit of martial arts was about, and that's why I left. I left fairly early, in fact. And I just started my own study, and I'm very pleased to announce that I have my own system. The art of fighting without fighting, and that's the style that I've developed. And it's really about how to use martial arts principles for everything but fighting.

Tagawa on being stereotyped as an Asian villain:

A lot of people have asked if I've been concerned about being pigeonholed and stereotyped. I was raised in [drops into a Southern drawl] the South. Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina. I was actually born in Tokyo, and my father is from Hawaii. I spent my childhood growing up in the South. And so, being stereotyped and pigeonholed [drops into accent again] ain't nothing but a thing. That never bothered me. Well, I had to learn how to deal with it. And I'm the kinda guy, when I came to Hollywood… there's a one in a million chance of succeeding. I said "I'll take it," and if you tell me there's none in a million, I'd say, "I'll make the one and then I'll take that one." So, I'm unstoppable. You know, I'm your worst nightmare.

Tagawa, asked if costar Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is he as nice as he seems:

He is. He is. He is so sweet. And you know, I have to just say, in general, most of the actors that I've ever met who play bad guys are sweet. I mean, in that they look that way for a reason, 'cause they've been through a lot of stuff, but because they're more real having gone through the stuff, when they get to Hollywood, they tend to be nicer guys. [Laughs ] And most of the good guys I've ever met are jerks….

Krull was originally not in the script. And I was being fitted for Michael Clarke Duncan's character, Attar. And then they said, "Michael Clarke Duncan," and then I thought, "Now wait a minute. He's bigger than me. How am I going to be a general to him?" And then I thought, "He's got my role!" And so… waited, waited, and sure enough, Krull was created as a new character… and went from an aging servant ape, to an aging servant ape/warrior. The warrior part was a part that Tim Burton and I put together to create a more interesting character.

Tagawa on the original Apes movies:

I never saw the ones after the first one. I mean, I was greatly affected by the first one. I started, for this film, to watch the other ones. By the time I got through about five minutes of the second one, I said, "I don't wanna really watch these." And instead I just went and studied apes.

Tagawa on the difference between the original and the remake:

For the original one, there's a lot of talking. In an interview I was just doing with a reporter, he was saying about the first one being an adventure or action movie, and I just thought, "Did we see the same movie?" I just remember them talking a lot, and being very philosophical about things. But in this version, there's not that at all. This is like a Star Wars version of the film. It has a lot more sort of heavy merchandising possibilities.

Tagawa on primates:

Did you see the producer, Richard Zanuck? Did he look like a chimp or what? The stunt coordinator looked like a monkey. And Tim Burton, if you kind of exaggerate him, he looks like a monkey. And Mark Wahlberg, he certainly looks like a monkey.

Planet of the Apes opened July 27, 2001.

Jason Myers is Film Editor for RevolutionSF.

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