By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: “Planet of the Apes” Costar Terry Notary Takes Center Stage in “The Square”

One of 2017’s most accomplished films mercilessly sends up the international contemporary art scene, proving that an art film can be both serious and seriously funny. Three years after his terrific comedy-drama Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund again examines masculinity, personal responsibility, and the bourgeoisie in The Square, which won the Palme d’Or in May at Cannes, and is also Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A powerful, celebrated director of a modern art museum in Stockholm (Claes Bang) loses his bearings after his wallet and cell phone are stolen, and an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) further distracts him from the realization that most of the exhibits he’s curated are garbage (one exhibit literally is).

In a movie full of lacerating wit, one scene stands out: a formal dinner for wealthy museum patrons, who get more than they bargained for when Oleg, a burly performance artist (Terry Notary), menaces them with his uncomfortably realistic interpretation of an ape man. Notary knows about simian behavior. The actor, who is also a stunt coordinator, motion-capture performer, and movement instructor, plays Rocket in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and breathed life into the CGI title character of Kong: Skull Island. But Oleg may be his scariest role yet. I was relieved when I interviewed him during the recent Chicago International Film Festival to find him far from intimidating. He’s well-spoken, polite, and almost preternaturally calm. Because he has only one scene in The Square (but what a scene!), we dissected it at length, so spoilers lie ahead.

Congratulations on winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Were you guys expecting it? No! We were thrilled to be a part of the festival, and just be in the running. It’s a testament to Ruben; he’s amazing.

It’s so apt that you’re smack dab in the middle of the movie’s poster, because your one lengthy, masterful scene is absolutely key to the film. At the beginning, your character Oleg is only glimpsed from afar, as he makes his entrance at the rear of the banquet hall. Then he gradually moves forward, and for a while disappears off-screen. Then he re-enters the frame, with the camera almost riding his shoulders as he circles the tables. Once he scares off the far more successful celebrity artist (Dominic West), Oleg moves closer and closer to the camera, zeroing in on a petrified, pretty redhead (Madeleine Barwen Trollvik). The stunt girl.

She’s a stunt girl? Please tell me that you used a harness to drag her across the floor, because you couldn’t have really pulled her by her hair! She was so tough, really tough, telling me, “Pull my hair. I think it would be great if you did.” And I’m like, “No, no, no—can’t do it.” And she said, “Yes. I’ll grab your hand when you pull me off the chair.” So, she had a good grab on my arm, but I had to choreograph it, because she said, “Just grab as much hair as you can, in a bunch, because we’re going to do it in one take.” I did feel her hair pull, but we got it in one take.

Audiences underestimate what stunt people do. Some of them go on to leading roles, like the late Richard Farnsworth [The Straight Story], or rising action star, Scott Adkins [Doctor Strange, American Assassin], because along the way they developed presence. And you have tons of presence. Thank you. We had to go there. It was funny: after every take, I would go around and apologize to people [for roughing them up], but then I’d say, “I’m apologizing in advance, because I’m going back in,” and they were once again the victims.

How long did it take to shoot your scene? We had a rehearsal day, and then shot the scene in three days.

The rehearsal was because you needed to block your movements for the camera. Basically we knocked out where we were going to go, and what we were going to accomplish. The thing I love about Ruben is that he leaves things open for exploration and collaboration. It gave me the space to play, and he sculpted it. He would say, “I would like you to come through to this table now, and do something there, okay? Find someone here that you can do something to.” My challenge was to come in, not knowing what I was going to do, other than find someone in the room who didn’t want to be chosen, and do something with them.

Regarding Dominic, all Ruben said was, “You have to chase the alpha male out of the room and become the new alpha male.” And so I met Dominic right then and there, and said, “Hey, I love your work, I’m a big fan, but I’m going to chase you out of the room now.” And he’s like, “Great! Let’s do this.” And we didn’t know how we were going to do it; we didn’t rehearse anything, but his reactions were so great that I just fed off what he was doing. It was kind of like a jam session. And I think we did that take twice, and the second one, I think, is the one that made it into the film.

But if Ruben had [specifically] instructed, “Okay, I want you to knock the glass out of his hand,” that action would not have felt as real, because it wouldn’t have been spontaneous, you know? So it was up to Ruben to trust the process, and to be so aware of what’s needed to give an actor the space to allow things to happen in time, so you don’t feel rushed. We could allow the moments in between to create tension and the real emotions that were building into what else was going to happen—wherever that went.

So he knew your motivation, but then let you find your way. Your process sounds like the way Michael Jordan used to play for the Bulls. You know, flow. Of course skill has a lot to do with performance, but after a certain point you don’t think about it all that much. Exactly, exactly. When I’m working with actors, I don’t like to use the term “Don’t think,” because you actually are thinking; it’s just a different way of finding a connection with your mind. When you’re in athletics—I was in gymnastics—when you do a perfect dismount off of the high bar, you can’t be thinking about it. You have to allow your mind to soften, and it becomes a feeling. It’s almost like you go into what I call a “dropping into yourself,” where you’re almost watching [like a spectator]. It’s a state of mind that I call the “soft mind-body connection.” Because if you’re trying too hard to hit a certain thing, that only brings on tension and restriction.

When you’re softening the mind, there’s room to shift and listen, and to respond; it’s the same with acting as it is with athletics, the same exact process. And once you’re in that state, you allow yourself to continue to let it happen, and don’t interfere with it. But you can think it; it’s just that I can’t predict, or telegraph, or choreograph something in my mind that I want to replicate. That’s where you get into trouble. You’ve got to just know that the end mark will happen, and you’ll get there.

You went to theater school, after which one of your first gigs was with Cirque du Soleil—and if Cirque isn’t choreographed, I don’t know what is. Well, it was in Cirque that I really took the technique that I learned in gymnastics, and then forgot that technique for the first time. Because when you’re performing in the circus, there’s a story; it’s not as regimented as gymnastics. You lose yourself in the story, but still accomplish all the tricks and technique. Once you sort of train that vehicle of expression, your body, your instrument, and then forget everything, you’re in your scene. It’s like musicians playing guitars. They’re not thinking about where their fingers are going to go; they’re feeling it. So, you turn the technique into a feeling, and then feeling takes over, and the technique remains.

You’ve worked with big directors [James Cameron, Ron Howard, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg], and, presumably, have learned a lot from them. The benefit of my job is that I get to sit next to directors and monitor all day with them, and watch and coach and help, at the same time. I’ve been really fortunate in the film industry, helping to develop characters, working with actors, and then playing characters in the film, as well. That’s my favorite thing to do, is to be performing, and then step in and help other people when I’m not working. In Cirque, I learned what I help actors do now, like getting to neutral body.

Hold on a moment. What is neutral body? Neutral body is a blank canvas; you enter a role with no preconceptions. We’ll work on the walk, your everyday walk, which is the blueprint of your life—all the past traumas, your successes, and everything. Our social conditioning has shaped us all, who we are. When you walk, maybe you’re leading from your hips, or you’re dropping your lower back. We go and identify those things, so that an actor knows what the instrument is doing, and what strings need to be loosened or tightened, or just removed. You balance everything, come to neutral body, and then you kind of know what your habits are, and what you personally bring to the table that’s going to influence your character.

Speaking of tables, let’s return to The Square. The bit with Dominic where you break the glass, which you guys didn’t plan, was great not only for you two to have energy to feed off of, it also gave all the extras sitting around the tables something to react to. They were amazing. They were the life of the whole scene, because they didn’t know what would happen, any more than we did. You could feel the energy in the room; you could cut their tension with a knife, because people didn’t know if they were going to be singled out. They weren’t pretending; it was real. I thought we were going to lose a bunch of them after the first day, but everybody came back. I was like, “No one left?” And Ruben said, “No, they were into it. They love it!” And he didn’t tell me that they were all high-art patrons; they weren’t extras.

They weren’t actors?! No, they were real art-world people: donors, billionaire donors, owners of galleries, and famous photographers, and some singers, too. He didn’t tell me any of that. Only on the last day did he say, “Do you know who you’ve been throwing water on? A billionaire donor; she’s actually the biggest donor in Sweden.”

Oh, that Ruben! I suspect he’s a tad crazy, he so clearly likes to mess with people’s minds. [Laughing] Yes! Oh, yeah, definitely.

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