It’s all about finding your inner ape. Terry Notary grins broadly as he says this and then, in a blink, his features morph from man to beast — a transition so sudden and fluid, it’s eerie. His lips purse and his hazel eyes lock up in an intense gaze. He juts forward his jaw, hunches his shoulders. His legs bow, bending slightly at the knees, and his arms seem to lengthen and curl as the movements of his chiseled body slow down. He tosses his head, his long bangs falling in his face. A grunt ushers from his throat. In an instant he has transformed himself into something not quite human, not quite animal.
It is a startling performance, one that conveys a sense both of barely contained power and of remarkable calm.
Apes have “this amazing groundedness and stillness that we’re missing as humans,” says the 33-year-old Notary, the grin returning to his human face.
But why this talk of apes? Because, as anyone who this summer skimmed the entertainment pages, watched TV, drove past a billboard or walked into a multiplex knows, apes were everywhere. And the man behind the apes was Terry Notary — a former UCLA gymnast (he was a four-time All-American and a nominee for the prestigious Nissan Award), circus performer (after UCLA, he spent five years as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat) and all-around expert in translating movement.
As the headmaster of “Ape School,” it was Notary who brought to life the apes on the big screen in the summer blockbuster Planet of the Apes, director Tim Burton’s take on the classic 1963 sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle about an upside-down world in which simians rule and humans are enslaved. For six intensive weeks, he trained the actors, teaching them to walk, run, eat, grunt and fight like apes.
Although the film garnered mixed reviews, Notary (who also was movement coach for Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas) has received international attention and been lauded by critics. The Los Angeles Daily News’ Bob Strauss called Notary “the real hero” of the movie.
Not only was Notary on the set each day of filming to continue coaching the actors — principals as well as some 400 extras — to move like chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas, he stunt-doubled for the malevolent chimpanzee warlord Thade, played by Tim Roth, plus four other ape characters.
“Ape School gave me a behavioral dictionary for Thade, who often goes berserk,” says Roth. “Terry watched my performance to make sure no movement was too human, and I watched his stunts and coached his work to make sure it’s truly in character. We had a good back-and-forth thing.”
The movements and other characteristics of the apes in Burton’s film are a far cry from those of the 1968 cult classic of the same name. In that earlier version, and its several sequels, the ape characters were more prone to scream like humans than to grunt like simians. When they ran, they tended to stand upright rather than lope on all fours, and they were less likely to smell things before eating them, as apes naturally do.
To get it right, “I just poured myself into ape behavior,” Notary says, spending day after day observing animals at the Los Angeles Zoo. He would tape them and then go home to study the videos, along with ape films ranging from National Geographic documentaries to Gorillas in the Mist. He read books including Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, and on the set he played with the twin chimps cast in the flick.
“I tried to picture them as humans in ape suits,” says Notary. “It was like: OK, let’s see what he’s doing. ... Hmm, well, I would never have expected that an ape would do that. We can use that.
“I’m not an ape expert,” Notary says. “I’m just good at watching things and finding a technique to show the actors. A primate is a very liquid animal. They’re easily distracted, but when they’re focused on one thing, the focus is total. We had to teach actors how to find their own sense of being primal.”
Burton wanted all of the apes to appear as though they were from the same gene pool — 20 percent ape and 80 percent human — but there are differences in the movements of each type of animal. Notary accented those unique characteristics when training the actors. Actor Paul Giamatti, for example, plays Limbo, an orangutan, which is a slow-moving, graceful creature with a natural slump. Gorillas, like Michael Clarke Duncan’s character Col. Attar, are more massive creatures, with upright backs. Roth’s Thade, a chimp, is more bowlegged and moves quickly.
Not all the actors took right away to being simian.
Helena Bonham Carter, who plays chimpanzee Ari, admits she “flunked” Ape School. “I had to go back and learn how to be still,” Bonham Carter says. “I had to learn an economy of movement, but to be immensely focused. To stop intellectualizing and instead make everything physical and be present and alive in the moment, which is completely ape-like.
“Apes are more sensual and tactile than we are,” she says. “They’ve got a much better sense of smell, and their intuition is much greater. But their focus is absolutely 100 percent, which is very useful for me as a human being.
“Actually, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if everyone went to Ape School.”
In 1975, when he was 7 years old, Notary was diagnosed as being severely hyperactive. “He was one of those all-over-the-place kids,” concedes his mother, Judith Notary, laughing at the recollection of her son “climbing up the wires, up the poles.” It was hard to get him to sit down, she says. During dinner, if he was excited about anything, he’d automatically stand up. He’s still like that to a degree, his mother says.
Indeed, even when he’s sitting, Notary never seems to be still. His arms fly about, his hands gesture his own personal sign language, his face is in a constant state of flux. It’s easy to get swept away in whatever it is he’s describing.
“Terry is an energy force field, a whirlwind of human potential,” says his childhood friend and UCLA gymnastics teammate Jason Garman ’92. “When he wakes up in the morning, he hits the ‘on’ switch and it doesn’t go off until there’s nothing else to be excited about.”
Notary’s parents declined the doctor’s advice to put him on Ritalin for his hyperactivity, and instead enrolled him in a gymnastics class to burn off some of his excess energy.
“Once he got in the gym, everything changed,” Judith Notary continues. “He just needed an outlet.”
Learning to do a back flip was a major turning point in Notary’s life. “I was just this little psycho kid,” he says. “I was doing run up, back flip; run up, back flip; run up, back flip. For an hour and a half. That was it. My coach said, ‘Well, he’s a little wild, but there’s something there.’ I just lived for gymnastics at that age.”
Through gymnastics, Notary also learned discipline. He would spend some four hours after school practicing, then go home and study and finish up his homework by about midnight. Everywhere he went, he carried a notebook in which he’d jot down his ambitions and dreams.
“Every night, I’d set my goals to see what I was going to learn the next day,” Notary says. “I would have this, this and this done by the week.”
And so, Notary learned a back handspring by Friday. In a month and one week, he perfected a roundoff back handspring back flip. Before long, he was winning the state championship. “Usually, whatever I wrote down in that notebook, I would do.”
It’s a practice that he continues today, sketching out new dance moves, story ideas and other thoughts.
By the time he was 17, Notary had won regional and state championships and placed second at nationals. When it was time for college, he was heavily recruited by schools that included Annapolis, West Point, Stanford and UC Berkeley, near his hometown of San Rafael, Calif., all offering full scholarships. But Notary had his sights set on Westwood. UCLA, after all, was the home of his heroes; pictures of Bruin gymnasts Mitch Gaylord, Peter Vidmar ’83 and Tim Daggett ’86 — all members of the gold medal-winning 1984 U.S. Olympic team — plastered the walls of his bedroom.
And UCLA had its sights set on Notary. Art Shurlock, UCLA’s men’s gymnastics coach from 1964 to 2000, says Notary was a terrific all-around athlete, but was especially creative on the high bar and the floor exercise. Notary developed an “out of the ordinary” move for the floor exercise called the “spider-man,” Shurlock says. For the move, Notary would begin with his legs in a straddle position above his shoulders and then sink down and do a press up to a handstand.
Notary also was a bit of a goof, Shurlock recalls, sometimes cavorting around the gym on his knuckles like a gorilla.
In his senior year, Notary was elected team captain and had won national awards, but he came up short in qualifying for the national Olympic team, finishing 16th in the trials. He spent a fifth year at UCLA, and though his scholarship covered registration fees, it didn’t include room and board. To make ends meet, Notary lived in a camper that he parked on Veteran Avenue, studying for midterms and finals by candlelight and sprinting out to a coffee or sandwich shop in Westwood to use a bathroom.
Living in the camper was both an experiment and a test of will.
“There was something freeing about it,” he says. “I could drive anywhere and have all the stuff I owned with me.” He also knew it was just a temporary situation.
Sure enough, Cirque du Soleil recruited Notary for the premiere of its Mystere show in Las Vegas. He performed on the Chinese poles, teeterboard and trampoline, and played Taiko drums. In Vegas, he also met his wife, Rhonda, who was dancing as a Rockette.
Cirque du Soleil taught Notary how to relax and be artistic. “I learned to just be myself and to not conform,” Notary says. “There’s a conformity in gymnastics. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting gymnastics down in any way, but it’s very different than performing.
“Maybe it’s because I wasn’t mature enough to understand how to perform when I was in gymnastics. I was too scared about the technical scores and competing,” he says. “But when I went to Cirque, it was like I really found out who I was and I could just let my soul out. That’s when I started to really be able to do some things that were incredible.”
In 1996, Notary and Rhonda moved to New York, where Notary took up photography, directed circus shows, got work in a few operas at the Metropolitan Opera House and started his own production company, Emitime. Not long afterward, he was called to work on Grinch, for which he ran “Who School,” teaching the whimsical Whos of Whoville to do stunts like playing on trampolines and teeterboards and jumping onto each other’s shoulders, all in a seemingly magical way. Shortly after that gig was over, he got the call to do Apes.
Today, when he’s not working in Hollywood, Notary is concentrating on a larger ambition: creating his own circus. Although he won’t divulge many details, he says his vision is of a show that combines dance, music, theater, film and circus.
“It’s going to put all of those aspects into one show,” Notary says. “There will be musicians flying overhead, landing onstage and performing as characters in the show. The audience is going to be surrounded with theater, circus and music. There’s going to be special effects that will have people saying, ‘Oh my God, this has never been done before!’ There’s one special effect in which people are going to fly in new ways, and it’s not with wires.”
Notary wants to get started with preproduction in a year or so, but first he has to raise the money.
“Do you have $7 million?” he asks. “I’m asking everyone these days.”
Not to worry. It’s all written down in his notebook.