'It's a lifelong career' Rampage actor Jason Liles on acting with Dwayne Johnson, his craft and more
Jason Liles is the 6ft 9 actor who plays George the gorilla alongside Dwayne Johnson (AKA The Rock) in sci-fi action movie Rampage and has just shot scenes playing Ghidorah in Godzilla: King of the Monsters which is set for release in May 2019. Here Jason tells Mandy News about the intricacies of motion capture performance, the journey to launching his acting career, how he found his early jobs, what he was expecting when he got to Hollywood and what a day on set entails in amazing detail.
How far along are you into shooting Godzilla: King of Monsters?
We’ve actually already shot that. They shot everything in Atlanta last year and then I came on shortly after and the announcement a month or so ago was just post shooting. It’s just now you’re allowed to talk about it. It was a secret for a while.
What can you tell us about it?
Very little. Pretty much that I helped bring Ghidorah to life.
How long have you been working as a performance capture actor for?
I’ve only done two motion capture roles; George in Rampage and Ghidorah in Godzilla. The thing I have to explain to people is it’s all the same. It’s all acting. The only difference is the actor is in different clothes, it’s different makeup and different cameras but nothing changes.
I can be on stage in a theatre. I can be in prosthetics, wearing 50 to 100lbs of makeup, looking like I am a gorilla or something. As far as acting, it’s all the same.
How long have you been acting?
About a year. We were right in the heart of filming Rampage one year ago, so really a year.
You’ve said that you and your brother did short films – who got you the handycam?
My brother got the handycam for a birthday right around the time that Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace came out. His high school had a very huge production. It was like a multi-million dollar studio for a high school. It’s still one of the biggest and best in the country. So he was into that.
As soon as he got the handycam, we just started making stuff. During holidays we loved that places were closed so we could go to a parking lot and shoot some end of the world stuff because no one was around.
We never had a script either. It was like, "Wanna shoot that thing we were talking about the other day? OK, well we’ll shoot in the bedroom first and then we will go outside." So it was kind of a couple of kids saying, "let’s make movies."
How did you jump off from that to thinking you might want to do this?
I always wanted to do it. I thought it was so far away from me or where I lived. I thought people in movies were from another planet or something … you had to win the lottery to be selected. I didn’t know how it worked.
When Lord of the Rings came out, that was kind of like the generation before me seeing Star Wars. I remember seeing Fellowship of the Rings in theatres and it floored me. I was taken over by it. I had never read the book. I remember making my mum go see it. I just couldn’t get enough of it and Andy Serkis as Gollum. Then the DVD came out, I saw the behind the scenes stuff and though "that’s a guy?"
My first time on stage was in a talent show performing the famous split personality that Gollum has in the Two Towers. I won it and was obsessed with Andy Serkis and then King Kong came out and Planet of the Apes was coming out. Yeah, Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis. I was obsessed.
Then I saw all the arcs and I thought, "It would be so cool to be in all that makeup." That was before I’d ever been in make up and realised how many hours that takes and how you can’t see or breathe.
That was where the dream began and then what really lit the fuse was Heath Ledger dying. I wasn’t a huge fan of his before he passed away but I was working at Blockbuster at the time – such a cliche, right? I also waited tables – and Heath passed away. The Dark Knight came out and I saw it six times in its first week. I’ve never seen a movie before or since that many times.
I was so moved, I took a DVD or VHS home every night to watch all the people that were in this movie. I just thought, "I have to do that. I don’t know how but I have to" and I started looking into a few schools in New York. Not that I had any money. I don’t even have a degree declared and expressed this in the fall of 2008 to a professor. I was taking one acting class and he said, "you’re really passionate about this, you need to add all these theatre classes, go out and declare your major and audition for the play tonight."
It just really went from there. I did some plays and got into summer stock theatre at $100 (£75) a week. I could barely afford groceries but was having the time of my life. My parents helped me move to New York in the fall of 2009 where I really started.
And all I heard was "too tall, too tall" but I didn’t care. I was going to try and a lot of stuff happened in New York. Men in Black III showed me I’m not too tall. I am perfect. I could be taller. I am not too tall for these non-human characters. And I thought maybe this is my way into Hollywood, then I can branch out to more normal human roles once I establish myself.
With a lot of mentors’ help I moved out to LA to make myself local to all the makeup shops there. I learned that if you live locally they can just call you in and recommend you as the top guy a lot of times. I didn’t know that. They won’t even do casting but will take 7ft tall guys. How many guys can they really call in for that with the right body type?’
So that’s how Death Note happened, a friend from Men in Black III recommended me. It was quite a journey from "this will never happen" to "I’m on the red carpet with The Rock in a movie that I star with him in where I’m that statue that we’re standing in front of." It's weird. You never know.
How did you land your first job in Men in Black III?
They were background roles. I did an audition. There were some speaking roles that were going to take place in a bowling alley and the patrons were going to be aliens bowling with their heads. I auditioned for that and I did terrible. The casting assistant gave me some direction and I totally didn’t take it. I was so nervous. But then a couple of months later, they called me and said they liked that theme and they wanted me to play aliens in the background and there will be head-to-toe prosthetics. I had no idea what I was saying yes to. That’s how I got that. I did a bunch of short films. I just did anything I could when I was in New York.
I was on Mandy.com and other places for a time. I just really wanted to do anything. I would rather be doing anything acting than at home, not. Even if it didn’t pay, I didn’t care.
I did a short film with Doug Jones, who is becoming more and more well-known after The Shape of Water and his massive role in Star Trek Discovery. I played a creature opposite him in this NYU short film. It was an amazing short film, amazing script and an amazing director – who is a good friend of mine still to this day, I love him – James R. Berry. Doug kind of took me under his wing. I expressed to him that I found myself in this niche of non-human characters and practical effects with my height and how I was modelling characters in the short films after characters he had played.
Doug Jones and Andy Serkis are two of your inspirations, please talk a bit about that.
Yeah, they are. When I got on Men in Black III, this world opened to me that there are guys in these monsters, so I started to learn who they were. I knew who Andy Serkis was and then I really got to know Doug Jones’ work. His work, Doug Chase, Brian Steele and Javier Botet; a lot of these guys are kind of everything. Peter Mayhew, Juonos Sutomo (Star Wars’ films) who was took over the role of Chewbacca. These guys that play all these roles.
So I started tailoring myself after that. Working with Doug was "oh my gosh, we’re the only two characters in it and we get to fight to the death. Are you kidding me?" I remember crying three times on set because I was so beside myself and just in the pure joy of "I can’t believe I’m getting to do this with someone I’ve looked up to so much in the last couple of years" and he was really loving and took me under his wing and helped in a lot of ways.
A few years after that, he recommended that I come out here to LA to something called Monsterpalooza – a convention. You talk to any makeup artist and that is who you need to get to know if you want to do this stuff. I did that and I saw some people who worked on Men in Black III who’d worked on everything with Rick Baker (Michael Jackson's Thriller video, American Werewolf). He's a seven-time Oscar winning makeup artist.
All these people are at Monsterpalooza, people from The Walking Dead and Oscar winners from this and that and 10 people invited me to this party at Chris Nelson’s (Oscar-winner for Suicide Squad) house.
My first night in LA, I’m around his pool with 30 or 40 of the biggest makeup artists on the planet. They’ve done Chronicles of Narnia and now they’re about to go do Star Wars: The Force Awakens and they tell me, "there’s no one like you, you have to move out here."
So I did and worked at Outback Steakhouse serving blooming onions. I got a message from a shop that I’d reached out to and they said "we might need this actor for a few months." I go in and it’s Death Note and for a character called Ryuk. I called my agent and he got me an audition and I started watching this animé and found out how big [animé] was. I didn’t know how big this character was. Tens of millions of people around the world have bought the (comic) book of the manga.
All my friends are going "it’s my favourite animé" so I thought, "I need this role. I’m going to book this" and I did the best I could in the audition, got the callback and did the best I could. Then I find out that I’m going to be sharing the role with Willem Dafoe. Are you kidding me?!!
So in just a week or two, it will be two years that I have not had to wait a table. Death Note changed everything for me and really paved the way for so many more things and led to Rampage.
You did months of prep for Rampage. During those months, how did you support yourself financially?
I did not get rich off Death Note but it was a nice payday for sure and allowed me to not have to work a second job. I was able to just entirely focus on preparing myself for whatever the next opportunity was and to continue building my career.
I found out about Rampage through the visual effects supervisor, Colin Strause. We became really good friends through working on Death Note. I would go over to his house for dinner or a barbecue, still do and they told me they were looking for someone taller than Dwayne to play the gorilla and that he was going to tell the director that I was the best guy for the role.
So I started studying because he said they were going to want to meet me in a couple of weeks and to be ready. I got to know who Terry Notary was. I was preparing as if it would be a week or two. I was watching documentaries, watching all the behind-the-scenes footage from King Kong and from Planet of the Apes.
Weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything but I kept in touch with Colin. Then a month went by and another. I’d been preparing for four or five months like the call’s going to be tomorrow. I was so ready by the time it did come in. The audition was basically an hour meeting with Terry. Just a sample of what working with him would be like.
Then we started training; going through the Santa Monica mountains on these arm extensions for miles and miles. I was so incredibly sore the first week, muscles I’d never felt in my body.
So when you are on set, are you on set with the dialogue actors or elsewhere?
100% there. Every time you see George there with Naomi (Watts) or Dwayne, I’m there. Those are my blue eyes. That’s me pulling on Dwayne's shirt. It will be really cool when the behind-the-scenes come out on DVD. Any time George is in a scene, I’m there.
How long does it take to get into costume?
Not long. There’s a top and bottom. It’s like getting into pyjamas basically. It has some gloves and Hailey worked with putting the dots on my body. We had to calibrate them and Paul would make sure all the dots were perfect on my face. There were 63 dots that were specific to my face; very specific spots that they had to find and duplicate each day so that it would track properly.
Altogether, it took about an hour and a half. We probably got it down to one hour.
Once you’re in full costume, are you treated in any way differently on the set?
I treated myself differently when I was on set. Dwayne said in a couple of interviews that I wasn’t Jason, I was George. I would already be on set for about an hour before they were ready to shoot, just being George on all fours, moving around. I wanted to walk on set and help them see and hear a gorilla. I wanted to help with that as much as possible.
When Dwayne would walk on set, I wouldn’t even say "hey" to him, not until the end of the day. The first couple of days, after say a 15-hour day, I’d go up to him afterwards and say, "hey that was awesome dude. We killed it."
What does it feel like to be a performance capture actor in Hollywood?
It’s really strange because I keep getting called a motion capture performer and a capture actor and I view myself that way. I happen to be an actor and I happen to get a motion capture role. It’s very surreal because when the posters are up, that’s me, all over the world but it’s not me. It’s "you’re that gorilla!" So I literally could stand outside the TCL Chinese Theatre (on Hollywood Boulevard) and watch people go up and take pictures with [posters of] my character and no one know it’s me. It’s kind of a fun, hiding-in-plain-sight type of thing.
You always think things are going to be different and then, when it’s reality, everything changes. I will go to the biggest red carpet The Rock’s ever had and then I go home and shower and go to bed, wake up, and play some Mario Kart and work out. It’s very surreal but also incredibly humbling and complimentary. I love that people like George so much.
Does this current wave of recognition open the door for non-capture roles?
Yes it does. One thing I am trying not to do is get pigeonholed into non-human characters. We’re running into that a little bit but that’s very rare. Most producers and casting directors are like, "yeah, we get it, you can come in and read for this human."
It’s opened the door for other motion capture jobs. Mike Dougherty, the director of Godzilla, we’ve been friends for a couple of years and chatted here and there. We talked about Granpass because they wanted someone really tall for that. So when Godzilla came along, he’d seen the Rampage trailer and said, "awesome, want to do some Godzilla stuff?" It opened that door.
It will be interesting when the behind-the-scenes comes out and people realise, "Oh, that’s not CGI. That’s a guy!" When Rampage came out, I didn’t do a ton of press. I didn’t do the press junket because Ian and Warner Brothers wanted to make sure people saw George. We didn’t want them to see Jason playing George. We didn't want them to even think about it. So that is how we played that. It will be a bit more of a reveal when the behind-the-scenes come out.
What kind of money can one earn working in this field?
It’s the same as any other acting role. You are on set those days. It’s treated the same because it is acting. The only difference is your wardrobe, your makeup and the types of cameras they use to capture your performance. As far as contracts, its the same SAG-AFTRA contract.
My advice would be what Andy Serkis said in an interview I saw. If you want to be a motion capture actor, just be a great actor. Sometimes roles might come along that are performance capture. It’s like Josh Brolin. He’s doing performance capture for Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Mark Ruffalo playing the Hulk but they are still acting roles, they are no difference as far as contracts.
What’s your advice for those that want to enter this field?
So much. One great piece of advice that Josh Lucas gave me – I met him after I moved to New York – was “treat your pursuit of an acting career the way a doctor studies medicine.” It is that in-depth, it is going to take that long and there is that much to learn and you can’t take a shortcut. A doctor can’t take a shortcut to get into surgery. You have to study. You have to practice. You have to get the skills and develop them and the technique. You have to have training. You have to get credit and you have to form relationships. It’s a lifelong career.
So look at it as a lifelong career, look to be an old actor one day. Don’t waste time with casting director workshops. If you’re good enough and ready to get in front of a casting director, you don’t have to pay. Have an agent submit or you can call and ask for a general meeting. And if you are not ready, don’t get in front of them. They might think that’s the best that you can do and they won’t see you again.
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