British Columbia

This orangutan inspired a Vancouver actress' role in Planet of the Apes

In July 2010, Karin Donoval had just finished filming the first few scenes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for which she had been cast as Maurice, a male Bornean orangutan.

Towan, an organutan who could paint, forged an unlikely bond with Karin Konoval

Woodland Park Zoo's Towan was the oldest zoo-born orangutan when he passed away in 2016 at the age of 48. He was widely known for his original primate artwork. (Jordan Stead/The Associated Press)

In July 2010, Karin Konoval had just finished filming the first few scenes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for which she had been cast as Maurice, a male Bornean orangutan.

She had read every book she could about the shaggy red apes, known for their long powerful arms and flappy cheeks.

But she still felt at a loss with her performance.

"I had all these things I had brought into my body, my psyche, my everything," the Vancouver-based actress told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

"And I still felt like I was all in bits and pieces."

While researching online one day, she came across a video of Towan, an orangutan at the Woodland Parkland Zoo in Seattle who was known as a formidable painter.

Konoval, also a painter and artist, knew she had to meet him.

That encounter would breathe life into her role in the film's trilogy, including the 2017 instalment, War for the Planet of the Apes.

"It was the key ingredient to finding the character of the Maurice," she said.

'Heart and soul'

The Planet of the Apes reboot series has achieved a rare feat in Hollywood: box office success coupled with critical acclaim.

The films have picked up accolades for their special effects and motion capture performances.

Andy Serkis — who launched to fame after playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings — has reaped the most attention in the lead role of Caesar.

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows Karin Konoval, left, and Amiah Miller in War for the Planet of the Apes (Twentieth Century Fox/Associated Press)

But Konoval pulled off her own acting acrobats, portraying Maurice, a 260-pound former circus ape, despite her tiny 120-pound frame.

She points to Towan, the orangutan she discovered online, as being the "heart and soul" of Maurice.

Shortly after watching the videos, she travelled to Seattle to visit Towan in his outdoor habitat at the zoo. The orangutan, who was lying under a blanket, observed her from afar for more than hour.

Suddenly, Towan threw his blanket off and sprinted to the window. He pressed his face next to hers.

"It was an astounding moment," Konoval said. "It was quite life changing."

'One of the greatest teachers'

That brief encounter guided Konoval's performance in the first film. She later received an invitation from the zoo to meet Towan and the other orangutans. 

She travelled a day early and approached the habitat, 14 months after her first meeting with Towan. 

"The moment I arrived behind a group of people, he suddenly sat up and he turned and looked at me and he leapt to the glass and pressed his face to mine."

During their official introduction the next day, Towan handed Konoval a piece of straw as a gift.

She would start to regularly visit Towan. Konoval brought paint supplies for her new friend, who was able to take a canvas, choose his colours, paint and hand in the finished product.

Towan, observed through a glass partition, brushes up on his painting skills Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, in Seattle, Wash. (Jordan Stead/The Associated Press)

The week after she wrapped shooting War for the Planet of the Apes in March 2016, Konoval suddenly felt she needed to visit Towan.

She spent an afternoon painting for him at the window where they first met.

Towan passed away two days later, at the age of 48. He was the oldest zoo-born orangutan in North America.

"I would call him one of the greatest teachers I've ever had," Konoval said.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest