Whoever said dreams don’t come true has never met Jason Liles. Standing 6′ 9”, the young actor isn’t the dictionary definition of Hollywood’s typical leading man but truth be told, he wouldn’t have it any other way. While his unique stature may have been what opened the door to what is sure to be an amazing career, his hard work and determination are what have kept him in the room. A testament to his dedication is his role of monstrous proportions in Warner Bros. larger-than-life action flick, ‘Rampage,’ which hits theaters nationwide on April 13th, 2018! Jason Liles stars opposite of action legend Dwayne Johnson as ‘George,’ the extraordinarily intelligent, incredibly rare albino silverback gorilla who has been in his care since he rescued the young orphan from poachers. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size. To make matters worse, it’s soon discovered there are other similarly altered animals. As these newly created alpha predators tear across North America while destroying everything in their path, Davis Okoye (Johnson) teams with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to secure an antidote, fighting his way through an ever-changing battlefield, not only to halt a global catastrophe but to save the fearsome creature that was once his friend.
Before production began on ‘Rampage’ in April of 2017, Jason Liles dedicated himself to a full 6 months of preparation: studying gorillas’ physicality, their psyche, their modes of both vocal and non-vocal communication. His training as included the mastery of ape “arm extensions” in the Santa Monica Mountains at the hand of ‘King Kong’ himself, Terry Notary (who portrayed the greatest of apes in ‘Kong: Skull Island’). As an eager student, Liles worked diligently with Notary to perfect every nuance of the character which would be recorded using motion capture technology and rendered by some of the best digital artists in the business. The results of the collaboration are undeniable as Jason Liles, as George, delivers a performance destined to be remember by audiences for years to come!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon caught up with Jason Liles to discuss his unique career path, the challenges he has faced along the way, his recipe for success, the making of ‘Rampage’ and what the future holds for this star on the rise!
You’ve been building quite a career for yourself in the past few years. How did the journey begin?
I was always a fan of movies. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be in Hollywood movies but I wasn’t sure what planet you had to be from to be in Hollywood! [laughs] I thought, “Are these normal people? Can I do it? I don’t know.” My brother and I made short films when we were kids and we went to the theater to see movie after movie and pop in VHS tapes one after another. It all started as a pipe dream. It really started to become a bigger dream when ‘Lord of The Rings’ came out. I became obsessed with Andy Serkis as Gollum and all of the effects Weta was doing in the Weta Workshop. When Heath Ledger passed away, I hadn’t been a really big fan, but I was working at Blockbuster at the time ‘The Dark Knight’ came out and I saw it six times the first week! [laughs] I was blown away and I rewatched every movie I had seen with him and even the ones I hadn’t, like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Candy.’ I was so moved, I had to try this. I started studying in college and my parents supported me big time! My Dad and I looked at some places in New York City. He said, “Ya know what? I think this is the place for you to be.” So, he helped me move to New York. It was there were I started training and studying. I had always been told I was too tall — I’m 6′ 9″. I was told, “They are only looking for people this height…They don’t want to stand you next to a 5′ 5″ girl unless it’s written into the role.” I just didn’t listen to that and I kept going after it! I started in theater in college playing humans, but I eventually found my niche playing non-human characters!
On ‘Men In Black III,’ I played a bunch of aliens for Rick Baker and his whole team, which is comprised of some of the best makeup artists on the planet. That led to finding out who Doug Jones was! I was like, “Wow! This guy is my type. I need to steal from him!” Then I did a short film with Doug Jones and we became great friends and took me under his wing. A few years ago, he said, “You’ve got to come out to this convention in LA. It’s called Monsterpalooza! You’ll get to meet a lot of makeup artists.” I did! They were all over me asking questions like, “Oh my gosh, how tall are you? Where are you from? Why aren’t you out here? You need to be local to us, so we can call you in for stuff! You’d work like crazy!” I ultimately moved out here and, while working at Outback Steakhouse, booked Netflix’s ‘Death Note.’ I got to quit my job and haven’t waited a table since! [laughs]
Who were some of the influences and mentors who had a big impact on your career trajectory?
I’ve had a lot of mentors and a lot of help over the years. I still do get a lot of help and guidance. Andy Serkis, I didn’t meet him until a few months ago but he was indirectly a massive source of inspiration with his work from ‘Lord of The Rings’ to ‘King Kong’ to the ‘Planet of The Apes’ films. I accepted that I was too tall for most stuff but was pretty spot on for all of these creatures. Doug Jones is the living legend when it comes to that stuff and the roles that he’s gotten and what he’s done with them makes him the pinnacle! Especially now with ‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ where he’s blowing up more than ever. I just look at him and asked myself, “What did he study? He’s in world class athletic shape and he’s ripped, so I have to get ripped. He studied mime, he studied this and that…What was the trajectory of his career? How did he get started with his first couple of roles? Oh, a lot of that is relationships with makeup artists who recommend who’s going to be in the creature suit or makeup. I need to form relationships with makeup artists.” Really, Doug was always so helpful in answering questions and he still is when he has time and we’ll still get coffee or lunch. I learned a ton from him in so many ways!
Another great mentor of mine, who most people will ask, “Who the heck is that?” is David Patrick Green. He’s kind of my secret weapon that I’ve had for a few years. He has a website called Hack Hollywood, that I got on in 2014. It’s hours and hours and hours of audio and video files of the keys to success applied to acting. Now, he’s my private coach and we talk daily! He’s the one who gives me all of these whacky, outside the box ideas like, “Okay, try that…Let’s see what happens!” He talks about being a “Hack-tor” and hacking into Hollywood. In other words, “Everyone is trying to go in the front door and there is a long line but what if we go in the back door?” Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “Break rules.” So, let’s break some rules! [laughs] Those are just a few of the mentors that I’ve had. There have been too many people who have helped me get here and figure it out but I’m grateful!
Probably the number one thing I have learned is to be the CEO of your own business and not wait for other people to do stuff. You as the CEO can say, “Okay, I’m going to make the move!” Before you can have a big building and a bunch of employees, you’ve got to be in the mail room, answering the phones, calling people to set up meeting and be in those meetings. You have to make all of the decisions for your company before you can hire someone and pay them 10% to do this job or that job. That CEO mindset really changed my mindset on a lot of things, and that is something I learned from David Patrick Green.
All your hard work is definitely paying off! We are together today because of you latest role in ‘RAMPAGE.’ How did you get involved with the project?
Colin Strauss, the special effects supervisor on ‘Death Note,’ and I became really good friends on the project. Since Ryuk’s face was always going to be performance capture with Willem Dafoe, any time I was on set, Colin Strauss was there! He was telling me that ‘Rampage’ was the next project he would be doing. I didn’t really think much about it at the time. I just said, “Oh, that’s really cool. I played the game!” [laughs] We hung out and when we got back to LA after the filming ‘Death Note’ in the summer of 2016, I’d go over to his house and we’d have barbeques. One time, he was telling me, “Ya know what? They are looking for somebody. It’s going to be Weta and they want someone to do the motion capture and play George, who is Dwayne Johnson’s best friend. He raises him from birth, teachers him sign language…I’m going to tell them you’re my top choice. So, start studying gorillas!” He said, “They might want to meet with you in a week.” Well, I thought they might want to meet with me, every day for 5 or 6 months! [laughs] He kept saying, “They’re going to call you! You better keep studying!” I was going to the zoo, I was watching behind-the-scenes features on the ‘Planet of The Apes’ movies, videos about Coco the Gorilla and every documentary I could find! [laughs] I wanted to do too much, rather than do too little! Finally, I got brought in to meet with Terry Notary, who is King Kong in ‘Kong: Skull Island.’ He trained everybody on the ‘Planet of The Apes’ movies as well as playing “Rocket,” who is Andy Serkis’ right-hand-ape. We met and he said, “Yeah, I can get Jason there. I can train him!” We worked together for several weeks in the Santa Monica Mountains, where we logged hours and hours on the arm extensions. I put miles on them and I’ve never been more sore in my life! [laughs] More importantly, he helped me shed everything that makes us human, as far as society, manners, keeping eye contact, smiling and thinking the way humans do to get down to a blank slate foundation where I could find George within myself. I was able to build from there, which was the most indescribable and life-changing experience, both as a person and an actor. What I learned from Terry Notary was like Rocky training me for the big fight! It was revolutionary for me in every single way! I couldn’t have gotten in the door without Colin Strauss letting me know about the role, but I couldn’t have played George without Terry Notary putting everything together with me!
You mentioned your work on ‘Death Note’ for Netflix. What were your biggest takeaways from working on that project?
Oh gosh! I try to compare it to a young quarterback who has never started in a game. At the time, I had done a lot of short films, but I hadn’t been in a feature film. It was like a freshman quarterback coming in who had never started a game, but they throw him, and he’s got to learn throughout the course of the season. By the end of the season, the amount he’s learned from every play, every quarter, and every game are too much to put into words! That’s how I felt going into ‘Death Note.’ I was terrified and thought, “Oh my gosh, I hope I don’t screw this up! I hope I can do this!” Then I came out of it with so much knowledge about what it really takes to make a film and what it really takes every day on set. The confidence I had in myself was so far different at the end than it was with my first day on set! The amount I grew as an actor is too much to even go into!
Tell us a little bit about the process of bringing characters like these to life through motion capture. Does the way you approach your performance differ wildly from what you would do as a traditional actor?
That a great question! I was asking that same question before I went on ‘Rampage.’ I was trying to find the tips and tricks for motion capture. What I learned from interviews and through experience is that for the actor, there is no difference at all. It’s the exact same. You are bringing a character to life physically, psychologically and vocally. The difference really lies in what you are wearing. I’m wearing gray PJs, basically, with dots all over me in performance capture. Whereas if I’m doing a period piece, I’m wearing clothes that fit that century. It really comes down to the wardrobe. It’s how the crew captures my performance, which is why it’s called performance capture. They use infrared cameras to track and pick up the dots on my body and then take that data and make magic with it! [laughs] That’s basically how it’s done but for me, as an actor, there is no change at all. It’s always acting, it’s just a matter of if it’s something in practical makeup and effects or something in digital makeup. With performance capture, it’s like you do the performance and they put the makeup on digitally in post-production. So, for the actor, nothing changes. It’s just playing a character and it’s what the people around you do that is different. It’s what Weta does with the performance capture data that they get every day.
That’s so cool that it’s all you up there on the screen. What were the most challenging scenes you had to perform in ‘Rampage’ as George?
You see it in the trailer. George is in a cave and he’s signing that he’s scared. He comes out of the cave, he’s grown and he’s much bigger. That scene as well as what takes place after, which you also see in the trailer, where he is in a big cage and Naomie Harris and Dwayne Johnson are both there and he hits the cage. It was really difficult because, for one thing, I had to physically embody a gorilla without thinking about it but then psychologically I had to get to a place that was really emotional for those scenes. You don’t see it in the film but those days I had tears and snot all over my face because George is basically having a panic attack. Imagine you got infected with something, it’s incredibly painful, confusing and you’re growing so you need hundreds of pounds of food to make up for that, otherwise you’re in intense pain. You also can’t communicate to anybody around you! You don’t know if you’re going to die, if you did something wrong to deserve this or if Dwayne Johnson’s character, Davis, is going to be upset. It’s all of these things! So, to get to this emotional place where I believed that as George looked out of my eyes and saw the world, and think or don’t think as George does were by far the most difficult scenes. They involved hours of crying and not faking but actually believing it was happening. Ya know, a 5 or 10-minute cry can be exhausting! [laughs] I was always George on set. It was important to me that people didn’t see Jason on arm extensions with dots on him. I wanted people to hear and see George. I would walk on set on all fours and I wouldn’t drop it between takes. When they said cut, I didn’t care! I just kept going! I would cry for 2 or 3 hours straight and then they would turn the cameras around on Dwayne and we’d cry for 2 or 3 hours straight before doing a new scene the next day. That might include physically trying to break down a wall! I actually broke part of the set one day because I was into it! They were like, “Okay, in this scene, you’re going to break this down.” Well, I broke it! [laughs] They had to replace it with visual effects later because I broke it! A lot of the scenes were physically exhausting, and they were some scenes that were emotionally draining. One of those days was a 19-hour day! It was all day and I’m not sure how I had the energy to keep going! It’s helpful when you look across from you and there is Dwayne Johnson! That gives you a little bit of energy, for sure!
The roles you could pursue in your line of work seem limitless. Are there any particular roles you are eager to take on in the future?
It’s interesting because you never really know what’s going to come your way as an actor. I didn’t know Ryuk in ‘Death Note’ or George in ‘Rampage’ were coming. I was just presented with them and I did my best to take advantage of the opportunities and show what I could bring! To be honest, 4 or 5 years ago, I didn’t even think I would be living in LA, so there’s no telling what’s ahead of me. It is an honor for me to have people to be talking about my work and the similarities between it and the work of Doug Jones or Andy Serkis because those are two guys out of a handful that I really, really look up to! While I love playing non-human characters because there is so much fun playing something so far away from who and what you are, I think next, I would like to channel what I’ve experienced as Ryuk and George into a human character. I would love to play a sociopathic, psychopathic antagonist villain! I got a taste of that in my previous projects because there are moments where George is like that. That was really fun to play! When you’re the highest status in the room, which both Ryuk and George see themselves as, that’s a lot of fun to play! That’s something I’m looking at. I’ve also had an interesting arc in my own life. I used to deal with anxiety, panic attacks and be afraid of a lot of stuff but I’ve overcome that and found a confidence and strength within myself. I’d love to play a comedic role, kind of similar to Ed Helms in ‘The Hangover’ — where a character is straight-laced, tries to play by the rules and avoid trouble, but then gets into a situation that is terrifying and he hopelessly digs himself in deeper until he’s able to face his fears and overcome them. That’s kind of my life arc! Really, I’m just a human, so I’d like to take a quick break from running around on all fours or wearing really heavy or tight creature suits for at least a role or two! I’d love to go on set and just get some quick makeup and be Jason! It would be nice not to have to take 30 minutes to take stuff off, go to the bathroom and come back! [laughs] I’d love to be able to just be me and sit down on set! I think that’s what I’m looking at next; what human role I can tackle!
There a lot of people out there who can be inspired by the path you are taking. What are the best lessons we can take from your journey?
That’d be amazing if there are people being inspired by my work because, like I said, I’ve been inspired by so many people along the way. If I can inspire somebody that way, I know what it can mean, so it’s a huge honor for me. I love loving people and helping people, so if I my advice can help, I’d love to put it out there. The “Be Your Own CEO” thing is a huge thing, no matter what you do. Seriously, dreams can come true if you go about it the right way. I never thought I’d be starring in a massive movie with some of the biggest stars on the planet or working with Weta or Warner Bros. or New Line’s creative teams. I dreamt about it and thought, “Gosh, that’d be amazing!” Dreams really do come true and it’s not luck. It’s about learning how to accomplish them. No baseball player got up to the plate for the first time and hit a grand slam. They have to swing and miss thousands of times to figure out how to hit!
I like to follow the 6 tips for success that Arnold Schwarzenegger gives. Number one is “Trust yourself.” No one else knows you, what you want or who you want to be more than you. Not you parents. Not your friends. No one but you and you have to trust yourself. Number two is “Break some rules.” No one ever became an original or a true maverick by follow all the rules. You have to break some! Don’t break laws but break rules! Number three is “Ignore the naysayers.” I was told I was too tall. I clearly am not! For some things, yes, but to be in films and to be an actor, no! If someone ever says “Well, no one has ever done that before…” You can say, “Great! I’ll be the first one!” Number four is “Don’t be afraid to fail.” I think that’s one of the biggest ones because a lot of people think, “Well, I would but what if I fail.” Well, you have to. How many times did Edison fail before he got to the light bulb? How many record labels did the Beatles go to, like 50 before Decca Records said, “Yeah, we’ll try you.” You have to fail in order to succeed. There is a great line in the ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ from Yoda. He says, “The best teacher failure is.” It’s true! It’s necessary and it’s not a bad thing to fail, you just have to give your best! Number five is “Work your butt off!” One of the things Arnold Schwarzenegger says that sticks with me is, “It’s fine to have fun, party and horse around but when you’re partying, know that someone, somewhere else is working. When the opportunity comes — Are they going to get it or are you?” Number 6 is “Always find a way to give back. There are so many ways to do that, whether it’s charity, talking to someone else who is aspiring to do what you’re doing or just choosing to spread love to each person you come around to.
I don’t think you can go wrong by applying those 6 tips to anything and consistently saying, “I want to get better every day.” At some point, a phone call is going to come out of nowhere, you have no idea it was going to come, and you answer it…You can be ready or not! I had opportunities when I wasn’t ready, when I was younger, as far as acting roles. I learned that I need to be ready for tomorrow every day as if the Olympics are tomorrow! 99% of the time they won’t be but it’s that time the call comes through that you better have been working every day for couple of years or someone else is going to get it!
Remember that anything is possible! I just want people to realize that, seriously, DREAMS COME TRUE! I can’t even describe how surreal this feels with ‘Rampage’ coming out! It’s a literal and metaphorical dream come true! I’ve had dreams of this happening and then woken up and thought, “That will never happen.” Now, it’s happening! Follow those 6 tips to success that Arnold gives! Dwayne says it too — “Consistent, hard work brings success.”
That’s is amazing advice! I know our time is short, so before I let you go, I wanted to touch on Rule 6! Are there any organizations or causes you might be involved with that we can help shine a light on?
Specifically, associated with ‘Rampage,’ there are only about 880 gorillas alive. They are incredibly endangered and there are lots of ways you can help. The research Dian Fossey has done and the organization she has created, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (www.gorillafund.org), is saving gorillas every day. It’s something we have been promoting in association with the film. Dwayne actually adopted a Gorilla! It’s his first son and he did that through sponsoring it through the foundation. That’s a great way to give back. I feel in love with these creatures. The best way I can describe them in a few words is that they are mute humans. Psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, it’s all in there. They are such beautiful, gentle loving creatures — even though we are rampaging with this one! [laughs] You will see why! [laughs] He’s a gentle, kind, loving and funny gorilla before that! These creatures need our help and humans are not loving them as much as they should! There is also the Gorilla Foundation, which is San Francisco, where Coco the Gorilla has been for 40+ years with Dr. Penny Patterson. The work they do there is amazing! See what you can do to help out these creatures because it’s really up to us. It’s our fault that they are endangered, so it’s up to us to help save them!
Absolutely! We will definitely be out here spreading the word! Thank you so much for your time today, Jason! It’s been a true pleasure and I’m sure our paths will cross again in the future!
It’s been so much fun to talk to you today, Jason! I can’t wait for the movie to come out, so I can go see it every day! [laughs] If you’re in LA, keep an eye out for me when you go see it because I might be sitting there! [laughs] I want to see this thing nonstop! It’s such a fun ride!
Awesome! We will keep our eyes peeled, for sure! Best of luck with everything you have going on!
Thank you so much, Jason! Take care!