News Column

For 'World War Z' zombies, an unlikely training ground

June 24, 2013


June 24--Ryen Perkins-Gangnes has been a modern dancer for the better part of 10 years, jumping and spinning for a small U.K. troupe known as the Gecko Theatre company. It's fair to say that "zombie in a Hollywood blockbuster" wasn't a major career ambition.

Yet when the Brad Pitt action epic "World War Z" opened to packed theaters around the world last weekend -- the movie took in more than $110 million in its first three days of release -- Perkins-Gangnes played a key part. He can be seen, under heavy slatherings of makeup, attacking Brad Pitt's family in an early-film Philadelphia-set disaster sequence that sets the tone for much of what follows.

"I guess I'm a zombie now," Perkins-Gangnes said with a bemused shrug Monday. "It's nice to be in Hollywood."

The actor is one of several people who form the unlikely backbone of the new film. While "World War Z" has its share of movie stars and plenty of CG, to create its zombies it also employs something less common in a summer tent pole -- balletic stunts and other specialty skills.

Joining Perkins-Gangnes is fellow Brit Michael Jenn, a stage and screen actor known mainly for roles in Shakespearean productions such as "The Tempest" and "Coriolanus," and Mark Coulier, a movie makeup artist who recently helped Idris Elba look like Nelson Mandela and Meryl Streep double for Margaret Thatcher. Their work on "World War Z" shows that even in the effects era -- "World War Z," after all, is a 3-D adventure with plenty of green-screen wizardry -- Hollywood movies can still rely on experts who earn their living far away from computer screens.

Jenn was called in with about 30 other theater veterans from whom producers thought they might find one who could draw on their physical skills for a climactic sequence opposite Pitt. With its numerous close-ups, the scene, set in a medical lab and featuring a researcher-turned-zombie, would require a number of vacant gazes, plenty of door-banging and as spooked-out viewers will recall, a creepy form of teeth-chattering.

"We wanted to do the things that avoided us getting into George Romero territory," Coulier said, noting that one inspiration was news accounts of a man whose corpse was frozen in ice. "We wanted them to look like they were humans a short time ago, just with this really nasty virus."

Actors' preparation was also unusual.

At filmmakers' request, Perkins-Gangnes and others went into what was dubbed a "Z state of mind" before shooting their scenes. The idea was to shut down any rational part of their brains -- the opposite of what actors usually do, which is make choices about their character -- and act simply on instinct. Under the direction of the film's choreographer, Perkins-Gangnes and others watched videos of, in no particular order, a maggot, a rabid dog and Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men."

"We wanted to imitate someone who is just acting on instinct, killing without thinking or caring about the consequences," Perkins-Gangnes, who attended university at UC Davis, said. Since the zombies feel no pain, the actor also was instructed to locomote on joints and body parts even animals or babies wouldn't -- hands, for instance, were discouraged. That resulted in bruised wrists for pretty much the entire shoot.

Jenn, who spent seven hours in a makeup chair every day as the prosthetics went on and came off, imagined the words his character would say if he was able to speak and then transmuted them into the sounds we hear in the finished film. "I didn't want it just to be a bunch of silly noises you hear in movies," said the actor, who doesn't say a word in his scene-stealing turn.

One of the stranger ironies? The actor frequently pays his bills with voice-over work.

The performers know that for all the notoriety, they're unlikely to get a lot of work off their roles. Perkins-Gangnes doesn't even have an agent -- he found out about the "World War Z" part on a classified-advertising site for performers. He initially thought the audition session, whose identity was kept under wraps, was a dance workshop. He's continuing to dance with Gecko.

Jenn is similarly realistic. Though the 51-year-old says it's been nice for his schoolchild nephews to boast about "Uncle Mike" with their pals, and female friends have been ringing him more often lately to pump him for Pitt tidbits, he doesn't imagine a lot of roles to come off his moment of dental dementia.

"But maybe I should copyright what I did," he said. "I could get a toothpaste commercial."

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