I recently had the opportunity to interview a friend of mine, Alan Maxson, who works in Hollywood as an actor, often in creature performance. You can check out his IMDb page here. As a major Godzilla fan, I’m especially impressed that he appeared in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. After all, it’s not often you can say one of your friends was a lizard head. Alan offers some fascinating insight into his field…
RICH HANDLEY: Alan, you’ve played many different non-human characters, not only in films, but also on television and in commercials and music videos. You’ve worn every kind of suit imaginable, from large to small and from biped to quadruped. What is it that draws you to these sorts of roles, and how did you get started on this career path? Do you prefer to act in a suit and under prosthetics—and, if so, why?
ALAN MAXSON: I love playing these kinds of characters because they are so much fun. They are physically challenging, the internal character is the farthest from human, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I see such a fantastic performance brought to life.
I’m not sure if I prefer one over the other. I love performing in both for different reasons. With prosthetics, I can show so much emotion and have dialogue. In a suit, I can take on a completely different physical appearance that my body might not be able to do with just prosthetics. I love them both because either way, I get to embody a completely different species and I look way more badass on camera then I do as a human. LOL
HANDLEY: You’ve trained in stunts, movement, acting, and improvisation. How has this background led you to a career in creature performance? And what exactly is that branch of acting, for those unfamiliar with the term?
MAXSON: All of these skills are essential to being a creature performer. When I’m asked to bring to life a non-human character, I start internally just like an actor would with any human character. Then comes the physical performance—how it moves as a character and what restrictions I physically have because of the suit or prosthetics I’m wearing. To top it off, most of the characters I play involve heavily choreographed fight scenes, and safety is the number-one priority, so stunts come in at that moment. These all help bring to life each character, some more than others, but I take a little from all of my training for every role I play.
HANDLEY: Among your more notable roles is that you portrayed King Ghidorah’s right head in the 2019 film Godzilla: King of the Monsters. As a lifelong Godzilla fan, with every single G-film to date on my shelves, I find this particularly interesting. How did you become involved with Toho Studios’ franchise, what did your job entail, and how difficult was it? How did it feel to be a part of something so high-profile, with such an important legacy to both Japanese and American entertainment?
MAXSON: Just like you said, this franchise is extremely important, so I feel extremely honored to be part of it. I don’t think the excitement for working on that film will ever go away. It was truly magical. I became involved because of a recommendation. The director, Michael Dougherty, saw my reel and brought me in for an interview. He showed me some previz clips of Ghidorah and we talked about what he needed from the character.
During our chat, Michael told me he wanted actors who have played practical characters to do the mocap so that there was suit performance at the heart of the movement. He mentioned how each head had a personality. He never mentioned particularly that he was interested in me for the angry head, but I had a hunch based on my previous creatures. We joked about making Godzilla the Musical, and then that was it. A few weeks later, my agent said I’d booked the job!
You asked how difficult it was to do, but it wasn’t too difficult at all. Michael hired me, Richard Dorton, and Jason Liles to bring this three-headed beast to life, and we all specialized in non-human characters so it was like second nature for all of us. We got along so well, it was very easy to work together. We basically watched the previz clips of what actions were needed in each scene, walked through it, did a take, adjusted for notes, and did it again. I don’t think we ever did more than three takes; we powered through it all pretty fast. For all of Ghidorah’s movement and fight scenes, it only took us three days to film. The real heavy lifting was with the animators who worked for almost an entire year after us to make it look so great.
HANDLEY: You also played the immediately recognizable Blade character in the most recent Puppet Master film, Blade the Iron Cross, which came out in 2020. I’m astounded to see this series still ongoing, as the first one came out when I was in college—and I’m 53 years old. Although Blade the Iron Cross is the 14th film in the long-running series, it’s the sixth chronologically. What can you tell us about your role in this movie, as well as the character’s and the film’s places in the franchise? Who is Blade… the puppet, not the vampire hunter? And will you continue to work on Puppet Master projects?
MAXSON: I’m so glad this franchise is still going on, because it was one of my favorites growing up. It’s one of my earliest memories as a kid, watching them on TV. I was the suit performer for Blade in this film. Any shot that was too much movement or stunts for the puppet, they put me in a six-foot suit and shot me on a green screen, then shrank me down to size. It’s basically any of the shots that they would normally have used stop motion for in the originals.
The budgets have become drastically smaller since the ’90s, so this is a much more economical way to shoot Blade. I’d love to reprise the role someday, but hopefully in a modern-day setting. This film took place in the ’40s, but I’d love to see it in the 2020s. Or hell, I’d love to do suit performance for other characters, too, like Sutekh or the Totem puppets! They are my favorites in the franchise.
HANDLEY: You’ve played zombies in at least two different productions for AMC: Eli Roth‘s History of Horror and The Walking Dead. How extensive was your work on those programs, and what’s involved in being transformed into an AMC zombie?
MAXSON: I’ve been more zombies than I can remember, to be honest. AMC zombies are always the best. Because they own The Walking Dead, their standards for zombies are far superior to others. Eli Roth‘s History of Horror was super-fun, because I’m in the opening sequence for every episode of all three seasons. That makes it fun to know I’m on screen every time it airs. As for The Walking Dead, I’ve actually never been a Walker in the show itself. I’d love to, though, if Greg Nicotero is listening!
But I have been a Walker in three different Walking Dead commercials. I’m the main one you see in a Dave and Busters crossover commercial advertising their new video game at the restaurant, I’m in a group of Walkers you never see clearly in a Chevy truck crossover commercial, and then I’m the Walker that comes out of the phone at the end of an ad for The Walking Dead: Survivors video game. The one for the Chevy commercial was hilarious because we had to go through a zombie boot camp and be approved by executives at AMC, but then all of us were just silhouettes in the far background and you never got a good look at any of us in it. I guess it was good training. LOL.
HANDLEY: Growing up, I used to love and fear zombies, particularly those from George Romero’s first three Dead films. But after recent events, I now view zombie lore in a different light. Considering how many people refuse to take the pandemic seriously, do you think our species would stand a chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse? Or would we more likely march up to the ravenous horde, call them a politically motivated hoax, and interact with them up close and personal, denying the likelihood of our becoming their next meal?
MAXSON: I’m just like you, and my view has changed on post-apocalyptic entertainment. Now, after seeing how ignorant and selfish humans are during a pandemic, I absolutely think what you said is exactly what would happen. Since 2020, I have gone back and rewatched Fear the Walking Dead season one, and they were pretty accurate on some of the ways humans would act. I know you’re a big fan of Planet of the Apes, just like I am, and the way the virus is handled and talked about in both Rise and Dawn is spot-on to the hysteria and misinformation we have now.
HANDLEY: Sadly true—and we’ll get back to the apes in a moment. First, though, you’ve got an interesting connection to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. What can you tell us about that?
MAXSON: Oh, yes! I’ve been a huge fan of Star Wars since I was a kid. I was the exact demographic for the Ewok movies when they came out, and we had Star Wars all over our home when I was growing up. I’m part of the last generation that knew Star Wars before the prequels came out, so I filled my head with all the Expanded Universe stories, then got to dive deeper into the Republic era once the prequels hit theaters. So I was all in. Die-hard fan. Then I had the honor of being part of the universe myself! A great friend of mine, TK Gorgonia, asked me to audition for a top-secret event that was happing in 2019. When I booked it, I was more than excited to find out it was for Star Wars.
With the power of motion capture, I got to play a Sith Jet Trooper who interacts with the cast, crew, and guests as they walked down the red carpet for the world premiere of The Rise of Skywalker. I may not have been in the movie, but it was wonderful to be such a big part of the event. We trained for about a month in advance with people from Lucasfilm to make sure we fit perfectly into the universe. I and two other actors, Hunter C. Smith and Verona Blue, had the fun task of improving and spit-balling Star Wars jargon and Easter eggs to everyone who walked by us. All my years of reading and studying Star Wars knowledge came in really handy that night!
HANDLEY: You and I have discussed many times—and you alluded to it above—that you share my avid passion for the Planet of the Apes franchise. How long have you been an Apes fan, and what is it about Pierre Boulle’s simian saga that so fascinates you? Which films and characters are your favorites, and why?
MAXSON: I’ve been a fan since I can remember. I believe it was around 1993 when Sci-fi Channel had Planet of the Apes Week with bumpers hosted by Roddy McDowell. I was at my grandparents’ house when the first one came on, and I watched it with my grandpa with my eyes glued to the set! Since we didn’t have Sci-fi Channel at my house, he said he would record them all for me. To this day, I still have my Planet of the Apes Week marathon on two VHS tapes. (The commercials are the funniest thing to watch almost 30 years later. I especially get a kick out of the 7-Up commercials with the jingle, “7-Up! It’s an up thing!”)
Since watching it with him, and then over and over again with my VCR, I have been captivated by the wonderful stories, the twist endings and, most importantly, the heavy amount of social commentary on the world (and people) we live with. It’s also hard not to love the wonderful visuals of the film, the John Chambers makeup, and the caveman-style buildings of Ape City. Everything about the films is wonderful.
It’s hard to pick a favorite character because they are all so wonderful, but Zira comes to mind very quickly. She’s so funny, smart, and endearing, and like all the characters, she has such a tragic ending. I even named my cat Zira, and we say her name with the same tone Cornelius does when we scold her. (Not that she is scolded often, haha. She’s the sweetest fur baby in history.)
My favorite film would have to be a tie between Conquest and Escape. If apes really landed on our planet with the story of our demise, I truly think the way Escape played out would be 100 percent accurate from start to finish. It would be a media frenzy, then panic, then death. Sadly, we have seen reminders very recently that humanity does not react well to fear. Conquest is also wonderful because of the heavy social commentary, reminding us that the oppressed will always revolt, and for good reason. I also love Caesar’s character in that story. He has such a wonderful character arc and learns a lot of hard lessons very quickly.
HANDLEY: You’ve trained with stunt coordinator and movement coach Terry Notary, who worked not only on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes films but also the Andy Serkis trilogy, as well as Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin, The Hobbit, and the MUC films Infinity War and Endgame. This is something I find particularly fascinating, given Notary’s importance to Apes lore. How did you come to work with Terry, and what does your training with him entail? More importantly, who do I need to bribe, marry, or kill to get a job on the next Apes movie?
MAXSON: Don’t kill anyone, Rich! But you can bribe or marry if you want, haha. Back in 2019, Terry offered a class training on arm extensions, and it was absolutely wonderful. It was more than just physical; he got into our heads and helped us drop into the mindset of an ape. Then, sometime after that, he offered custom arm extension to train on our own, so I took him up on that and had a pair sized up for me. I trained on my own for a while, but then when the pandemic hit, he started offering three-week-long courses. I and about 12 other extremely talented performers and athletes took this course and we continued to for maybe six to eight months, off and on.
These were extremely intense and took a lot of work, physically and mentally. We would drop into the right mindset, meditate, and then quadruped for three miles every morning. Once we got good at it, Terry would up the training by adding workouts, sand dunes, and even weights and dragging sandbags. We would do this four to five days a week. On the downtime between classes with Terry, I and a couple others would keep our training going.
We eventually got to the point where we did 10 miles up to Inspiration Point (Altadena, CA) without standing up. We did that twice just for fun! (Shoutout to Hunter C. Smith, Donald Russel, and Jamie Hansen, who made that trek with me.) This all sounds crazy, but it’s become my new regular workout routine. I canceled my gym membership and I do this three to four days a week still. It keeps me strong, fit, and ready to be an ape if the job ever calls for it!
HANDLEY: From a creature performance standpoint, what is involved in becoming an ape? How difficult did you find the experience?
MAXSON: I find becoming an ape is a much more gentle transformation than most of the other creatures I play. While apes are powerful, they are not violent by nature—they are just existing and living within their space. Sure, they can be violent, but they would have a reason to be provoked. A lot of the other creatures I play are violent or desire destruction naturally. That’s the plot for a lot of monster movies: the monster is evil and kills people. Obviously not always, but a lot of the time. Like apes, good creatures have character and depth. I love dropping into ape mind and taking in my surroundings. It’s a wonderful way to start the day out. (I usually quad hike at sunrise.)
HANDLEY: You’ve done some directing work as well, on both short and feature films, including Alien Planet, Patina, and Christmas with Cookie. Please tell us a little about those projects and what it is you enjoy most about directing.
MAXSON: Great question! I love the creating part about directing—particularly with these films, as I wrote them as well. So I truly get to create an entire world and what story is being told. I’ve been wanting to write a story like Alien Planet for many years, inspired by many of my favorite sci-fi films that are heavy in social commentary. But I knew I’d need a bigger budget for it, so I set a plan in motion. First, I decided to make any movie I could with the budget I had. This is where Christmas with Cookie came in. I’ve always wanted to play a fun character like Cookie, so this was a perfect opportunity.
I wrote a campy, low-budget movie that mocks itself for only a total of $1,000. That is nothing for a movie! But it would prove I can deliver a finished product. And in the end, it gained a little cult following of its own. Then I started to notice people would only associate my name with bad B-movies as a director, so that needed to change. I wrote a short film that is only 11 minutes long and gave that a budget of $5,000. It was called Patina, and we got to put more care into that film because of the bigger budget. It was much more serious than Cookie and was received very well, so I decided to use that to raise money for the movie I wanted to make, Alien Planet. And it worked!
HANDLEY: Regarding Alien Planet, what is the film’s premise, who appears in it, and what is its current status? How extensive is the use of prosthetics, makeup, puppets, and monster suits? Also, what advantages do you find that such traditional tools have over CGI and other modern innovations?
MAXSON: Alien Planet is about two alien species with a history of hatred for each other. Both our main characters find themselves in a situation that they are forced to get along in order to survive. It’s a tale we have heard hundreds of times in Enemy Mine, the Planet of the Apes TV series, Star Trek, Star Wars: Rebels, and countless others. I’m currently in post-production for the film and anticipate releasing it December or January. The main cast are Alexandra Bokova, Hunter C. Smith, and Naiia Lajoie.
The prosthetics and other practical effects are the biggest part of Alien Planet. There are actually no humans in this movie. Zero! In fact, this may be the first film to say that with live-action actors. The only movie I can think of is The Dark Crystal, but those are puppets and not actors in makeup. I guess the internet will correct me real fast if I’m wrong! LOL. I find practical effects much more entertaining to watch. I’m making this movie for viewers like me. I think the audience will find great charm in this movie.
HANDLEY: Alien Planet has allowed you to create an entirely new world and new alien species. In essence, it’s like an independent Star Trek venture, but without the copyright infringement or the functionless forehead and nose bumps on aliens who are otherwise completely human in appearance. Was this a one-off project, or do you envision it growing into something larger?
MAXSON: I actually compare it to Star Trek and Star Wars all the time. Not with the story or style, but with the world building. I’ve built such an intricate backstory for all our characters and their species history, that I could play in this world forever. In fact, I already have three other film ideas within this world. But getting those all made depends on the reception. If everyone loves it, I should have no problem getting funding for future films in the Alien Planet universe.
HANDLEY: Good luck! I hope you’re able to build a directing career out of it. Meanwhile, you’ve also been a professional television editor for around fifteen years now, as well as a creature actor for approximately nine years. What have been the most rewarding aspects of this type of work, as well as the most grueling, and what advice would you offer to up-and-coming hopefuls looking to follow a similar career path?
MAXSON: My biggest advice for anyone wanting to be in the entertainment industry would be to not go to college for it. At all. I personally think it’s a waste of time and money, especially money. My degree is not on any of my résumés, and no one has ever asked about my education. I would suggest young people go out and get a job as a PA or work for free on indie films. Act for free in student films (I see the irony, LOL). But that would be my biggest advice. Just go out and make it all happen.
The most rewarding part is the final product that you’ve created: editing, directing, or performing in someone else’s project. That final product is always a very rewarding feeling. All of the work can be grueling at times. The entertainment industry is grueling and long hours, always. So that’s just to be expected. But watching all that hard work onscreen after is totally worth it all.
HANDLEY: Back to the apes! It’s obvious, from our past discussions, that you have a solid grasp of Planet of the Apes history. I think you’d be a great fit for the upcoming Apes films, or on a spinoff TV series if Fox decided to bring the bloody baboons back to the small screen. Is this an option you’ve pursued, given your ties to Terry Notary? If so, do you think there’s any chance of your working as an ape performer—or, heck, directing a film or TV episode?
MAXSON: That is definitely a goal of mine! I have put together a reel of my work, and both my agents are quite aware of my training, so I’m doing all I can to put myself in the right position to be part of this amazing franchise. As for directing, I would die the happiest man on the planet if I got to direct an Apes film or TV episode. I have had an idea for many years to write and direct Planet of the Apes 6 that would follow the story directly after Battle in the original series. I would use the exact same makeup and film it on the same camera and film stock so that it matched within that universe perfectly. That would be the dream!
HANDLEY: Follow-up question: if you could play any species in the Planet of the Apes mythos, which ones would you choose? Gorillas, chimps, orangutans, bonobos, humans, telepathic mutants, or something else entirely? And why would that be your preference?
MAXSON: Given my experience on the arm extensions and work as non-human characters on screen, definitely one of the apes. Most likely a chimp or gorilla, based on my size. But hell, it would be damn fun to be a telepathic mutant, too. Haha!
HANDLEY: I’ve long regretted that Peter Jackson never got to make that Apes film he’d intended to direct while Roddy McDowall was still alive. As you probably know, he’d planned to make a sixth entry in the classic film series, set sometime after Battle for the Planet of the Apes but prior to the first Charlton Heston movie, and McDowall was going to be in it.
MAXSON: Wait, what?! I didn’t know this! Now my previous statement makes me feel so out of the loop! LOL, I thought I had a great original idea, haha!
HANDLEY: Hey, it’s still a great idea, even if you weren’t the first to come up with it. LOL. It’s a crime this never materialized. If you could create a sixth film in the classic line, utilizing the characters, concepts, costumes, and makeup designs from those original tales, how would you approach it?
MAXSON: I guess to answer the question, I would approach it as if I were in 1973 and picking up right where we left off in the franchise. I would do everything in my power to keep it looking the exact same. A good example of what I would avoid is how some of the new Star Trek looks much more modern even though it takes place before The Original Series. I’m not saying it’s wrong for Trek, it’s just what I would avoid for Apes. Now I have to go do research, because I had no idea about Jackson’s idea!
HANDLEY: Pardon this blatant self-plug, but I wrote an essay for Bright Eyes, Ape City: Examining the Planet of the Apes Mythos, an anthology I co-edited with Joe Berenato, which discussed Jackson’s aborted film and others. But this isn’t about me, it’s about you, and I’m curious how familiar you are with the world of licensed Apes fiction. Which novels and comics have you read, which have been the standouts in your opinion, and why? In your opinion, what makes for a great Planet of the Apes story?
MAXSON: I have a shelf full of “TO READ” books and most of them are Apes. Sadly, Apes books don’t get audiobook versions and I don’t have a lot of time to sit down and read like I should. But from the ones I have read, my favorites are Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes, Tales from the Forbidden Zone, From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes—The Comprehensive Encyclopedia (yes, I enjoy just reading facts about the characters, haha) and, of course, the original book. I believe you’ve had a hand in most of those, too. I’m also a big fan of the comics; they are fun and the artwork is beautiful to look at. I really enjoyed the Apes/Trek crossover comic; that was a fun one.
HANDLEY: As you know, I’m a rabid Apes comic collector. In fact, you have the distinction of bringing to my attention a Planet of the Apes comic I never knew existed. Given the index I maintain, that is an impressive feat. It was, shall we say… a unique and, er, uplifting comic. So I have one question for you: how many times have you watched Play-Mate of the Apes, and do you have the comic adaptation hanging framed on your wall?
MAXSON: LOL. I’m honored to have conquered this feat. Jeez, I don’t know if I’ve actually watched the movie. I think I found it in high school somehow, and I bought it because it was hilarious. If I watched it, it was probably once, had a good laugh and just kept it as a talking point for friends of the franchise.
HANDLEY: Besides Planet of the Apes, what other franchises would most interest you as an actor? Star Wars or Star Trek, for example, given those franchises’ enormous growth in recent years? Stargate, when it comes back? Alien? Predator? Lord of the Rings? The Game of Thrones prequel? The upcoming reboots of Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica? The sky’s the limit, really, so what would be your bucket list when it comes to franchise performing, and why?
MAXSON: Wars, Trek, and Rings would be at the top of my list, for sure! Alien and Predator, too. Star Wars would be number-one for me simply because I know the world so well. I have studied Star Wars and the EU since I was a kid. I know all the species and how they relate to others like the back of my hand. And I would geek out so hard after filming was over, haha.
HANDLEY: Your creature performance background makes you a great candidate to work on other horror films and TV shows. It’s inevitable we’ll eventually see more installments of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Leprechaun, Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone, and so forth. What branches of the horror industry would most appeal to you, and what is it about horror that so enthralls us as readers and viewers?
MAXSON: I love the characters with a hint of comedy the most, like Freddy, Leprechaun, and the Crypt Keeper. They are just so much fun to watch. That’s why audiences love them, too—it’s not just scary, it’s entertaining! I’ve played a handful of characters with similar personalities as those comedic “monsters,” so I can definitely see myself being in those worlds at some point.
HANDLEY: Finally, one last thought: if you could guarantee you’d be remembered a hundred years from now, what would you most want people to remember about you? What do you view as your lasting legacy?
MAXSON: Wow, that’s a tough question. If I died today, I think the general public would remember me as King Ghidorah’s right head. But that’s just simply because it’s the biggest, most well-known role I’ve had. And that franchise has an amazingly large fan base. I guess, ask me again in a few years and let’s see what my answer will be. Haha!
HANDLEY: Thanks for taking time to discuss your work, Alan. For those interested in learning more about your career, are there any websites or online videos where folks can view examples of your creature work, quadruped work, directing work, etc.?
MAXSON: Thank you, Rich! I’m on all the social-media sites as @monster_maxson, and you can find my work on my website at AlanMaxson.com. Also, you can find links to stream the films I’ve directed on AlienPlanetFilm.com. My newest film, Alien Planet, will be released at the end of this year and will be available on Blu-ray and streaming on the same site. Thanks again for taking the time to chat. This was fun!