ORIGINALLY POSTED 2007-02-04
Last year I was thrilled to meet a genuine 21st Century Gorilla Man, Steve Myers. Steve had come across Gorillamen.com and it wasn't long before we began exchanging emails about all things gorilla. Residing on the East Coast, Steve is a true entertainer whose skills go far beyond apish antics. From special effects to Santa Claus, this jack-of-all-trades let me bend his ear and ask him a few questions. Steve is an engaging and friendly fellow and I am pleased to present our email interview conducted in late 2006.
We may as well kick things off with an all encompassing question - what's the abbreviated history of Steve in thirty seconds or so?
Since I was 10 or 11, I can remember fooling around with special effects make-up and monsters. Magic, ventriloquism, Haunted Houses and monkeys! Monkeys and Gorillas were always at the top of my list because they were human-like, but still animal. I think that's why the "general public" is fascinated with them too. Gorillas are as close as you can get to being human, and still be an animal. Does that make sense? My Mom and Dad were always supportive of the fact, that this may very well be what I might do for a living someday! I'm now 40 and doing everything I love! My wife Shannon is very understanding too!
Did either of your parents have any background in entertainment? Either in public or just on a very personal scale? What did they think of your decision to spend your hard earned dollars on a gorilla suit (when you were a young teen)?
Mom and Dad have no talent whatsoever! None. My Dad was a manager at a stone quarry and Mom was a housewife. The only "talent" in my family was my Great Grandmother. She played the Banjo. Which I do too, since I was 7, but that's another story. Mom and Dad were always supportive in everything I did. Dad would help me set up the yard for Halloween with graves, black lights, strobes, stuffed dummies and coffins! I miss that.
Standard litmus test - five favourite films (not top five, just a few that come to mind, I can't imagine having to come up with a definitive list. Varies upon my mood;-)
The Wizard of Oz
Universal's The Wolfman (1935)
Universal's Frankenstein (1933)
One Flew Over the Coo Coo's Nest
When did you realize that you needed to be an entertainer?
When I was getting good at what I was doing! I did paid magic shows all through High School and made a very good living doing shows after I graduated. I still do them, just for a lot more money!
Did you have any professional training in the effects or acting fields or are you pretty much self taught?
No. I mostly learned sleight of hand from books. They have it easy now, since everything is on video. A lot of "try it and see if it works" on my part as well too! I've been thinking of making my own "How to make a Professional Gorilla Suit DVD" for a couple years now, but don't think it would sell to well due to the limited market. Plus, I'd end up giving everything away, that many pros have shared with me. I cannot see the "give and take" of it. Why should I market and sell a DVD for $50.00 only to reveal stuff that has taken me literally thousands of dollars and countless hours to learn??
When did your interest in special effects turn from admiration to emulation?
When I was 13, I called Dick Smith on the phone. I was working with Ultracal and Latex. I had a problem and I knew, even though I was only 13, that Smith could help. I swallowed hard and dialed the number. He answered and I stuttered a little, but he talked to me a long time, was understanding and helped out. I wish more people in the Special effects industry were as nice as Dick. I still call Dick from time to time just to kinda "check-up" on him. I still do Special Effects Make-up for the movies every now and then too. You can check out "Vampire Sisters" or soon to be released, "Crawler" that are both independent releases from Timewarp Films.
I had to peruse IMDB to look up Dick Smith - his motion picture resume cuts across a wide swathe of classic films! (SCANNERS would be a personal favourite - I had a Cronenberg phase in high school) Was there a particular reason you sought him out directly?
I was born in 1966, so around the height of Dick's career, I was 13-20...a very impressionable age! I'd watch The Godfather, Scanners, The Exorcist, Amadeus, Altered States, Little Big Man, Taxi Driver and The Sunshine Boys and see that Dick could do "Old Age" and well as "guts." That impressed me to no end. I began searching for books, magazines, TV shows about Dick and his work. I had heard all the while too, that Dick was "approachable" and liked to help. So I thought I'd give it a try. Turns out he was great.
I have a few friends in Vancouver involved in the film industry and can appreciate the sacrifices and hard work the entertainment industry demands. What motivates you to be resilient in the face of obstacles?
I don't really have an answer for that one...I guess it's just commitment and the love for the finished product. You have to be a visionary in this business. You have to see things differently than anyone else. You have to know your limitations. And if your limitations are too much to handle, then learn them too. Try to be "complete" in everything you do. No loose ends. Learn to do something no one else does and learn to do it well.
Santa Claus is a sacred childhood symbol and perhaps the only youthful myth made real by gentleman such as yourself. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to see you in the red and white. What was the origin of this unique role and how has the experience affected you?
When I decided to be a "Santa", I knew I could look better and be a better Santa than what was locally out there. My hairpieces were handmade in Los Angeles by Charlie Wright, at a tremendous cost. The suit is handmade and custom tailored to fit me. I even wear blue contact lenses. The result is staggering! And it's just what I wanted. I demand a high price for my Santa appearances because what your getting is a true rendition of a Santa that everybody thinks of in their mind. To see the "real thing" standing right there talking to you, just makes people shake their heads. I usually start booking in March. www.santasteve.com
Bowl full of jelly belly - real or padding ;-) Had to ask!
It's all real!
On to hairier issues - why gorillas Steve? You are obviously a tall fellow and climbing into a hot heavy suit and stooping about is made all the more difficult by your size - what motivated you to seek out the unusual profession of gorilla man?
When I was a kid, I can remember seeing Bob Burns and Charles Gemora in the movies and on TV. I knew they weren't real gorillas, and that fascinated me. That they were true "Hollywood Gorillas." I went to our local magic shop and bought a gorilla suit when I was about 15. I put it on and "terrorized" the neighborhood every Halloween. It wasn't a professional suit by any means, but I had fun. By the time I was 20, I had been in all the local parades, meet and greets, at fairs, special promotions and on local TV many times. I had upgraded the suit with a better head, hands and feet by then, too. I got married in 1992 and my wife, Shannon said, "You ought to make one of those suit they have in the movies with a opening jaw." That was it! I started sculpting and making molds. After four months, I had a very nice "almost professional" suit. It had been used a lot and was breaking down by 2001. I put the project on hold for a while, as the magic shows took me away from home a lot. Being a gorilla is loads of fun. People seek you out to get a picture. People embrace you, they want to touch you, and pet you. Maybe because they know they can't do that stuff with a real gorilla!
You didn't float the possibility of a 'Beauty and Beast' wedding did you?
No...would have been cool though. Shannon could have been dressed as Fay Ray!
How did you construct the suit and what challenges did you face?
The current suit that I use is about two years worth of labor (off and on) and the most realistic yet. The hair is a fiber type, mod-acrylic. It has a 7-8" nap that is a mixture of white, gray, black and brown. It's from National Fiber Technologies. What makes the hair so natural looking is the fact that it's sewn onto a spandex type material that will stretch over muscle forms. It also has a "growth pattern" and direction.The current head was sculpted by Don Lanning. The Hands and Feet are sculpted by Joe Riley. I made all the latex overskins, did all the fiberglassing and mechanical work. Along with the painting of the skin as well. I came up with a "harness" type arrangement made from brass that will allow the actor wearing the head to open his mouth and in turn the lower jaw opens and the upper lip curls upward showing all lower and upper teeth. It's a pretty mean look, so I don't use it as much unless the job calls for it. I have a second head that just has lower jaw movement. It's a little more pleasant and friendly looking. All the hair is hand punched, one hair at a time, around the face to give the illusion of the hair growing from the skin. Doug Henderson helped me with the paint scheme. Gorilla skin is hard to replicate. Sometimes the same gorilla skin can look black, sometimes dark gray or even blue-ish. It really depends on what kind of lighting was used. After many phone calls and conversations with Doug, I nailed it. Alan Stacy was also a big help. He had made a pro suit many years ago, and just happened to take notes and pictures of everything. Again, Dick Smith helped too.
The most difficult thing for me in making the suit was the upper and lower teeth and tongue. You have to make sure all that stuff lines up correctly when the jaw closes. Installing the springs to keep the jaw closed the return of the jaw, the lips lining up and the gorilla eye/human eye placement. There is a foam muscle suit that I wear under the fur suit too. It fills out the lower arms and my legs. I also wear football shoulder pads under the fur. This fills out the neck area on the sides and back. If you look at gorillas, they don't seem to have a neck. Shoulder pads do nicely for this. Gorillas have very short legs. Nothing like those of a human. So the fur suit was cut and sewed about 8" below my crotch. This gives the perfect illusion of short legs. I also have arm extentions that I sometimes use. These are 7" longer than a human arm. The fingers are molded into a closed fist for knuckle walking. There is a zipper in the back of the suit, with a fur flap that folds over the zipper, therefore hiding it. All told, "Kongo" is about a $17,000.00 suit. But one of the most realistic suits you'll ever see outside of the movies. I'm very proud of it.
Truly an impressive feat Steve! I applaud your efforts and I am inspired by your passion and perseverance. I find it uplifting to know there are still people ready to transform themselves into one of the screen's most awesome sights. The work and monetary investment is stunning - but what of the intangible aspects of wearing the suit. What happens to you once the fur is on? What have you drawn on for inspiration in emulating the great ape?
This may sound stupid, but simply watch and observe real Gorillas! Hollywood has given our great friend, The Gorilla, a bad wrap over the years. They are not fierce, (unless attacked), they don't set out to kill people and they hardly ever walk upright! But that's ok. I heard Bob Burns once say, that "Less is more when playing a gorilla." Slow, deliberate movements, no eye contact with anyone....are just a few things to remember. Once I put the fur on, I become Kongo. I'll do things that Steve Myers would never think of doing. I'm a different creature all together.
Are there any gorilla suit performers or specific films that have inspired you?
Charles Gemora was a huge inspiration to me. Here was a guy that literally manufactured the phrase "Hollywood Gorilla." I only wish I could have met him. Rick Baker (of course). Rick has done so much for the industry to make better looking gorillas in the movies. I don't think anyone can make more realistic looking gorillas than Baker. Bob Burns has inspired me too. Bob knows the real secret to becoming a gorilla. Not very many people know that. Gemora knew it. So did Emil Van Horn and Ray Corrigan.
As far as gorilla movies, it's got to be Gorillas in The Mist, The Monster and The Girl, The Rick Baker King Kong, Born to be Wild and the movie Buddy.
What are your goals as gorilla man?
I'd like to be as professional as I can be. I'd like to be known for making very high quality suits, helping people like so many helped me in this industry and being respected for my work with gorilla roles and suits. There's this guy no one knows about in Maryland that makes the most realistic gorilla suit................and when he puts on all the hair, foam and rubber.....look out! I can appreciate and sympathize with the guy or girl that wants to make a pro suit. It's not easy. You have to hunt down the right people. Sculptors, mold makers, seamstress, foam makers....and the list goes on. If you have the talent you can do a lot of the "leg work" yourself, on your kitchen table. But be ready for a lot of work! I'd be more than happy to receive an email from someone that's very frustrated and needed help. I'd be glad to give back.
My deepest thanks to Steve for sharing his thoughts with Gorilla Men. Stay tuned for additional photos of Steve's impressive suit in an upcoming post.
You can learn more about Steve Myers at these links: