For “World War Z” zombies, an unlikely training ground

NEW YORK — Ryen Perkins-Gangnes has been a modern dancer for the better part of 10 years, jumping and spinning for a small United Kingdom 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 Philadelphia-set disaster sequence that sets the tone for much of what follows.

“I guess I’m a zombie now,” Perkins-Gangnes said Monday with a bemused shrug. “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 computer-generated imagery, 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,” another performer who 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 actors 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.

The actor was eventually narrowed down to one of three finalists, and a tape he had made demonstrating these skills — including the toothy scariness — was sent to Pitt. The A-lister watched the tape and endorsed the actor.

“There’s a tiny, one-percent remnant of the human being in my character that I wanted people to see,” Jenn said by phone Monday, taking a break from playing a Hugenot priest in a British television adaptation of “The Three Musketeers.” “So I did little things like tap on the glass, because I thought it would introduce a bit of pathos.”

Purists will note that the zombies in Max Brooks’ source novel were a lot less Hollywood in their conception than those in the film. They moved slowly and overwhelmed the Earth’s population by their numbers, not by sudden, fierce attacks.

Still, Marc Forster’s movie tried to create a different kind of zombie than those seen in most such Hollywood efforts.

The goal was to portray people who had the life sucked out of them, not zombies who never seemed to have had any life in the first place. To do that, said Mark Coulier, a makeup artist who recently helped Idris Elba look like Nelson Mandela and Meryl Streep double for Margaret Thatcher, he and others on the crew had to look at what had been done elsewhere and steer clear of it.

“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.”

The actors’ preparation was also unusual.

At the filmmakers’ request, Perkins-Gangnes and other zombie actors 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, Alexandra Reynolds, 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,” said Perkins-Gangnes.

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 heard 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? Jenn 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 in this film. 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” to their pals, and female friends have been ringing him a lot more lately to pump him for Pitt tidbits, he doesn’t imagine a lot of new parts coming off his moment of dental dementia.

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