Andy Serkis Interview 3

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

Andy Serkis came close to turning down the defining role of his career. When his agents offered him three weeks of voiceover work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was disappointed. “There must be a dozen good roles,” he thought. “Can’t they get me up for a decent part?” Still, the lure of Tolkien’s Middle-earth was enough for him to meet the director, Peter Jackson. He is still working closely with him 12 years later.

Gollum wouldn’t be a simple voiceover job, Jackson explained. For an actor whose film life had peaked working with Mike Leigh on Career Girls and Topsy-Turvy, Serkis was intrigued by what Jackson was proposing. “Pete said, ‘I don’t want actors reacting to a tennis ball on a stick,’ ” he recalls. “He wanted to use ‘performance capture’ technology, which was really in its very early stages. He wasn’t even sure it was going to work.”

Three weeks became four years, as Serkis joined the other actors on set, giving them a performance to act against before re-creating his side of the scene on a performance-capture stage. This involved him wearing a grey Lycra bodysuit dotted with spherical tracking markers, placed strategically to form a skeleton. Picked up by cameras fixed around the space, the skeleton could be applied to a computer-generated “puppet” designed to take on Serkis’s movements. Only in the final part of the process would the actor record Gollum’s signature rasp in a sound studio.

Andy Serkis

When all this effort was finally revealed, Gollum came to define the extraordinary technical achievement of the production, and many critics recognised that it was Serkis who gave the character soul. This was a landmark creation, a marriage of cutting-edge technology and classically trained performance. The question was whether he would take home the Oscar many thought he richly deserved. Yet, while the creatives at Weta Digital, who had tackled the technical aspect of realising Gollum, were rewarded three times in a row for their work, Serkis failed to score a single nomination.

The pattern was repeated in 2005, when Serkis returned to performance capture to play the title role in Jackson’s King Kong remake. Through the guise of a 25ft gorilla, he channels, by turns, raw anger and delicate emotion as he fights to protect Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow. Weta Digital’s shelves were further burdened on Oscar night, but, again, Serkis wasn’t even nominated. “There’s a strange paranoia from the acting community,” Serkis admits, with real frustration. “Particularly from older and more traditional actors. It has taken them time not to feel threatened by CG. But these are actors’ performances, not animated characters.”

We are chatting on the set of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in Vancouver, Canada. It’s July 2010, and memories of Avatar, cinema’s new highest grosser, are still fresh. Another Weta Digital creation, that film was led by per­formance capture from Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, who were similarly overlooked by their peers during awards season.

Planet of the Apes is one of cinema’s longest-running series, and the masked simians of the Charlton Heston/Roddy McDowall 1968 original won an honorary Oscar for the make-up designer John Chambers. Yet Tim Burton appeared to have killed the franchise in 2001, with an ill-fated remake. Serkis and the director Rupert Wyatt hope performance capture will offer an overdue adrenaline shot. “I hadn’t intended to play another ape,” Serkis chuckles. “But I was sent the script, and it was terrific — a really great, emotional origin story. The characters grabbed me.” The chimpanzee he is playing, Caesar, is born with superintelligence and an uncanny sense of self-awareness.

“King Kong was a psychotic old hobo, whereas Caesar’s like a gifted child,” Serkis explains. “I based him on a real chimpanzee from the 1970s called Oliver, who was known as a ‘humanzee’. He was bipedal and totally related to humans. So I’m playing this Frankenstein’s monster who thinks he’s living happily with James Franco’s character until he reaches an age of self-awareness.”

The artistic approach remains fundamentally unchanged, Serkis points out. The only difference is that the illusion of turning Serkis into an ape will be achieved with CG, rather than latex. “We’re shooting the performance capture on the live-action sets,” he reveals. “With Rings and Kong, I’d be on set, but then I’d have to go and re-create it all. Here, it’s in the moment, so the communication between James Franco, Rupert Wyatt and me is instant.”

A year has passed when I next meet Serkis, at Comic-Con, in San Diego, where he will present footage of the finished fusion between his performance and his CG “costume”. I join a crowd of 6,500 fans in the famous Hall H, who sit rapt as his performance shines through the eyes of a bipedal chimpanzee.

He has just returned from New Zealand, and the first block of shooting, with Peter Jackson, on two live-action adaptations of Tolkien’s Rings prequel The Hobbit. He says he has already filmed Gollum’s return appearance. “It was weird for the first couple of days,” he laughs. “As if I was doing a strange impression of a character I’d once played, which, over 10 years, had been owned by the public on a big level — so many impersonations, so many answerphone messages. It was a great place to start the shoot.”

Serkis’s enthusiasm for his art form is infectious. While he still excels in more traditional roles — such as Ian Dury, in last year’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, for which he was Bafta-nominated — he has found his niche as the standard-bearer for this nascent addition to an actor’s toolkit. He tells me he is finalising deals to build the Imaginarium, a state-of-the-art facility in London that will offer equipment and training for performance capture.

“It will be a laboratory for people to come and experience the technique,” he says. “We’ll be rolling into production on our first feature-film project next year, and we’ll be working with video-game companies and live performers. But it’s also about educating film-makers, actors and anyone who wants to get involved in this tool box.”

The aim is to legitimise the process in the eyes of his peers. Does he think the day will come when an actor will be properly recognised for a performance-capture role? “I don’t know,” he sighs. “All I’m concerned about is that it becomes understood for what it is. It will never be more of a performance after you overlay the ‘digital make-up’. It’s all in the alchemy between two actors — and you can’t manufacture that.”

3 comments click to show
  • Terrific, clear, comprehensive writing, Joe; it makes me determined to see the movie which I’d been resisting until now! You do let us know character well.
    I agree, the award givers should wake up!

  • Joe Utichi says:

    Thanks Linda! Hope to see you again soon.

  • […] British actor Andy Serkis was recently interviewed by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times. The actor is famous for his “digital acting”, portraying the Gollum in The Lord of The Rings film trilogy, the King Kong, and more recently as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. You can read the story here. […]

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