English actor Andy Serkis’s career took off when he started playing computer-generated characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the eponymous gorilla in King Kong and now Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s forthcoming Tintin collaboration. But now he’s beginning to show his true face: his latest role sees him starring opposite Simon Pegg as a 19th-century murderer-for-profit in pitch-black comedy Burke and Hare. The movie, directed by comedy horror legend John Landis (of An American Werewolf in London fame), also stars Aussie actress Isla Fisher and British comedy legend Ronnie Corbett. With the film due out in cinemas across Dubai this week, we nabbed the 47-year-old actor for a chat.
We imagine part of the appeal with Burke and Hare was getting to work with John Landis. Undoubtedly. He’s such a legend – I grew up absolutely adoring The Blues Brothers and American Werewolf in London. He is an absolute force of nature, he’s incredible. In his heyday, as it were, he was always the youngest man in the room, the maverick. And now he’s still the maverick, and he’s the oldest man in the room. He’s just this walking encyclopaedia of old Hollywood, yet he’s so connected to young filmmakers – Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs The World) is a really good friend of his. He’s really connected. He branches across the whole spectrum of geekdom.
Speaking of geeks, is this the first time you’ve worked with Simon Pegg? Yeah. It was brilliant working with Simon. We used to lived three streets away from each other in Crouch End [in north London], so the first time I met Simon was when I almost knocked him down in my people carrier. But I absolutely adored working with him. It was just really good fun.
Burke and Hare features a remarkable cast of British talent: Christopher Lee, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey… Was there anyone you were particularly excited about working with? Ronnie Corbett! He said, ‘I’m breaking into movies and I’m 82’. I think the highlight of the whole film was watching John Landis directing Ronnie Corbett. The way John directs is very forthright – he’s not a subtle actor’s director. It’s all just ‘Slower! Faster!’ And his words to Ronnie were: ‘Don’t act with your eyebrows!’
Which films did you study in preparation for Burke and Hare? It’s a curious one because the film is not really horror in the strict Hammer sense. It’s a weird hybrid – it’s really a caper comedy. It’s more Pythonesque, I suppose. Carry On meets Ealing Studios meets Monty Python.
Do you prefer to be seen on screen, or do you enjoy the freedom you get with motion capture, as you used in films such as The Lord of the Rings? I like doing everything. I never draw a distinction. It’s basically all about the script and the story and the character, whether it’s live action or performance capture, or stage or television, as long as its an engaging piece of material and I relate to the character.
What can you tell us about Tintin? I can’t really talk about it because its such a long way off. But it’s an entirely performance-captured movie – the whole thing was shot in one studio. Captain Haddock won’t look like me. The idea is to bring the drawings of Hergé (aka late Belgian artist Georges Rémi) to life – a three-dimensional rendering of Hergé. But the characters are very truthful because they’re acted, not just voiced over. It’s the perfect tool to bring those stories to life.
And what about The Hobbit? Are you looking forward to going back to New Zealand? I’ve spent a lot of time there since The Lord of the Rings – the following year I went back and did King Kong. I’ve been backwards and forwards. In fact, I’ve just finished shooting Rise of the Apes, a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes. That was shot in Vancouver, but I’m going back to New Zealand to do some re-shoots on that. I have a huge affiliation with New Zealand and I absolutely adore making films there.
What can you tell us about the performance capture studio you’re putting together in London? It’s called The Imaginarium. We’re going to be a studio, we’ve got our own material we’re going to produce. We’ll service films and games and it will have an academy as well, which won’t just be about performance capture acting, but will really be about putting together writers, directors and visual artists of all kinds to experiment, treating it as a laboratory to push the art form forward. We’re really interested in the relationship between live performance arts and performance capture.
Finally, congratulations on being described as having ‘a rare genius’ in David Thomson’s updated Biographical Dictionary of Film… Wow! I don’t know what that word means, really – it’s bandied about quite a bit. I don’t consider myself a genius, I just happened to be around the right place at the right time. I’m just part of a process. Burke & Hare is in UAE cinemas now
Fast facts: Andy Serkis
1 Serkis spent much of his childhood in the Middle East, as his Iraqi-born doctor father’s work often took the family to Baghdad.
2 In the 2005 Peter Jackson remake of King Kong, Serkis not only played (in motion-capture terms) Kong himself, but also appeared as Lumpy, the ship’s cook.
3 He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of British Moors Murderer Ian Brady in 2006 made-for-TV film Longford.
4 He starred alongside Hugh Jackman and David Bowie in mystery thriller The Prestige (2006) playing Mr Alley, the assistant to Bowie’s creepy inventor Nikola Tesla.
5 His portrayal of troubled rocker Ian Dury in 2010 indie flick Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll earned him Best Actor nominations in both the British Independent Film Awards and BAFTAs.