Motion-captured master Andy Serkis on the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Few actors have done more to advance the craft of filmmaking than Andy Serkis, the unseen star of next month’s apocalyptic blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Wearing a ludicrous green Lycra motion-capture suit, Serkis had no qualms about wriggling around in a river as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, or his chest-beating role as King Kong.
Rather than view these turns as a sideline to his ‘proper’ acting career, the 50-year-old north Londoner has become the king of ‘mo-cap’ technology. He runs the Imaginarium, a dedicated performance-capture studio in Ealing in South London and is about to embark on his directorial debut The Jungle Book. His turn as chimp leader Caesar in the new Apes film is a breathtaking example of his raw and powerful acting – even if you can’t see his face.
Is motion capture your life’s work? I’ve championed the technology because I really believe in it. It’s the most liberating tool for an actor. It enables you to play anything, regardless of shape, colour or sex. I wouldn’t say it’s everything, but it’s a massive chunk of my life.
You’ve been doing it for years, but are there still times when you feel ridiculous in the Lycra suit? Of course. There’s a scene in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes where 2,000 apes march down to the human colony. We shot it with just nine of us, all on horseback. We’d done our horse training as apes, we mounted and dismounted as an ape would, we made ape vocalisations. But the horses found it very unsettling! As soon as I opened my mouth, bellowing out, ‘Apes do not want war!’ my horse started doing some weird dressage move. She completely freaked out, and so did all the others. So the scene ended up with nine actors sitting on very tall ladders!
You spent a lot of time with chimps while preparing for the role. Do you feel an affinity with apekind? I do. Once I studied them in earnest I could see their different personalities; they’re so close to us. I recently met a primatologist who’s campaigning to get ape rights, in the sense of human rights. I do feel that’s a good idea. How is The Jungle Book – your first film as a director – coming along? We’re in the process of casting, we’re creating the world, the aesthetics. It’s going to be very cool. I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. You probably know there are two Jungle Book films in the works [Jon Favreau is directing the other, with Idris Elba and Scarlett Johansson voicing], but I think there’s room for both. Ours is much closer to Kipling’s original stories. It’s very dark.
You’ve been cast in the new Star Wars and The Avengers 2. Is your goal to appear in every major franchise going? That was always my ambition by the age of 50 and that’s this year… No, it’s just because my company, the Imaginarium, is involved in the performance capture on both projects, so I’m playing cameo roles.
When mo-cap first came along, there was a worry producers would unearth old stars and make them do all sorts of undignified things. Would you like to play Humphrey Bogart? It’s funny, Bogart is always the first person everyone thinks of. Look, if it was the right project and it seemed appropriate, I wouldn’t count it out. Digital resurrection is just like sampling: you take an old jazz musician and you put some beats under it. So as long as it’s honouring the performer I don’t see any problem with it. And that’s especially true with characters from history like, say, Winston Churchill. It could be fascinating.’
Oh God, will you end up playing Hitler? Ha, thank you very much! Actually, we do share the same birthday, so maybe… Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is expected to be released on August 28 in the UAE.
Behind the mask
Fast facts about the performance capture king
1 In one of his best-known turns as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Serkis has said he based the characters voice on the sounds his cats made when coughing up furballs.
2To prepare for his roles in King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he studied apes and gorillas both in their natural habitat in Rwanda, and in captivity in zoos.
3 Despite receiving huge acclaim for his performances in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), he was ruled ineligible for Best Supporting Actor nominations at the subsequent Academy Awards because his characters were deemed computer animated. Many critics and actors believe this is unfair – and Serkis’ so far highly rated turn in Dawn will no doubt reignite the debate.
4 Serkis owns one of the two prop rings used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy – the other went to Elijah Wood, who played Frodo Baggins.
5 During the filming of The Hobbit, which Serkis was only due to spend two weeks in New Zealand for, he wound up staying for the entire shoot after director Peter Jackson recruited him as second unit director, where he found himself directing entire sequences, including enormous battles.