“‘I thought Gollum was a one-off,’ says high-tech acting king Andy Serkis”
THE EXPRESS Jul 21, 2014
HE’s the star of some of the biggest films ever made (Planet of the Apes, King Kong, Lord of the Rings) but this is one actor who – thanks to cornering the market on performance-capture technology – can walk down the street undisturbed…Forget Captain America, Spider-Man or the X-Men. The star of the summer is Caesar the ape, hero of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes which has just opened to huge box office in America.
He is the first non-human hero of a blockbuster franchise, further propelling British star Andy Serkis up the Hollywood A-list after becoming the go-to actor for “performance-capture” work ever since he played Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
That’s the process whereby an actor “authors” a performance of a non-human character such as Gollum or King Kong (whom Serkis played in Peter Jackson’s remake) by having his movements copied by sensors and transformed into a digitally created being.
We meet the morning after Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’s $73million opening weekend in America. “I’m amazed,” says Serkis, affable and articulate as we chat in a London hotel suite.
“Well, not utterly amazed because director Matt Reeves has made a really great film. Without being too smug on his behalf, I think it is a movie for our times.”
A sequel to 2011’s well received Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which charted Caesar’s evolution from household pet into super-bright insurgent, it is a blockbuster with a brain that takes the war between apes and mankind to an intriguing new level.
As for marking the first franchise with a computer-generated hero Serkis says: “I had never thought about that but it probably is and that is the extraordinary thing about performance-capture technology; it’s a portal for allowing actors to portray roles which are not humanoid but which equally possess intelligence and emotion and can carry the arc of a story.”
Although Serkis, 50, has given many blistering “real” performances from Ian Brady in television’s Longford to musician Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, it is his role as the world’s pre-eminent performance-capture artist for which he is best known.
He has even co-founded his own effects studio, The Imaginarium, based in London’s Ealing, to develop the technology and to apply it to all manner of mediums, from Hollywood blockbusters to videogames.
Current clients include the new Star Wars film now shooting at Pinewood Studios and the upcoming sequel to Avengers: Assemble for Marvel, both of which Serkis will also star in, although secrecy is paramount.
“What I can say is that The Imaginarium is involved for all the performance-capture requirements for both,” he says. “On The Avengers we have been working closely with Mark Ruffalo on his Hulk character.”
So, is the Ruislip-born Serkis, the son of a doctor of Armenian descent, becoming the George Lucas of the new technology? Is The Imaginarium the new Industrial, Light And Magic, the digital effects company which was established by Star Wars creator Lucas?
“I would liken us more to a creature workshop like Henson’s,” he says referring to the company set up by the late Muppet creator Jim Henson. “It is a laboratory for the exploration and development of the art and craft of performance capture to create characters for films, videogames, television programmes and the theatrical arena using avatars.”
Who could have guessed that Serkis’s performance as the wizened, pasty creep Gollum in the first Lord Of The Rings in 2001 would have transformed him a decade later into a one-man mogul of a new Hollywood art form? Certainly not Serkis. “People did at the time say this is groundbreaking but I didn’t realise what that meant,” says the star who lives in north London with his wife Lorraine and their three children.
“I just thought after I had played Gollum I would be going back to play traditional roles in films and that was an anomaly and an extraordinary experience. I did not realise the technology would keep evolving.”
Looking back, the creation of Gollum was a “significant line in the sand” in that it combined visual artistry and effects with an “authored performance by an actor”. Yet it was only when Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson asked Serkis to play King Kong for his 2005 remake that the actor started to become aware of the implications, for filmmaking and for himself.
“That was the tipping point for me because it became clear to me that you could play anything. I had played a three and a half foot Hobbit and now I was a 25ft gorilla.”
Since then he hasn’t looked back, playing Captain Haddock in Tintin for Steven Spielberg, setting up The Imaginarium and helping to relaunch the moribund Planet Of The Apes series with Rise Of Planet Of The Apes.
When he was sent the script for the latter, he was hooked. “It was the most incredible arc of a young, conflicted outsider who was yet to find his identity but then led a group of disparate beings to freedom. And it happened to be an ape.”
Such are the liberating possibilities of performance-capture. “It offers the chance for an actor no matter what their size, height, sex or colour to play anything as long as they have the acting chops.”