“It’s a creative lab and a home base in London for a lot of different strands in film and videogame and performance capture,” says the Ruislip Manor-born actor. “Working with Weta for all these years, you see the advantage of having so many creative people feeding off each other. You’re just surrounded by art and sculpture and concepts. It’s all about having the space to develop big ideas.”
Death of a Superhero, Serkis’ third Irish production (“I’m somehow always drawn back to Balbriggan: I’ve shot there twice,” he says), is, he notes, a retreat “as far away from big, epic worlds as I could get”.
Ian FitzGibbon’s poignant drama about a dying 15-year-old boy (Nanny McPhee’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who draws comic book stories as he rails against virginity and a terminal diagnosis casts Serkis as the youngster’s psychiatrist.
“I was very keen to work with Ian because he’s such a great actor’s director,” explains Serkis. “And I was really looking forward to working with Thomas because we almost got to work together before and we already had a relationship. I loved the idea of using comic books and animation as a way of expressing a kid’s anxieties. I understood that. I was one of those kids always drawing grotesque, horrendous creatures hacking each others heads off.”
Even when he’s working the British indie biopic sector, we’re used to seeing Serkis go large and looming as Martin Hammett in 24-Hour Party People, as Ian Brady in Longford and as Ian Dury in the Sex Drugs Rock Roll. It’s odd to encounter the same actor playing with stillness and mostly delicate movements. Or is it?
“People assume – not unreasonably – that Gollum and Caesar are all about the physicality,” says Serkis. “But if you look closely at those films, you’ll see the real acting is all done in the close ups. What performance capture has taught me over the years is a real sense of focus and a way to internalise. I had a lot of energy as a younger actor, but it was performance capture that allowed me to transition from stage to screen. I have a stillness that I don’t think I had before.”
In this spirit, the actor who once specialised in Stanislavski and Brecht is, he reckons, a lot less likely to take his work home than was once the case. “When I play darker characters it can still be a challenge,” says Serkis, who lives in Crouch End with his wife of 10 years and their three children. “But I’m a lot less susceptible to method now. As your children are growing up, you have to learn to put down the file, come home and be present. You can’t go down to watch your kids playing football and be thinking about the scene you’re doing on Monday. They have real-life issues and problems. Yours are only made up.”
Death of a Superhero opens today