Gollum, King Kong, Caesar the Ape – Andy Serkis is known for playing some of cinema’s most fantastical larger-than-life characters, but he also likes doing things on a far less epic scale, he tells TARA BRADY
ANDY SERKIS and I have matching pieces of paper. The World’s Pre-eminent Performance Capture Artist will feature in two films this coming fortnight: Ian FitzGibbon’s Irish weepie, Death of a Superhero and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Guess which one we’re not allowed to talk about? In case we forget, we have it writing: ‘Please Do Not Discuss The Hobbit.‘ Not talking about The Film Which Must Not Be Named isn’t as easy as you might suppose. As Serkis points out: “I can’t tell you enough and I can’t stress enough the impact that Pete Jackson has had on my life.”
Jackson, in turn, has adopted Serkis as the unofficial Mickey Mouse figurehead of the filmmaker’s special effects powerhouse, Weta Workshop. The actor and Lord of the Rings director have been frequent collaborators – King Kong, The Adventures of Tintin – since Serkis first signed on to play Gollum in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In the upcoming, unnameable, unmentionable trilogy, the actor has reprised the role that made him a household name and also headed up the Second Unit.
“You’re responsible for somebody else’s vision and a big crew,” says Serkis. “It’s as challenging and satisfying as it gets. You know. Without going into too much detail.”
From the get-go, Serkis has been a multi-tasker. As a visual-arts student at Lancaster University, he got involved with theatre so he could design posters, but soon found he was just as happy swapping over to do lighting and directing on college productions.
His course options were, he notes, already a cause for concern for his gynecologist dad and schoolteacher mum when he rang home from what he calls his “what are the hell are you going to do with your life activity course” to tell the folks he wanted to give acting a shot.
“Oh, the silence at the other end of the phone. It was monumental. I understand why. Nowadays celebrity is democratised. It’s not unrealistic to want to act or sing. But at that point – 25-odd years ago – it sounded like a precarious occupation. I think we now know it’s no more precarious than anything else.”
He was still at university when he gained his equity card through Dukes Playhouse where Serkis studied the Theatre of the Oppressed under director Jonathan Petherbridge.
“My entire attitude to acting back then was that I was there to serve humanity,” recalls the 48-year-old. “It was a politicised job. We studied practitioners like Augusto Boal. It was all about affecting change politically. British drama and film was rooted in social message. Acting was about small settings and huge real-world problems.”
He laughs. “And now I’m in these big, huge worlds like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit.”
Last year, in an effort to expand the already sizeable Serki-verse, the actor and producer Jonathan Cavendish founded The Imaginarium Studios. The creative multimedia lab has already provided performance capture for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and is developing a new version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
“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