Ringer Spy Nazz attended the MANY press confrences during the ROTK media blitz last month. In this article he chats with actor Andy Serkis.
Special thanks to Rip It Up Magazine in South Australia for this transcript.
Andy Serkis at the ROTK Premiere in LA
It’s quite something to watch a legion of professional film critics left as breathless as they were when watching the preview of the third and final film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King. Regardless of your opinion of the trilogy, it’s affect on cinema history is academic. One such example is the creation of first completely believable, actor-driven CG-generated character: that of the devastated and duplicitous Gollum a feat so incredible it virtually insists the Motion Picture Academy create a new category to recognise its mastery.
Here we catch up with the actor behind this revelation, the hyper-active and enthusiastic, Andy Serkis, for an exclusive one-on-one interview.
An animated, whirlwind of passion and ideas, Andy’s mind seems to be constantly racing, with such energy firing behind his remarkable eyes that it takes t -10 seconds to be swept up in his enthusiasm and affability.
This film is one helluva payoff – most sequential films mess it up by now
AS: “They do don’t they? But not on this. It’s great. It’s so rewarding. But that’s Pete isn’t it? He’s just such a truthful story-teller – like Tolkien. He respects Tolkien and drew from that, and I think between Pete, Phillipa and Fran, they kept getting drawn back towards the retelling of the book in such a major way. But that’s such an incredible thing to do, to do that for fans of the book like yourself, and also people who haven’t ever read the book before. To be able to bring these films to the world like that is stunning.”
It’s been great to share this love finally with non-reader people en masse. In some ways the films have exorcised the books from false geekdom because now a very large new audience realise that the magnetism of the books isn’t because its fantasy – because that’s really a misreading – its because its just a darned good, consumately well-told story. I have been amused to hear people saying things like, ‘oh I can’t wait another year to find out what happens next!’
Err, dude, go and buy the books. You’ll never look back.
AS: “[laughs] But they’re all falling in love with it aren’t they? It’s amazing.”
Let’s shoot back to the beginning – though it’s an obvious masterpiece now, you must have been on tenterhooks at the beginning over whether this would work.
AS: “I was terrified when we started because Gollum was such a fantastic creation of literature. And Tolkien invested so much in him. He must’ve loved the character if you go by the writing. To a lot of people, the fans of the book, he was memorable character going right back to The Hobbit. So the responsibility was very huge. Peter felt that responsibility and I felt, as an actor taking it on board, that there was a big responsibility.
“Because there hadn’t been an example of a CGI character working well in a live action film before, early on I was kind of questioning whether this was a good idea – to be actually frank about it. There were stages all the way along the line when it could have gone wrong but, the fact is, Peter had such a persistence of vision about how he wanted to do it that. It really emanates from the fact that he wanted him to manifest himself as a CG character but that the performance had to come from an actor. So he was going to go to any lengths to get that reality and reciprocal energy you get between actors on a set rather than an actor and a tennis ball on a stick – which is how, previously, it’s been done. There’s just no the CG character’s not rooted to the environment, not rooted to the person it’s acting with.
“The psychologically complex nature of Gollum and also his dramatic function within the scenes means he has to be driven for real, from a sense of emotional truth.”
Complex is just the word. I thought he was impressive in The Two Towers but we find out they were just the outer layers of the onion in The Return Of The King. We find out we didn’t really know him at all.
AS: “It shifts again doesn’t it? That’s really clever from the writers’ point of view. They were at a point where they said, ‘well we could just stick with what we’ve got for the third film or take him down this psychological thriller journey.’ So it’s great.
You get a pay off, seeing where he comes from, his back history, that he once was a Hobbit, a human being who’s kind of been landed with this addiction, and then you actually get to see this what we’ve established in The Two Towers is Smeagol, this childlike side, this naïve side that’s been abused. Now Smeagol begins to be the one that¹s manipulative – like children can be. I mean, I’ve got two young children and they can be very manipulative [laughs]! And that Gollum is conversely, the one we thought was the dark side, the vengeful side, the evil side if you like (which I don’t particularly believe in, evil that is) and he’s almost overpowered by this manipulation by Smeagol. It’s almost like you trust Gollum more because it’s coming from the gut. At least his emotions are up front! He’s on the attack for what he wants, whereas with Smeagol, you don’t really know where you are with him.”
Was there a moment where this new change in his characterisation made you feel as though the rug had been out from under you as an actor and what you’d already committed to film?
AS: “It was ultimately the way to go of course but initially, yes, I did question it. The construct of how I imagined the characters to be was what you saw at the end of The Two Towers. I remember coming back to do reshoots on The Return Of The King and Fran [Walsh, co-screenwriter and Peter Jackson’s longtime partner] said, look, I think we should go this way with it.’ And you’re right, it did make me question my world view a bit [chuckles]; but I realised she was right. I suppose it’s the point at which you write him off and say he’s irredeemable as a character; which I still think we’ve managed to not do. I still think we’ve handed that responsibility back to the audience. The point at which you write him off is the point where you go, ‘right that’s it. Forget. I’m not interested in the character any more, really.’ I think we’ve managed to keep that open right to the last second.”
What’s his accountability? Do you think the evil inside the ring chose him to be a ring-bearer?
AS: “That’s it. It’s really about why and how the ring found him, and that thing Gandalf said about how Gollum will have his part to play in the journey; so be careful how you deal out judgement. That’s the nub of the argument of how and why we played Gollum they way we did.”
When we look at Gollum’s origin – this reminded me of a question I’ve had since the first time I read the book: were Gollum’s action a product of the ring or was it an inherent evil in him that was there from the beginning? I mean the first time he meets the ring, he chokes his cousin to death. And though it’s not in the movie, he starts out by using the power of invisibility of the ring to spy on people, gets sprung by his tell-tale ‘Gollum’ sound, and eventually takes to eating Hobbit babies before being run out of Hobbiton.
“That’s a good observation. Going back a bit to when he chokes his cousin, Deagol, to death having said that, his cousin is also consumed by it. It’s just that Smeagol doesn’t have the moral stature to withstand the impact of the ring. I mean, he just doesn’t have it.
“[Sighs] It’s like a child murderer really. I keep thinking about a child committing a murder because the don’t have the ability to police their emotion or what they choose to go with on the spur of the moment. So he pays for that moment for the rest of his life. It’s almost like a gut reaction. This thing is so powerful and beautiful and consuming that he can’t stop or police himself.
“It’s like, in England, we had Jamie Bulger murder, and those two boys who were imprisoned as a result. The question is, at what point are children culpable? I always think about with Smeagol. At what point is he culpable for he’s done? That moment of loss of innocence with children – I mean I see my two children doing things and I think, ‘are you aware of that being a malicious act?’ Do you know what I mean?”
Yes, I’m a father myself and – not that my little girl has too many moments like this!- but you quickly become aware that under certain circumstances no one can be meaner than kids.
AS: “That’s right. And you think how the hell have you come to be doing that? And yet if you demonise them, you cease to be able to understand them so that’s primarily why chose to make Smeagol as empathetic as possible to the audience.”
Kids have to test the boundaries, there’s no other way for them to learn first-hand how the world works.
AS: “Yeah. I think Tolkien writes Smeagol as being curious – and that’s a really big clue to the character. There’s a curiosity in him – that’s why we started with him hooking this worm. It’s almost like he’s just seeing what happens really. There’s a fascination of what actually happens [when you do things]. I guess it’s testing the boundaries of what you feel your power is in life. But I never saw him as evil or malicious.”
That’s an important perspective. I’m sure if people had asked Hitler about his motivations, he would have never considered himself evil.
AS: “He believed what he was doing is right.”
When an actor plays someone purely as just evil, there’s very little access to them as a believable human. It’s about the choices you make and their consequences.
This film is proof-positive about how casting can be everything. I had an advantage on most audience members because I knew your work and had been impressed by it before you were cast.
One role in particular, assured me of your ability to play this character, and it was Bill Sikes in the recent BBC TV adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
AS: “Oh right,” says Andy with surprise.
There was something about the way you managed to humanise a typically one-dimensional thug. If I can cite one tough scene in particular, it’s just as Bill decides to beat his longtime girlfriend, Nancy’s brains out for delivering Oliver to his grandfather. Instead of just maliciously going straight into the brutal rage, you wordlessly gave Bill’s a flicker of love just before they glaze over and he does the deed. It was heart-breaking.
Now I would never, in a million years, have thought they’d have cast the net so far as to actually get the perfect people for the roles. I really enjoyed your work but was expecting far more ‘Hollywood’ actors for all the roles. What was it that brought Peter to you?
AS: “I guess it’s difficult to say why someone picked me,” he chuckles coyly, “but I think what Peter and Fran saw was and it’s interesting that you mention Bill Sikes, because I do like to redeem so-called irredeemable characters. I think Peter and Fran saw it was important to have some empathy for Smeagol. The combination of the physicality and the voice and the way I think I psychologically approached him as this thing consumed by an addiction that they really thought it was worth doing it with me.”
Alright, last question time: King Kong – are you going to, as the rumours suggest, get back in the motion capture suit to play him as well?
AS: “It’s umm it’s” (he splutters, seemingly caught on a subject he’s not quite ready to share or commit on.) “There have been talks about it but I’d do anything to work with Peter again. Nothing’s been confirmed or anything its it could happen or it could not.”
Well thank you.
Dedicated to Jenny & Michael Macklin-Shaw, my family and friends.