Fans of The Lord of the Rings films already know that Andy Serkis can act his face off and act without ever showing his face. He first proved it with his landmark performance of Gollum in The Two Towers. Film making and acting without a net, portions of the film hinged on Serkis’ performance of a creature and Weta Digital’s ability to put the emotion on screen digitally. It worked. Beyond all expectations, it soared.
When the screenwriters threw in some character twists of the twisted character for Return of the King (for good or for ill, but don’t blame the actor) Serkis did it again. And of course his return as the same character to The Hobbit is as essential a tie between the films as any character. He went from Middle-earth to Monster Island with King Kong and even got to die a horrible death in his own skin on screen.
Weta went on to create Pandora and its blue skinned inhabitants with James Cameron in Avatar then teamed up again on Tintin with Serkis playing a human in the hilarious Captain Haddock.
But his role as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, just about to open in theaters everywhere, is his greatest performance yet. He moves from being a central character in a big movie to being the center of the film and stealing the show from the actors who get flesh and blood on screen.
In a critics screening that included TORn, jaded viewers who see films every day and get paid and get cynical doing it, Serkis’ name in the credits garnered applause. Whispers about Serkis in awards season have started, although there is a lot of misunderstanding to overcome.
In a conversation exclusive to TheOneRing.net at Comic-Con, Serkis talked about all his work in the days before Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens to the world. No matter what the format, he can’t resist good roles.
“When I actually first heard about it I kind of thought ‘Oh man, do we need another Planet of the Apes’ movie but it came back to script,” he said. “When I read it, it was just one of those page turners that I couldn’t put down. It was just such a brilliant draft.”
“I have always believed that script is king and certainly as an actor your first connection with a project is on the page. You either wiz through it because it’s something you can’t put down or you get two pages in and you put it down because it doesn’t mean anything to you and you know where it is going.”
“Acting is acting,” said the king of what he always, always calls “performance capture.”
The difference is subtle, but important: Performance capture vs. motion capture. Both are used and talked about in terms of the cutting-edge cinema and one of the names suggests it captures motion while the other gets specific, capturing a whole performance. You know, the kind an actor gives.
“I don’t seek them (performance capture roles) out but when they present themselves, if they are a great role, like Caesar is, clearly it was a no brainer. It was just a brilliant part.”
With a background in stage and film, he has mastered the ability to move and behave like monsters, a lot like Lon Chaney did in the classic silent monster movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But other actors and the film industry don’t quite get it yet.
“It’s a long, long road. A long, hard lonely road,” he said. “People really still think there is a kind of a mystery attached to it but in actual fact as technology improves it only serves to prove that acting is acting and all it is another way of recording an actor’s performance.”
He wasn’t afraid to take on Caesar, even after being known for his work on cinema’s biggest ape.
“Kong was a completely different beast in a completely different universe. He was a very lonely, psychotic hobo past his prime who is just living every day trying to survive. He has never had any kind of connective moment with any other being,” he said.
“Caesar, in actual fact, starts off life being loved. He is rescued from the lab where has inherited this super-intelligence and he is nurtured and loved and attended to by this James Franco character who is like a surrogate father to him.
“He begins to display this intelligence which for him is very natural. It is like a gifted child. He has his moment of self awareness and he realizes he isn’t one of these species, he is an outsider, he is a freak, he is Frankenstein’s monster.”
How does he project through the CGI special effects? How do you show intelligence on film in a non-verbal role?
“Caesar, he is caught in this netherworld and the challenge for us was trying to reflect his intelligence without trying to over anthropomorphizing him. For instance, his hands, when he is thinking, its like when human’s think they often have a displacement activity, for instance, so we thought about things like that with Caesar.”
Beyond Caesar, Serkis is opening a capture studio that will service games and film (including his own projects) with an academy to arm actors with the skills to embrace digital makeup. He is continuing his personal talent arsenal by taking on the challenge of Second Unit Director on Jackson’s pair of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The shoot for the two Hobbit films was even arranged to put all of Serkis’ acting work on the front of the shoot, leaving him free to run the second unit without shifting back and forth.
“Look, it’s a direction I have been heading a long time. I have been directing short films and performance capture and video games and theater. I am second unit director on The Hobbit and it’s a huge leap, a massive challenge and 3D and working on a huge film and crew but Peter Jackson is incredibly supportive. He has known I have wanted to direct for a long time so its wonderful that he has given me the opportunity to do so.
“I haven’t yet acted since I have been directing but actors can be really great directors actually. They know how to set up the environment for other actors and that is half the battle.
“Often on film sets actors are the last people to be thrown into the mix. Everything is going on around them and suddenly they have to come up with stuff. I am a firm believer in building everything out of performance and I am really happy to be able to do so.”
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens August 5th.