Quite possibly the best (and definitely the most surprising) popcorn movie of the summer of 2011 was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Most audiences were expecting a generic retread of well-worn material, but director Rupert Wyatt gave us a smart, thoughtful and fairly tragic sci-fi adventure. Andy Serkis stole the show as the motion-captured ape Caesar, and his amazing performance led many to say he should be nominated for an Oscar. Following the success of the film around the world, it was no surprise Fox moved forward with a sequel, and last summer when the production was shooting in New Orleans, I got to participate in a group interview with Serkis during a break in filming.
During the interview, Serkis talked about where the film picks up, Caesar’s relationship with his tribe and the human survivors, Caesar’s family life, advances in motion-capture technology, the apes language, working with Matt Reeve’s, his involvement in casting the other actors portraying apes, filming on location, and so much more. If you’re looking forward to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you’re going to love this Andy Serkis interview.
Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer, I’d watch that first:
ANDY SERKIS: Yeah, of course. So at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes we were left in the situation where the virus had taken hold and we got the impression that humanity was under a great deal of threat, which is what happens. So the virus spreads and we’re imagining that about 90% of the world’s population has been decimated by that virus, but there are surviving pockets of humans. Where our story picks up is that Caesar has led the apes into Muir Woods and he’s started a community there of about what started off with 1000 and has now reached a capacity of about 2000 apes. Where the film starts is about ten years after the virus, after the end of the last movie, and for the last two years- so eight years have passed and there were sporadic sightings by the apes of the humans down in the city, down in San Francisco. They could see various lights and fires, and then over the course of the last two years the apes, as they build their community, realize that they’re not sure if the humans have survived.
So our story starts off really with- we’re introduced to Caesar’s world and what he’s done with those apes. The community, how it’s evolved technologically, using language. How he’s tried to really find what works as a way of galvanizing all of the different species of apes, but also him being brought up as a human in fact, he’s trying to extrapolate the best things about humanity and how he can bring that into the ape world, but at the same time really falling back into his and learning how to be an ape for himself. So that’s really the way we step into it. It’s quite an evolved community. There are rules, there are codes of living and codes of ethics. Language is a combination of signing, which is something that of course Caesar was brought up with as a child, a combination of grunts and gesture, and also speaking and words. So actually that’s been one of the very, very interesting parts about going into the next phase is the amount of language and how language is used; the power of language and how the different apes use that. Because obviously there’s a new generation now. Now there’s the next generation of apes who would have learned signing, much like our children who have learned how to use computers very quickly, the next generation, it’s the same with apes, the younger ones are much more adept at using signing and speech.
So the story really kicks off, the inciting incident if you like, is the arrival of a small group of human beings who suddenly come into their territory- a character called Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke, and a team of human beings, and the apes are not sure why they’re there. It transpires that they’re there to locate a dam that is situated up in the forest, in the rainforest, which can provide some power for the humans. There are varying responses, the apes have varying responses. Caesar is the king and he leads this- and he has a very natural authority and a natural leadership. He’s not a regal king, he’s very much an ape’s ape. He’s egalitarian in his way of thinking.
SERKIS: So Caesar in this story has a partner called Cornelia and they’ve been together for some time. They have a son called River, who’s about fifteen in human years, and then during the course of the story, very early on in the story, his wife gives birth to an infant. So it’s very much the beginning of the new generation. Basically Caesar’s journey throughout this is one is of a very complicated domestic situation in the sense that once the human’s arrive and come on to their territory, he has to make a choice of how he’s going to deal with them. Whether he rejects them or whether he tries to build an accord with the surviving humans, he very quickly realizes when he bring the apes down- it’s a tricky balance because on the one hand he has to look after and protect his own, but on the other hand he’s sees the humans are struggling, and they are really struggling. They’re suffering to a great degree. He makes a connection with this one character played by Jason Clarke called Malcolm. There’s a respect and understanding from both sides that the situation that they’re in is a disaster. It was originally brought on by man’s hubris, apes have dealt with it, and now they are trying to- from Caesar’s point of view, he’s trying to build a life. Really out of the blue he’s trying to work out how he can possibly allow the humans- he wants the humans to survive, he doesn’t want them to be wiped out, but he wants the apes to live in peace and security. So it’s a tricky balance. The family story is quite complicated in that he has a son who is a fifteen year old, a teenager, who’s breaking out and about, who’s learning to take on the mantle and the responsibility of being a leader. He’s watching his father and judging his father and his father is judging him. There are all of those complications, which are exacerbated by the journey throughout the film of what Caesar’s got to deal with. So yeah, there is a big- this is like a Godfather movie. This is Caesar as Don Corleone and Caesar coping with all of the machinations of a politically difficult early foray into creating a regime.
You talk about Godfather, and I think we all see you as the Godfather of pioneering the art of performance capture. You’ve been doing it so long, kind of bringing it to the forefront. can you talk a little bit about maybe some of the things you’re still learning about, not just yourself, but the technology and how that affects your performance?
SERKIS: I mean, the technology’s reached the point now where it no longer- well there are two things really, there’s the perception of performance capture and how it’s used, usage in the film industry at large and how it’s been accepted by the acting community to a great degree now. I’m directing Animal Farm, we recently went to the states and did a big casting session. Compared to say, three years ago there isn’t one actor that we’ve met that wasn’t very keen to be in the project. Mainly because it’s a great project, but performance capture as a method of transforming an actor’s performance into an avatar, and the understanding that actually this kind of technology is becoming more transparent, so it is about returning to just pure acting. There is a great understanding of that. The real practitioners of performance capture on the visual effects end like Weta, who I obviously have had a massive relationship with over the last fourteen years, are extraordinarily good at interpolating the performance and honoring what is being caught on the day.
Directors respond to performance capture technology in a lot of different ways. You can of course embellish it, you can break it- you can break the performance if you’re not careful. Or you can do what the likes of which Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves, they’re all about wanting to honor the performances that they get on the day, and that means that basically the visual effects side of it, in effect, is digital costume and makeup. That’s how, from an actor’s point of view, it ought to be thought of, because you’re not- the authorship of the role, the authorship of performance happens on set with the director and other actors in the moment, and it doesn’t happen anywhere else. So if you don’t arrive at that moment, if you don’t have that drama happening there and then, you can’t fake that, you can’t add that on. That’s not a bolt-on thing that you can do with visual effects if you’re choosing to work really in a pure way and use this technology. So it’s been an amazing trajectory really, in terms of the technology and the way it’s- on this film it’s probably the most ambitious performance capture movie to date, I would say. More than Avatar, more than The Hobbit, more than anything really, because there’s so many location shoots. Everything is location, there’s very little set work, so we’re capturing outside in difficult circumstances. When we were in Vancouver we had the weather to deal with, it was freezing cold, it was raining every day. We’re putting cameras in trees and covering large areas. We have amazing mounted cameras to capture the facial expressions, which are again, helping the back end of the process. I’m wearing these markers, which are live markers, which we had on the last project, but they’re sort of refining and becoming much, much more practical, really. They don’t break. Everything is very, very robust now. The system is very, very robust.
Obviously this film takes place ten years after the first, how did you determine how developed the language was in terms of the sign language, the grunts. Obviously this is between the beginning and when they become more like the ’68 Planet of the Apes where they talk like people.
How did you figure out where the balance would be.
SERKIS: Well a combination of Matt Reeve’s take on it and Dylan [Clark], the producer, and our take, actually. We’ve arrived at it together as a group of filmmakers and the actors as well. It’s the most delicate and the most challenging of all the parts probably I’ve ever played using performance capture technology. I think this stage is actually the most challenging in terms of- if you take a character like Gollum, Gollum speaks, there’s no issue there. Kong doesn’t speak, but he communicates. Caesar in the first film communicated using chimp vocalizations, but at the same time he has an enhanced intelligence and communicates through sign language. With this it’s a very delicate balance, because there is speech. Obviously in the last film Caesar says a couple of words, and to great effect, but this- Matt was very, very insistent that he didn’t want to jump too far. This ten year period is about, like I say, it’s finding, it’s discovering language, it’s discovering the power of language. So he didn’t want to miss out on that part of the evolution, because that is in a way the most interesting part. Once you get into being able to intellectualize, for Caesar to philosophically have discussions with Maurice, for instance, you’re almost back to the beginning and that isn’t the stage that we are at in this movie. The challenge is- when there are scenes where the dialogue is emotionally driven or the mode of expression is emotionally driven, it’s much easier. When they’re reflective moments, when they’re moments of thinking or philosophizing or trying to intellectualize about a problem, that has been the big challenge.
Can you talk about the research you did on apes and have you continue it from the last movie to this one?
SERKIS: Yeah, it’s interesting. For me, I have a very singular journey in this and although we all studied apes, of course, that’s almost like learning choreography. So you go see them in zoos, you go and watch them, or you watch endless amounts of footage and that part of behavioral study is very, very important. But here, and for me particularly, because Caesar has a slightly- I always approached Caesar as a human in an ape’s skin. I based him originally, in the first movie, on a real ape called Oliver, who was known as the humanzee. In the 1970’s there was a real ape who it was believed that he was a progeny of man and a lot of experiments were done on him. Finally it was proved that he wasn’t, but there were lots of DNA tests on him. He walked bipedally, he sat in chairs, he had facial expressions that no other ape today has, extraordinarily human facial expressions. So for me the interest in the character lies in this terrible tension of knowing that he’s an ape, but also feeling like a human. This part of the journey for me is, at the beginning of the movie he’s obliterated the human part of himself and he is trying with all his might to return and find his inner ape, and actually what happens is by virtue of coming into contact with Malcolm, the reverse happens, and it draws out all of the conflicted, human instincts. That is really Caesar’s drama in this and the complexity of the role is really about that. So yes, we all have studied a lot of ape footage, but of course now, where they’re sort of apes plus, because the community is walking bipedally, it’s moving more towards almost a kind of Homo erectus, it’s almost moving toward a slightly different arena now.
How much is the community of apes rebelling against Caesar when he shows the humans some compassion?
SERKIS: That’s a very interesting question, obviously without giving too much away, that’s what a large chunk of this movie is about, the reactions to that. Because some of them believe- basically there are different ways of going. Everyone respects Caesar as a leader and he has this natural authority, but nevertheless even within the group there will some who think he’s wrong and there will be some who absolutely back him. So without telling you too much about the story, that’s really the dilemma for Caesar.
It seems like there’s a clear parallel between your character and Malcolm, you both have sons around teenage age, you both are trying to protect your people, how big is that in the story as far as your compassion for humans and him understanding where you’re coming from as an evolved ape?
SERKIS: That’s absolutely core to the story, yeah. It is an understanding and recognition, and actually at the end of the day, as a metaphor, we are two different species, but actually we both recognize the needs, wants and desires of the other. As in the original movies, that’s what makes these stories so powerful, allegories, semi-political.
We’ve heard there’s a scene that calls back to James Franco’s character, we get to visit his house or something, was that important to you to recognize that prior relationship?
SERKIS: Yeah, yeah it is. We’ve yet to shoot that scene, but on the page it’s very beautiful. It will be an extraordinary thing to play, I think.
How do you describe Matt Reeves directing so far?
SERKIS: Matt’s an extraordinary director, you know. I can’t express enough how ambitious this project is, and he is not only coping with that and getting the movie shot, but he’s also creating an extraordinary amount of space for the actors to explore, and that’s a real rarity. Much like Rupert Wyatt in the way that Rupert was insistent on it being all about performance and really finding those moments. You can only ever do that on a project like this if you have a director who wants that and is absolutely gunning for that. So Matt is- with all the pressures around him he is fantastic at creating space for the actors to find the essential drama of each scene and given the time pressures on him, it’s huge. He does that beautifully, actually.
Tell us about the scene you’re filming today.
SERKIS: This scene is in the first act of the movie, so the humans have come up, the apes have said, “Go, you mustn’t come here ever again.” Then there’s a big discussion within in the ape community about how to deal with it, how to deal with them, and this is Caesar’s understanding about the best way of showing- not force, not aggression, but showing that they are strong and showing that they will not tolerate their territory being invaded. So as their camp has been sort of invaded in a way, he makes the decision to take the apes and make a strong stance and a demonstration to them in the city and say, “This is your territory and that’s our home, as long as you stay here it’s cool, and as long was we stay there that’s what we want. But if push comes to shove and you do violate that, then we will go to war with you.” So it’s sending out a very strong message whilst trying to keep the peace.
The role was obviously really celebrated, there was a movement for a supporting actor nomination and everything. People love this character and the work that you did. Do you feel more confident in the role coming back for the sequel? Is there a little boost in knowing that people want to see more of this guy?
SERKIS: You know, I love the character. I loved playing him in the first movie. It was a beautifully written script, that first movie, and the trajectory of the character, the journey and growth of playing him from an infant all the way through to a teenager and his coming of age with all the complications. It was a very, very- yeah, it was a great role. This is, again, it’s more complex. In many ways, it was so well written that actually a lot of it was on the page, whereas I have to find a lot of this. There’s really subtle scenes and subtle moments, so as an acting challenge this is a lot greater. So yeah, I’m loving playing it, absolutely relishing the role again. And I’m working with such great actors, too. We have such an amazing cast, both human and ape.
You guys are on day thirty-something of the shoot, what have you shot already that you’re really exited for people to see and what’s coming up that you’re really excited to film?
You also referred to the environment, the rainforest.
SERKIS: Yeah, the very opening of the movie is set in the ape’s world. You don’t believe that humans exist anymore. You just think the apes have created this utopia. Really the first confrontational scene is pretty powerful. When the humans arrive in the environment, that is pretty powerful. So actually I think that’s a pretty cool one.
This may venture into spoiler territory, but we saw a photo of what seemed like a very heartfelt moment between you and Jason where you both kind of embrace each other, it seems like you’ve reached an understanding as friends and respect, can you talk about working with Jason and the dynamic between you two?
SERKIS: Yeah, Jason is really- for one, he loves performance capture, and even though he’s not playing a performance capture role, he totally gets it. So when we’re acting opposite of each other we’re just playing our characters and he really gives it 150% every single take. He really challenges- we push each other I think and we’re there for each other 100% every single take and you don’t always get that with actors. He really is all out, totally believing it every single step of the way and that’s very invigorating, and I know that I’m doing the same for him. I love working with him, it’s terrific.
How involved were you in the auditioning process for the apes?
SERKIS: My company The Imaginarium has a performance caption consultancy credit on this movie, so some of the early explorations into how the apes speak and so on was done there and some of the casting in fact come out of Imaginarium, so that’s been great. Obviously my association with this project and having the chance to work with Fox again on this, we’ve created quite a relationship, so I think they certainly respect what I’ve got to offer in terms of consulting. You’ve got to remember that there are, in this world, probably very few crews that have used this technology, so alongside say, working on the language or alongside how it is integrated into a normal film shoot, I think certainly for Matt it was good for him to have a sounding board and to be able to talk to me and to be able to advise him in the same way that I did with Rupert Wyatt.
Toby had talked to this group about meeting you for the first time.
SERKIS: Oh okay, exactly. Toby Kebbell, who’s playing Koba in this, came in and he was brilliant. He was absolutely amazing and he clearly really wanted that role. So he came in and I don’t think he was quite prepared for- it’s a bit of a tall order to expect an actor to come in an immediately start physicalizing and getting into it, but he absolutely came prepared mentally and physically. Came in and just grabbed it and I grabbed him [laughs] and we just went for it. I really pushed him and he responded. There was no question that he was the right person for this part.
Why did you cast him as a young man for an older age role?
SERKIS: He’s just got the right- that’s the fantastic thing about performance capture is it doesn’t really matter what age you are, and as long as you can plug into the emotional center of the character and obviously you can physically still do it, you can play up or down. It’s not dependent on your looks in any way. You can bring an energy to the role, and inner life to the character, which is perfect without necessarily having to look like the character or be the right age. That’s the wonderful thing about this media is that it allows you to transport. You can play any scale of character size, you’re not inhibited to play your own species.
Did he audition for that particular role?
SERKIS: Yeah, he came in for that role. Dylan Clark, who’s very keen as well, he’d seen Toby’s work and I’d seen Toby as well. Toby’s an amazing actor. That’s the great thing about it now, gone are the days of, “Oh lets just get a few stunt guys in.” Great as stunt guys are, we have some amazing stunt guys on this- brilliant, hardcore stunt guys. But for the acting side of it, the technology is now, as I was saying earlier, it can attract great talent, great actors who want to play roles who aren’t necessarily vain enough to want to see their own face on the screen.
Rupert is not here anymore, James Franco is not here any more, you’re kind of the steward of the Planet of the Apes franchise now. Do you pay attention to the original series? Is the idea to follow that in some way where that will all line up eventually?
SERKIS: Yeah, I have been given this great opportunity and I think certainly from Matt and Dylan’s perspective that my opinion- for instance, about how they’re speaking at this particular point in time, how Caesar matures throughout- we’ve talked about the story and the development of the script, I certainly had input there, because I know the character, I suppose. I kind of know where it’s going for the last film, without giving too much away, I sort of know in broad terms what’s going to happen.
Beyond this film?
Getting back to what you said a minute ago about being able to play any age, you could potentially do what Rody McDowall did where he played Caesar’s father.
SERKIS: Exactly, that’s right.
You could play the lineage of Caesar.
SERKIS: Well, I mean…you know[Laughs]. That’s the great thing. The other thing is, you should know, there are great other ape performers on this. I don’t know if you met Terry [Notary] yet.
SERKIS: Terry’s extraordinary and Karin [Konoval], and all of the other guys. But Terry is phenomenal. He is an extraordinary coach, he’s an extraordinary human being, and he plays Rocket in this. But also what you need to know is that when we come to the end of this, as we did on the last movie, there’s another 2000 apes that have to appear in this film, so someone’s got to play those apes. As in the atrium, in the sanctuary in the last movie, when push came to shove, it came to the end of it, basically Terry and myself ended up on the motion capture stage creating all of the other characters. Terry more than most, actually. He’s just a much-undervalued, not undervalued, you could say he’s incredibly valued within the industry, but he certainly should be celebrated as a huge part of this job. In all the ensemble scenes he’s not just looking after his own character, he’s photographing the apes and how they fit into the scenes on a big scale. Matt’s got a lot to deal with, so he plays a huge part.
As an actor obviously you’ve gotten plenty of recognition for your performance capture performances, are you getting a little bit more passionate or adamant about trying to get the academy and acting guilds to recognize them? Because the performances are equally as powerful and important as anybody appearing on screen without digital enhancements, how passionate are you about getting them more recognized?
SERKIS: I suppose I’ve sort of inadvertently become the spokesperson for it, because I’ve probably spent more man hours in these kinds of suits than anyone else, but I would never- I would hate to think that I was pushing for- I’m not really into the idea of pushing for it purely as an award. What I think is absolutely crucial, and I am evangelical about, is the understanding of what it is, because for me that’s been a real problem over the last however many years. People still come up to me and say, “So you did the voice of Gollum? ” And I go, “No I didn’t do the voice of Gollum, I played Gollum.” Or you did the voice of Captain Haddock in Tintin and I go, “No, that’s not actually right.” As long as people fully understand what it is that we do here, we’re not people who stand in booths and do a couple hours work every few months to do voices for the role. We’re inhabiting the role as fully as the folks wearing costume and makeup.
So yes, that for me is important, that performance capture is fully understood. And it’s proving to be the case. There isn’t that stigma attached to it any more, even from the last Apes movie. It’s moved on hugely, when I went to cast Animal Farm people didn’t even talk about it, it was just like, “Oh what a great way of doing Animal Farm.” So I think it is important for the technology to be understood for what it is, which is purely another way of recording an actors performance. There are film cameras, there are performance capture cameras. Film cameras are filming the live action actors, performance capture cameras are filming our performances, they’re all happening at the same time. That’s it.
How much better for you has it been as an actor to be on all these sets, on location, doing the motion capture there with the other actors as opposed to something like Tintin where you’re on a sound stage and you don’t see any of the environments except when you go look at the dailies?
SERKIS: Well that’s not actually true, because you can actually see the environment virtually. You’re looking, as the director does, looking into a monitor. On stage there will be a bunch of wire frame representations of the set, but actually when you look into the monitor I can see Captain Haddock and Tintin, so your mind begins to work that out and your sort of mental GPS kind of creates this virtual reality and real world that you inhabit. That’s just part of the craft, I suppose, learning how to use it. Some actors do find it, when they first do it, they feel very naked because they’re used to having props, they’re used to having costume, they’re used to having makeup, they’re used to having shoes to make the character feel a certain way. That’s an important part of the acting process, to chose your costume, you don’t have that with this so you have to do it in other ways. You have to mentally construct those things and actually find different routes. As I say, this is, for any actor, a huge challenge in creating inner life for something and knowing how you relate to- how your performance calibrates to an avatar. It is like mask work or puppeteering, being both marionette and puppeteer. You’re imbuing the character with life and there’s a sort of- in some ways its no different at all, and in other ways there’s a kind of third eye on your performance, an awareness of what it is that you’re doing with your avatar.
Are you doing anything differently with this film to ensure continuity with between all the live capture and stuff you’ll do later on to sort of fill in the performance? I know some people are taking notes about “x” take, this thought, that sort of thing.
SERKIS: No, not really. I suppose I’ve been through it so many time I know how to pluck back into- when we were doing King Kong I spent four months off camera with Naomi Watts playing all the scenes between Ann Darrow and King Kong, then I had to go every single scene on my own for eight weeks on a motion capture stage. Once you’ve lived through the scenes your emotional memory, your muscle memory all flows back in. For me it’s part of the process, so I don’t have any problem with that, but it is great being able to now shoot and actually only have to do it once for the most part, shooting on set. There’s nothing like it, the real connection between yourself and another actor emotionally in that moment and nailing that is- there’s nothing quite like that.
Could you talk a little bit about the future of performance capture technique, would it be possible in a few years to see actors playing younger versions of themselves?
SERKIS: For sure. I mean, this is happening now. Obviously, we’re seeing more and more in films. Performance capture is actually a hugely important tool in next generation story telling across all media. That’s with video games, that’s with interactive movies, that’s with 3D, with digital content, whatever you think. It sits in a very important space, I think, not just for movies, but also for live theater. You can now put markers on a ballet company and they can project real time avatars on screens as they’re performing, or rock bands. So it’s got hundreds of applications and uses for storytelling. So in many ways it’s actually still in its infancy in terms of how people want to use it. I’m sure that in ten years time you’re going to have 3D character being projected, even that’s happening now, we’ve been working on it for my studio where you can see 3D characters projected in real time. At the big thing in the film industry is real time facial capture, so actually being able to in real time capture a performance and then stream it immediately, that’s really the whole thing at the moment and that’s happening, it’s beginning to happen. There’s all sorts of application which are being used. Digital resurrection, it’s known as, where you’re bringing film stars or celebrities or historical figures back to life, that’s beginning to happen. It’s a very, very interesting and phenomenally exciting time for it.
Who are you going to be playing in Animal Farm or are you just directing it?
SERKIS: I’m directing it and I may well be playing a part in it [laughs].
How’s that movie progressing, is it going well?
SERKIS: Oh yeah, it’s going well.
Where are you at in production?
SERKIS: At the moment we’re in preproduction so we’re prevising the whole movie. We will probably be shooting in March or April of next year.
SERKIS: In London at our studios at Imaginarium.
Do you know the book by heart at this point?
SERKIS: Yeah, I do, yeah.
After that, have you heard at least rumblings or the hope that they’re going to shoot the next Tintin sometime next year?
SERKIS: That’s a possibility, yeah. Again, that’s not confirmed, but I’ve heard the same.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens July 11. For more from my set visit: