Although he is an accomplished stage and screen actor in his own right, Andy Serkis has become the go-to guy for motion capture performance. He was remarkable as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and as the title character in King Kong, but it was his work as the intelligent chimp Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that earned him a Virtuoso Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF). Collider was there to cover and attend the event, and we’ve compiled the highlights of what the actor had to say, both on the press line and during the Q&A.
While there, Andy Serkis talked about how performance capture technology is just another form of acting, finding his inner ape to play Caesar and why that character is different from Kong, what it was like to revisit the character of Gollum for The Hobbit films, so many years later, how great it is to work on the live-action set this time, and the experience of working with all of the actors who are new to Middle Earth while also directing Second Unit. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: What’s it like to know that you’re the best guy in this very specialized kind of acting, when you still like to do the traditional kind of acting too?
ANDY SERKIS: Absolutely, yeah! Well, the great thing is that performance capture technology is now being realized as an actor’s tool. It isn’t really a specialized form of acting. Acting is acting. It’s just a different way of recording an actor’s performance. But, it’s taken a long time for people to understand that. I think there’s increasingly more material that lays itself open to using that technology. It’s taken awhile for people to understand the dramatic possibilities of using it.
What was it like to revisit Gollum again, 10 years after The Lord of the Rings trilogy for The Hobbit films?
SERKIS: Oh, it’s great! It’s fantastic! What’s great is that, with the technology, we can shoot on a live-action set. I don’t have to go back and repeat the process. There’s no disconnect anymore. When I’m acting with my fellow actor on a live-action set, it’s all for real and whatever happens between those two actors is what’s recorded. The live-action actor is recorded with film cameras while my performance as Gollum is recorded with performance capture cameras.
SERKIS: It’s great! Because I’m directing the Second Unit on The Hobbit, I feel very at home with Middle Earth. I feel equipped to be Peter’s eyes and ears on the Second Unit, which is a big operation. We’re covering a lot of stuff. We shoot everything from drama to aerial shots to battle sequences. I’m very pleased to be at this point.
What’s different about the character this time, since it’s an earlier version?
SERKIS: All I can say is that he’s 60 years younger and a lot more handsome.
Is it different doing it for 3D?
SERKIS: You don’t really think about 3D when you’re acting. As a director, you do.
SERKIS: It’s a bit of a strange one for people to understand. Performance capture, as a technology, is really another way of recording an actor’s performance. Basically, all of the actors who are wearing costumes and are in make-up are being recorded with a 35 mm camera, and then the people who are playing apes are wearing suits with markers on and facial markers on and, in a sense, they are wearing digital make-up. That’s the way to think about it, in this day and age of performance capture technology. So, all of the emotional content, the acting decisions and the way that you relate to your fellow actors is all offered on the set. There really isn’t any difference between acting in a performance capture costume and a live-action costume. I’ve played both. I’ve been on stage and been an actor for many years, and used different mediums. In terms of the process of getting into a character, it really begins and ends with the authorship, on the set, with the director and the other actors.
SERKIS: I found it relatively easy, actually. For instance, playing a character like King Kong and playing a character like Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you think, “Oh, they’re two apes.” But, as we all know, apes are 97% genetically the same as us, so it’s like saying, “How do you play a human being?” They’re all totally individual and totally idiosyncratic. It always goes back to character. When we were working on the character of Kong, we decided that he was very much a lonely, psychotic hobo who spends every day trying to survive until he connects with someone that actually changes his whole perception of life. Caesar, as a character, is brought up as a very happy, young child. He has a surrogate father, he’s adored, he’s dotted on, and then, at a certain point, he reaches an age of self-awareness and his whole world goes into free-fall. He’s suddenly confronted with the fact that life isn’t what it seemed, and he’s thrown into what is, in effect, a hardcore prison with his kind, who he can’t relate to. It’s all about finding the humanity, in those situations, to relate to. Doing the physicality and the moves is a level of physical preparation, of course, but it’s all about what’s going on inside. Where most of Caesar’s power, as a character, lies is in the stillness. Everybody thinks performance capture is about thrashing around and doing a lots of movement, but it’s actually about being able to contain and think and be believed in a close-up, as much as anything else.
SERKIS: When you start doing a role like this, or Kong or Gollum, you see a lot of conceptual artwork before you go in, so you have an idea. I knew what Caesar was going to look like, when he was an infant, when he was a teenager and when he was an adult, so I had those pictures in my head. When you’re rehearsing in a performance capture suit, you’re actually able to use a system called Real Time, where you can look into a big screen in the rehearsal room and see, in real time, what Caesar looks like, moving around. So, you learn to calibrate your movements and gauge how your behavior is. You can watch yourself, as a rehearsal tool, and see yourself in costume and make-up.
Were there ever any moments or days on the set, where you were jumping around like an ape, opposite James Franco, and you just thought, “This is ridiculous!”?
SERKIS: Never! Yeah, of course, there are moments. Having done a lot of theater, I’m used to sustaining characters over long periods of time. For a film like The Adventures of Tintin, myself and Jamie Bell kept re-working scenes and didn’t have to go back to our trailers to wait for a lighting change. You’re on the floor working, all day long. Yeah, there are moments when you just suddenly think, “I wonder what life would have been like, if I had not gone down this road,” but on the whole, you hold onto the character.
Was being the foremost mo-cap guy something you set out to do?
SERKIS: Yes, it was my mission in life. No, I actually didn’t even intend to be an actor. I went to college to study graphics, painting and design. I was going to be an artist. And when I got to college, you had to do another subject in your first year, so I chose theater studies because I couldn’t think of better to do. But, I started designing sets and posters and stuff, and then, I did a play, which completely changed my life. I found that this connection to the role I was playing was so intense, and the whole experience of doing it was so intense, that I completely changed my direction and decided to become an actor. So, I went on a very normal trajectory, doing lots and lots of theater, for many, many years. I did 40 or 50 plays, and lots of European films. And then, I met Peter Jackson and he put me in a load of dots, and 12 years later, I’m still doing that.
SERKIS: I’ve never, ever drawn any distinction between playing a performance capture role or a live-action role. Getting into and embodying a character and psychologically investigating a role is just no different, whatsoever. So, I don’t think, “Oh, god, I’m missing out on normal acting.” Some of these characters are very extreme, but you’re still relating to them and finding a set of emotions. You’re acknowledging what that character is, and how it thinks and feels and believes the world is around them. It’s exactly the same thing, so I don’t miss it, at all.
As an actor, do you prefer playing characters that are closer to who you are, or completely different from who you are?
SERKIS: I like to choose characters that are close to myself because I like to be very minimal in my work. No. I think the thing is that there are times in your life when you actually want to investigate yourself and put more of yourself up on screen. But, by having a character that’s much further away, you amplify something or you’re reaching for something that enables you to say something more about the human condition that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought, just by drawing from your own personal experience. They’re all valid. Any actor who is worth their salt would want to have a go at all of those things.
SERKIS: There’s a fantastic British film, called Tyrannosaur, that was directed by Paddy Considine. That was an amazing film. That was one of the most powerful movies I’ve seen this year. I definitely recommend seeing it. It’s a really searing, very brave story.
What has been the biggest highlight of this crazy process of award season?
SERKIS: At the Golden Globe awards, Morgan Freeman’s son, Alfonso, came running up to me and he said, “Are you Andy Serkis?,” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Come with me!,” and he dragged me into the pit where all of the top guys are. He dragged me all the way to the front to meet Morgan, and Alfonso said, “Dad, this is Andy Serkis!” And Morgan just looked at me and went, “And what do you do?”