ANDY SERKIS GETS REAL
AFTER 15 YEARS OF REDEFINING WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ACTOR, ANDY SERKIS IS DIRECTING HIS OWN MOVIE: BREATHE. EMPIRE CONTRIBUTING EDITOR DAN JOLIN MEETS WITH HIM AND WONDERS, WHERE ARE ALL THE CG ANIMALS?
reflects Andy Serkis during an agreeably sprawling conversation in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. “A door will open and if you’re willing to take that journey, it can open up incredible things.”
He’s talking about the lead character of his directorial debut Breathe — Robin Cavendish, the father of his friend and producing partner Jonathan, who, as a young man in 1958, was paralysed from the neck down by polio (in the film Cavendish is played by Andrew Garfield). But Serkis could just as easily be reflecting on himself. When I first met him 15 years ago, he was a hard-working British actor who’d just achieved sudden international recognition in a groundbreaking role: Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Though hidden beneath the wretched creature’s photo-real CG form, Rings master Peter Jackson had opened a door for Serkis and sent him on his own unexpected journey.
It took him to Skull Island as Jackson’s King Kong, and from there to San Francisco as brainy chimp revolutionary Caesar in the Planet Of The Apes reboot series, before appearing in Star
Wars’ far-far-away galaxy as dark side chief Supreme Leader Snoke. Along the way, he founded his own studio, The Imaginarium, which specialises in performance capture, and directed second unit for Jackson on The Hobbit trilogy.
All that time Serkis nurtured the desire to create movies of his own. Finally, after a bit of a false start with his still-unreleased, mo-capdriven take on The Jungle Book, the small(ish), personal Breathe arrives: a film which, but for the duplication of Tom Hollander as Robin’s identical-twin brothers-in-law, comes raw and unprocessed by the visual-effects machine.
Over the years I’ve got used to seeing Andy in mo-cap gear, either going ape as Caesar or bearing all as Baloo on the set of The Jungle Book. But he doesn’t strike me as a conjurer missing his tricks when we meet to discuss Breathe. Despite the fact it’s early in the day and he’s recently quit coffee, he’s animated and upbeat. No surprise: he’s finally in the place he’s always dreamed of reaching.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a director?
When I went to college, I studied visual arts — theatre studies was my subsidiary course. I started out designing posters for shows, working behind the scenes. Then I started acting, and went into that full-bore. But when I was in my mid-twenties I started painting again: figures in abstract spaces, all fairly political, with a sort of narrative. Then I thought, “These paintings are storyboards, really.” I realised, “I wanna start making films. How am I gonna do that?” So Lorraine [Ashbourne, Serkis’ wife] and I started writing this script — which we’re still developing — based on the story of her brother, who got fired from his job as a printer because he stood up for a fellow employee and then got work as a Clark Gable lookalike. I also made a short film.
When was this?
I’d made short films at college, but my first proper one was called Snake, which I made after I did
24 Hour Party People [in 2002]. It was based on a Chechen trainee doctor I met while filming in Russia who paid for his education by working for the Chechen Mafia, fixing up guys who got shot.
It’s been brewing for a while, then. But the real crucible of learning for you was directing second unit on The Hobbit, wasn’t it?
Fuck, yeah. I thought I was gonna be starting my directing career doing a small, independent movie. But Pete wanted someone on second unit who could take care of performance, because of the sheer amount of characters. So I took myself down to New Zealand for a year-and-a-half. It was the most extraordinary experience. We shot for 200 days, shooting 3D native, 48 frames a second, out on location... I was in a helicopter for about eight weeks, just shooting aerials. It was a nuts job. I learned everything.
And now, oddly, you have made a small, independent movie. As someone who is so associated with VFX, did it feel strange to be doing Breathe — stripped of all the things that have come to define you?
Do you know what? It was thrilling. It was about visceral, raw performance. It was so delicious to come away from a day’s filming knowing that what you had was in the camera. It was like, “Oh my God! What is this?!” Directing Jungle Book for the most part was like, “Well, in a year-and-a-half I’ll be able to see roughly what we’re doing here...”
Ah yes, Jungle Book. That was supposed to be the directorial debut, wasn’t it?
Yeah, but I’m glad it’s happened this way around. It’s funny, because while we were shooting The Hobbit I talked to Pete about Jonathan’s story