Pre­cious mo­ments

Gol­lum, King Kong, Cae­sar the Ape – Andy Serkis is known for play­ing some of cin­ema’s most fan­tas­ti­cal larger-than-life characters, but he also likes do­ing things on a far less epic scale, he tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

ANDY SERKIS and I have match­ing pieces of pa­per. The World’s Pre-em­i­nent Per­for­mance Cap­ture Artist will fea­ture in two films this coming fort­night: Ian FitzGib­bon’s Ir­ish weepie, Death of a Su­per­hero and The Hob­bit: An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney.

Guess which one we’re not al­lowed to talk about? In case we for­get, we have it writ­ing: ‘Please Do Not Dis­cuss The Hob­bit.‘ Not talk­ing about The Film Which Must Not Be Named isn’t as easy as you might sup­pose. As Serkis points out: “I can’t tell you enough and I can’t stress enough the im­pact that Pete Jack­son has had on my life.”

Jack­son, in turn, has adopted Serkis as the unof­fi­cial Mickey Mouse fig­ure­head of the film­maker’s spe­cial ef­fects pow­er­house, Weta Work­shop. The ac­tor and Lord of the Rings di­rec­tor have been fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors – King Kong, The Ad­ven­tures of Tintin – since Serkis first signed on to play Gol­lum in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fel­low­ship of the Ring. In the up­com­ing, un­name­able, un­men­tion­able tril­ogy, the ac­tor has reprised the role that made him a house­hold name and also headed up the Sec­ond Unit.

“You’re re­spon­si­ble for some­body else’s vi­sion and a big crew,” says Serkis. “It’s as chal­leng­ing and sat­is­fy­ing as it gets. You know. With­out go­ing into too much de­tail.”

From the get-go, Serkis has been a mul­ti­tasker. As a vis­ual-arts stu­dent at Lan­caster Univer­sity, he got in­volved with the­atre so he could de­sign posters, but soon found he was just as happy swap­ping over to do light­ing and di­rect­ing on col­lege pro­duc­tions.

His course op­tions were, he notes, al­ready a cause for con­cern for his gy­ne­col­o­gist dad and school­teacher mum when he rang home from what he calls his “what are the hell are you go­ing to do with your life ac­tiv­ity course” to tell the folks he wanted to give act­ing a shot.

“Oh, the si­lence at the other end of the phone. It was mon­u­men­tal. I un­der­stand why. Nowa­days celebrity is democra­tised. It’s not un­re­al­is­tic to want to act or sing. But at that point – 25-odd years ago – it sounded like a pre­car­i­ous oc­cu­pa­tion. I think we now know it’s no more pre­car­i­ous than any­thing else.”

He was still at univer­sity when he gained his eq­uity card through Dukes Play­house where Serkis stud­ied the The­atre of the Op­pressed un­der di­rec­tor Jonathan Pether­bridge.

“My en­tire at­ti­tude to act­ing back then was that I was there to serve hu­man­ity,” re­calls the 48-year-old. “It was a politi­cised job. We stud­ied prac­ti­tion­ers like Au­gusto Boal. It was all about af­fect­ing change po­lit­i­cally. Bri­tish drama and film was rooted in so­cial mes­sage. Act­ing was about small set­tings and huge re­al­world prob­lems.”

He laughs. “And now I’m in th­ese big, huge worlds like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Hob­bit.”

Last year, in an ef­fort to ex­pand the al­ready size­able Serki-verse, the ac­tor and pro­ducer Jonathan Cavendish founded The Imag­i­nar­ium Stu­dios. The cre­ative mul­ti­me­dia lab has al­ready pro­vided per­for­mance cap­ture for Rise of the Planet of the Apes and is de­vel­op­ing a new ver­sion of Ge­orge Or­well’s An­i­mal Farm.

“It’s a cre­ative lab and a home base in Lon­don for a lot of dif­fer­ent strands in film and videogame and per­for­mance cap­ture,” says the Ruis­lip Manor-born ac­tor. “Work­ing with Weta for all th­ese years, you see the ad­van­tage of hav­ing so many cre­ative peo­ple feed­ing off each other. You’re just sur­rounded by art and sculp­ture and con­cepts. It’s all about hav­ing the space to de­velop big ideas.”

Death of a Su­per­hero, Serkis’ third Ir­ish pro­duc­tion (“I’m some­how al­ways drawn back to Bal­brig­gan: I’ve shot there twice,” he says), is, he notes, a re­treat “as far away from big, epic worlds as I could get”.

Ian FitzGib­bon’s poignant drama about a dy­ing 15-year-old boy ( Nanny McPhee’s Thomas Brodie-Sang­ster) who draws comic book sto­ries as he rails against vir­gin­ity and a ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis casts Serkis as the young­ster’s psy­chi­a­trist.

“I was very keen to work with Ian be­cause he’s such a great ac­tor’s di­rec­tor,” ex­plains Serkis. “And I was really look­ing for­ward to work­ing with Thomas be­cause we al­most got to work to­gether be­fore and we al­ready had a re­la­tion­ship. I loved the idea of us­ing comic books and an­i­ma­tion as a way of ex­press­ing a kid’s anx­i­eties. I un­der­stood that. I was one of

“What per­for­mance cap­ture has taught me over the years is a real sense of fo­cus and a way to in­ter­nalise”

those kids al­ways draw­ing grotesque, hor­ren­dous crea­tures hack­ing each oth­ers heads off.”

Even when he’s work­ing the Bri­tish in­die biopic sec­tor, we’re used to see­ing Serkis go large and loom­ing as Martin Ham­mett in 24-Hour Party Peo­ple, as Ian Brady in Long­ford and as Ian Dury in the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. It’s odd to en­counter the same ac­tor play­ing with still­ness and mostly del­i­cate move­ments. Or is it?

“Peo­ple as­sume – not un­rea­son­ably – that Gol­lum and Cae­sar are all about the phys­i­cal­ity,” says Serkis. “But if you look closely at those films, you’ll see the real act­ing is all done in the close ups. What per­for­mance cap­ture has taught me over the years is a real sense of fo­cus and a way to in­ter­nalise. I had a lot of en­ergy as a younger ac­tor, but it was per­for­mance cap­ture that al­lowed me to tran­si­tion from stage to screen. I have a still­ness that I don’t think I had be­fore.”

In this spirit, the ac­tor who once spe­cialised in Stanislavski and Brecht is, he reck­ons, a lot less likely to take his work home than was once the case. “When I play darker characters it can still be a chal­lenge,” says Serkis, who lives in Crouch End with his wife of 10 years and their three chil­dren. “But I’m a lot less sus­cep­ti­ble to method now. As your chil­dren are grow­ing up, you have to learn to put down the file, come home and be present. You can’t go down to watch your kids play­ing foot­ball and be think­ing about the scene you’re do­ing on Mon­day. They have real-life is­sues and prob­lems. Yours are only made up.”

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