INTERVIEW: The virtual superstar sits down to talk about his groundbreaking new role

Andy Serkis on Siding with the Apes and the Big Oscar Question

on August 03, 2011 by Amy Nicholson
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Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes-101.jpgHere's something you should know about Andy Serkis: he's an animal rights advocate and a vegetarian. That's not why he's played primates like King Kong, but it's why he plays them so well. And with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, technology has caught up to Serkis' talent for capturing the emotionsnot just the motionsof his characters. Look into Caesar the chimpanzee's eyes and you see anger, pride and pain. Look deeper, says Serkis, and he even sees himself.

How is playing Caesar different than playing King Kong?

People have asked me, "How come you're playing another ape? You're going to be known for playing apes." These guys are such totally different characters that they've got barely any resemblance. King Kong was a lonely, psychotic, older, beaten-up boxer of a gorilla, whose goal is to just get through every day and survive. He has no connection to any other thing, any other creature then the dinosaurs and predators who are trying to attack him. Until he when he meets Naomi Watts and goes through a whole range of emotions, as a result, which brings his downfall. This story, I get to play a chimpanzee who is rescued from a laboratory where he's inherited this this super-intelligence drug, this cure for Alzheimer's, that's affecting him. He's hand-reared by human beings and is brought up in a very nurturing, loving environmenthe actually behaves like a human being. The relationship between him and the research scientist played by James Franco is very much a father-son relationship. Only when he reaches a point of self recognition and self awareness does he then question what he is. And then he feels like a freak, like Frankenstein's monster. He doesn't really know what he is anymore. He gets taken away from his father figure and put into what is in fact a prison, a sanctuary with a lot of other apes. Then he has to again reevaluate what he is. I get to play a character who goes through a huge emotional and psychological arc. I play him from a very young age, from an infant, through to this leader of a revolution. It's an entirely different part, apart from the physical factors: Kong is a 25-foot gorilla and Caesar is a normal-sized chimpanzee. Gorillas and chimpanzees, as you know, are totally different.

Totally different. Talking about that strong arc you take Caesar through, how does the way you move his body change as his brain changes?

One of the biggest challenges of playing the role was how much we anthropomorphize him. In a way, performance capture is the perfect medium to allow an actor license to act in that skin. You're wrapped that body. You then choose how you're going to interpret his level of intelligence, how much his behavior has been affected by being brought up by human beings, and then, of course, the fact that he has inherited this drug. There are two strong influences. First, I watched a lot of videos and footage of highly gifted children who could play concertos by the age of four because we kept perceiving Caesar to be an 11-year-old when he's three. To what level do you anthropomorphize him? That was a constant dance. At what stage do we reveal his personality, or how clever he is, and so on? Second, we were influenced by a real life chimpanzee called Oliver who became very well-known in the '70s and was known as the "humanzee." Everyone was fascinated by his otherness. He walked bipedally. He looked like a chimpanzee but he was totally like a human being. So he'd sit in a chair with his legs crossed, he'd wear clothes, his carers would feed him at the table, he'd eat with them, he'd watch television.

When you hear these stories-or even see the way people react to your characterswhat excites humans is when they see humanity, see themselves, inside a creature. Are we humans narcissists?

That's a really, really good question. I think this film, other than being a cautionary tale, does beg that question. We are narcissistic and for whose benefit are we pushing the scientific envelope? It's only for our own species; the selfish gene is in place. If the balance were to tip and there was a vacuum and apes did take over, what would an ape choose to keep hold of and what would he reject from humanity? Obviously, if apes were to take over, there would be similar failings if their species rose to supremacy. Whichever species takes over, there will be hierarchy, there will be failings and good things. Getting back to your point, I do believe this film does take on an animal rights feel. It does question that we judge animals according to the mirror we put onto ourselves. You're absolutely right. I'm running in circles here, but what I'm saying is Caesar is an example of someone's overreaching ambition to try and cure a particular disease that is in our own society. And Caesar becomes a victim of that. By the same token, he then has to choose what he keeps and what he throws away of humanity. Are you pretty serious into primates?

I used to TA a class in Evolutionary Biology with a bonobo expert.

Really!

Talking about how ape society would have its own problems, I was thinking that the apes couldn't even agree among themselves. Bonobos and chimps and gorillas have completely different power structures.

Exactly. And we touch on that in the movie. In the original Planet of the Apes, they had their own hierarchy. The orangutans were the sagacious, wise lawmakers and the gorillas were the thugs and the police force and the army, and the chimpanzees were the intellectuals.

But with orangutans being the wise lawmakers, I always thought the writers didn't know what they were doing. I figured the orangutans were the stars just because they liked the color of their fur.

True, that was interesting. The kind of separate differentiation as a metaphor was definitely there, the way that they chose to represent them. The orangutans were the lords, the judges. It is an incredible metaphor, really. Did you like the original Planet of the Apes?

I did, but I'm of the generation where I knew the ending before I saw itI don't think I got the full impact. You're a vegetarian and against animal testing. Does that mean if war was to happen today, you'd be on Caesar's side?

Absolutely. I've been a vegetarian for a long time and part of the reason I became a vegetarian was because of compassionate world farming movements when I was a student, and anti-vivisection.

To play Caesar as a baby ape who's raised as though he was a human baby, was it like tapping into your own childhood?

The great thing about performance capture is you can be scaled up and down. You can be a 25-foot gorilla or a 3 ½ foot ring junkie. That was really part of the thrill of a job was playing that whole journey from an innocent to the leader of a revolution.

Your roles take so much muscular control. I've always wanted to ask: are you a good dancer?

I wasn't ever a trained dancer, but I know people thought when I did The Lord of the Rings, "Oh, here's this guy who is a movement expert, a sort of contortionist, physical performer and dancer." No, that's not the case. I was a regular actor. But having said that, I suppose I've always found a way into characters through physicality. Sometimes in a very obvious or overt way, but other times more about where a character carries their pain or where they center their emotions physically. That's the thing about performance capture. People say, "Well, you're doing an ape so you're doing ape movements." In a way, that's actually the last thing that was on my mind as Caesar. There's obviously sort of a choreographic element and a dance element to learning how apes move. You have to know the steps. You have to know how your shoulders roll, how your knuckles relax, their placement on the floor. But it's actually nothing to do with that, reallyit's about character and you have to come at it from a character point of view. I face people and they ask me, "Is there any difference in performance capture acting opposed to normal acting?" There is no difference. Any of the characters I've played in performance-capture, either in prosthetic make-up or a suit or on stage, I wouldn't approach the character any differently. It is an acting job and the physical aspect of it is only one part.

How do your shoulders roll and your knuckles move when you get into character as Caesar?

There are lots of other apes in this film and they were coached by Terry Notary, who is a wonderful movement coach. He's worked on Avatar and he's worked with Cirque du Soleil. He is a brilliant physical performer and an absolutely incredible gymnast and he coached a lot of the other actors in Rise of the Planet of the Apes to move like chimpanzees or gorillas or orangutans. With Caesar I was looking at this Oliver character, who was extraordinary because he walks like a human being. I was trying to find the difference, the otherness, the not being an ape within in an ape's skin. It's a slightly different job description. He's much more upright and human in his behavior, and the tension of that movement with that skin looks quite strangethat's what I was after.

When you've played a character for a while, do they leave a muscular imprint in your body where you remember how you were holding your arms and moving your legs? And now that you're returning to Gollum for The Hobbit, is it easy to shift back into character?

Your muscle memory definitely does kick in. No question. I mean, when I had to do reshoots for Apes just even a couple of weeks agoa year after the factyour body immediately kicks in. Reprising Gollum 10 years, 12 years on, it's just all there.

Does your physical body change when you switch from characters? Are you more built up on the top or on the bottom depending on how they move?

For sure. Definitely. Whatever character you're playing, whether it's performance capture or not, your body changes shape all the time constantly. Weights shift up and down. It's kind of strange, you knowI don't even know what my default body shape is!

The Academy should respect that. Don't they love when somebody changes weight for a role?

Absolutely. I think they love all that kind of stuff. But they don't see it as much in performance capture, I suppose.

When you look at your characters on film, do you see yourself underneath them?

Totally. The digital mask that each of those characters have allows certain face calibrations and types of expressions. I know the emotions that underlie and generate those facial expressions. Obviously, there's such a gray area still about performance capture. You know: is it acting or is it rotoscope? Without riling the animators too much, performance capture allows for a brilliant interface between director and actor on set. Ignoring that you're wearing a suit with facial markers and stuff, it's all about performance. Then the director can choose how much he wants to adhere to the actor's performance in the moment and be truthful to what he's got on his reference camerasbecause you always film with reference cameras, as well, so that you can judge whether the performance is any good. At that stage, you can't see what the digital mask is doing, so you cut with that. The director uses the reference of the actual performance the actor is giving, regardless of the digital skin that's going to be overlaid on top. So I'm saying in a rather long-winded way that I can see myself. But it's really complicated because people don't still understand what performance capture is as a medium. When people say to me after Lord of the Rings, "So you did the voice of Gollum?" or they'd say, "You lent your movements to Kong." I didn't lend my movements to anybody. Or for Tintin, "Were you referenced for Captain Haddock?" There was a big sea change after Avatar when Jon Landau and Jim Cameron actively went out and said, "These are actors' performances." Still, I just don't think people quite get it.

I don't think they do. I feel like you get applause and James Cameron gets applause, but everyone else gets judged very harshly. With performance capture, people immediately try to say they see an uncanny valley. Robert Zemeckis can't get a break.

No, I know. Really, it's down to the eyes with performance-capture. It's down to who can make the eyes work. And Weta are just world class leaders. Joe Letteri, head of Visual Effects at Weta, understands that performance must feel grounded and emotionally connected. At the end of the day, it either moves an audience or it doesn't, and Joe Letteri and Weta totally get that. On the whole, other films I've seen that have used performance capture, that doesn't happen for whatever reason, for whatever reason it is. The thing with Weta Digital is that they understand story telling, so all the visual effectsperformance capture or notare always story and character-driven. They understand the necessity of bending and bowing the wizardry to the telling of a story, the connecting of visual effects to story and character.

Do you almost feel like you've taken a master class in primatology after studying to play Kong and Caesar?

Well, when I worked on Kong, I did lots of study into gorillas both in captivity and in the wild. I went to Rwanda with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which was up close and personal in the wild and it was extraordinary. It was an amazing experience. I'm on the Board of Trustees for the Dian Fossey fund now so I had to be very careful when I took this job that it wasn't going to oversimplify primates or cast them in a bad light. We could have used real apes in these films, but to get apes to performanimals in the entertainment industry have been raised so much around humans it'd be hard to get the wild from them. I think I did pretty much as much as you can do to prepare. With Kong, it was all about finding the real gorilla, whereas to say with Caesar, it has been a necessity to anthropomorphize him. Human behavior affecting primate behavior is very interesting because it's true. Chimpsor any apes that have been brought up in a zoowill reflect human behavior because they're surrounded by them and faced with them and watched by them every single day of their lives. Whereas the mountain gorillas, for instance, there's a world of difference between them. I wouldn't presume to teach a master class on primates. But when I first starting working on Kong, I was like: okay, I've got to work out an algorithm of what a gorilla is and how they behave. And then you start to realize that they are like we are, which is totally idiosyncratic, totally individual. Some have mood swings, some are aggressive, some are really pleasant. You start to think that actually it's back to character again. It's not really about busting moves, it's purely about character. We know that from domestic pets that we have. If you've got dogs or cats, you know that they have personalities, very strong personalities. Whether you're projecting that or not is another question.

I have this image of my cat as a big tough guy, but he actually might not be.

Exactly! You'll probably never know. We presume that we know how species feel because of the way that they demonstrate, but perhaps we can be getting it totally wrong. I don't know.

Do you play-act animals at home with your kids?

YeahI'm always chasing them around and being a monster. They're growing up, but they still love it.

At the end of a long day of filming do you stretch? Do you get a massage? How do you relax your muscles?

It's physically grueling. Unlike live action filming where the camera set ups dictate when you break, and we actors get to sit down and rest in the trailer, the thing about performance capture is that you can just keep going because there's no cameras set up. You can literally be filming all day and not really sit down. Playing roles like these does take it out of you. I've been very fortunate when I've been down in New Zealand to work with this particularly brilliant neuro-muscular therapist. Her name is Tracy Anderson and she's worked on a lot of actors down there. She is brilliant. There was kind of an eight week block on Kong where I was just on the motion capture stage by myself from morning until night and she literally got me through that. I don't think I could have survived it without her because it was tough, really tough.

Do you look in the mirror when you're preparing for a role? How do you watch yourself so you know you have the movement down?

With performance-capture, you use a real time CG imagery to, in effect, look in the mirror. Once you're doing it, you're not actually aware. I think you pass a point where you no longer need it. In the early stages of rehearsal, especially if it's something as technical as Kong, because a gorilla's got shorter legs and the longer forearms, we had to find a way to do that. For Kong, it was shrinking my legs digitally so that Kong's legs ended up where my knees are. And then we built these rungs so that my knuckles could make contact with these benches. There was a technical aspect to it, so I needed to watch myself. There's a period of calibration where you're watching your own movements and learning, in effect, how to puppeteer the digital character. You are this sort of puppet master and you're learning how to use a digital marionette, but it's driven by your own body movements. These are extreme characters, obviously: Gollum, Kong. There are things you have to achieve to get the character to read. But Tintin, playing Captain Haddockdo you know Tintin?

I do.

I only ask because when we started on the film, everyone in North America thought we were doing Rin Tin Tin, they thought I was playing a dog. But playing Haddock, there's a whole tapestry of poses and attitudes that he has in the book, so it's all about experimentating with his physicality and using it for the CG puppet.

Not to mention his nonsense swears like "Jellyfish!"

That was great fun!

Do you have a favorite?

Oh my gosh. There are so many. "Sea gherkin!" is one of my favorites. "Vegetarian!" as an expletive is pretty cool.

Did you cringe on the inside to blaspheme vegetarians?

Absolutely.

Tags: Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, King Kong, Weta, motion capture, special effects, The Adventures of Tintin, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit, performance capture, Joe Letteri
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