The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is upon us! And to celebrate, we’ve got a fantastic interview with none other than Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, who has portrayed some of the most emotional, dramatic and powerful roles in the last decade – while hardly ever showing his face onscreen.
Serkis has been delving more and more into behind-the-scenes work over the years; he owns the UK-based motion capture studio The Imaginarium (read our profile here) and took on the task of second unit shooting for The Hobbit trilogy. In the following, he speaks in-depth about his pioneering position in screen acting history, and his journey through the years of playing Gollum – in many ways, the role of a lifetime.
Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Where did your love for art and performing come from? Were you always outgoing and imaginative as a child?
Andy Serkis (AS): From about the age of seven, two things were really important to me. I loved playing music. I played the clarinet and then the saxophone. So, music was really important to me. And then I discovered a love for drawing and painting. I was really pleased when I was seven years old that I got my hands on a set of oil paints and started exploring and creating stories with paintings. That’s really how I got into it and it drove my whole childhood all the way through college.
I went to Lancaster University (northern England) when I was 18 to study visual arts. But what I didn’t realize was that in your first year, it was obligatory to have a secondary subject and I really wasn’t prepared for that. I just thought I was going to go into graphics and painting, which is what I wanted to do. So, I had to make a very quick decision. And they just happened to have a really fantastic theater studies department with an experimental theater that could move its auditorium around.
In the beginning, I started to design posters for shows and sets and just thought I would use my artistic skills to engage in theater. But then I started acting in productions and literally, by the end of my first year, was playing a lead role in a play called “Gotcha” (1977) by Barrie Keeffe. It was a fantastic, central role. And it was an epiphany. At that point, I decided I wanted to act.
MM: Who were your early influences?
AS: During the ’80s, when I was in college, on the American side, it was Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, etc. All of those guys – I was blown away by the emotional impact and sincerity of their performances.
And then of course, in the UK, I was going to a lot of theater at the time and watching great on stage performances from people like Jonathan Price, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins – all of whom really influenced me as well.
MM: You’ve been in front of the camera and on stage as an actor, you’ve done voice-overs and performance capture, performed music for soundtracks, and you’ve been behind the camera as a director. If you had to choose only one of those going forward, which would it be?
AS: (Laughs) I want all of them! But in all sincerity, at this moment in my life, I’ve reached a point where I’m really excited about directing. The Imaginarium, which is the company I’ve set up with my partner, Jonathan Cavendish, is this amazing playground – a cross between a creative lab for furthering the art of performance capture and a production company. We service other people’s films and video games and next generation storytelling content. But we’re also building tools and driving our own projects. So, directing live action and performance capture related material is absolutely where I’m at at this present moment in time. That’s not to say I won’t be acting because I will. But primarily right now, my absolute focus is on directing.
MM: Do you see performance capture becoming a more dominant form of acting in the future?
AS: I’ve never ever drawn a distinction between acting in live action or on stage and acting in a performance capture role. For me, the only difference is the different way of recording that performance. I think it will play an enormous part in the future because it stands right there in the center of convergent space. Video games are a hugely important part of the future in terms of storytelling and, obviously, the convergence between filmmaking and video games. But we’re also investigating live theater and performance capture so you can actually project real time avatars onto screens during live theatrical performances, or incorporate it with dance and movement. We’re having a lot of interesting interactions with all sorts of artists, choreographers and theater folks about productions, rock festivals, etc. It’s very liberating in many different art forms. And having a creative lab right here is thrilling because we can build new tools to creatively solve the problems for all different kinds of media.
MM: Visually, Gollum looks a little more polished and slightly less ugly in The Hobbit trilogy. What changes did you have to make to give him a younger persona? Did his voice, his mannerisms have to change?
AS: The main difference, psychologically, is that for the most part of that early scene where we first meet him, he doesn’t know he’s lost the ring. So, he isn’t torn in half by that loss until he receives that cathartic moment where he realizes that he’s lost that ring. So, there’s a real sense of the Smeagal part of his personality wanting to engage with Bilbo Baggins – perhaps the first being that he’s come across who can talk to him and who isn’t going to attack him or threaten him. He’s been in the Misty Mountains for 500 years. And the playful side of him really wants to engage with Bilbo Baggins.
Of course, the Gollum side of his personality is primarily thinking about his next meal. His dinner. So, there’s a sort of youthfulness about him. But he’s not being tortured by Sauron, he’s not bearing the loss, and he’s not being torn apart by having lost the ring.
MM: With The Hobbit, you had 3D, 48 frames a second, and IMAX – and that was just in the visual presentation. How did technology change the way Gollum was brought to life in the 9-10 years since The Lord of the Rings?
AS: Well, the huge difference lay in performance capture, an ever changing technology. When we created Gollum for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, my performance was shot on 35 mm, it was also motion captured and just physical capture. Facial expressions were match-framed from my performance on 35 mm by the animators. So, Gollum’s face was designed to move in exactly the same way. The muscle structure was designed around my facial muscle structure. And the animators literally copied frame by frame, my facial expressions.
Then, in the interim period, things changed. King Kong was the first time WETA used facial performance capture to drive the digital puppet’s face. So, Kong’s face was directly performance captured. And that’s a significant change from motion capture to performance capture. Moving forward through films like Tin Tin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s full performance capture; not just in a separate volume, but on a live action stage. So you can literally capture everything at the same time as the actors are being filmed. That was the big breakthrough on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Then coming full circle, back to Gollum, where I play the scene opposite Martin Freeman, I was there on a set being filmed by the film cameras and also being filmed by the performance capture cameras all in one hit. It was a very big change.
MM: Do you remember seeing Gollum on the screen for the first time? Was it cool or creepy, the way he looked like you?
AS: I remember very clearly the very first shot rendered from The Two Towers (2002), which is at the Forbidden Pool, where Gollum turns around expecting Frodo to follow him and he looks around to find that he’s not there. It was an extraordinary moment. Finally, seeing all of that come together. The methodology had been forming as we went along: i.e., the combination of on-set performance, repeating the performance on the motion capture stage, and then talking to each of the animators about the frames of Gollum they were working on. It was an incredible thing to see it finally finished and how much it really did represent my acting choices, my facial expressions, etc. For all purposes, it was me with a digital mask on.
But a weird thing happened when I saw the new design for Gollum (it was redesigned between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). It looked just like my dad, who has since passed away, but was in his late 80s at the time. He looked just like him! So, I have a bit of a clue of what I’m going to look like in about 35 years time (laughs).
MM: For the The Hobbit trilogy, you took on 2nd unit shooting in addition to playing Gollum. Did Peter Jackson have to twist your arm or was it something that you wanted to tackle in order to prepare yourself for future projects behind the camera?
AS: Peter knew that I wanted to direct for quite some years, even as far back as The Lord of the Rings. I had been making short films all along and in the interim period after King Kong, I was directing performance capture video game projects. And he knew I had set up The Imaginarium. So, close to principal photography and about the time I was to head back down to New Zealand to reprise the role of Gollum, I suddenly got an email asking me if I wanted to direct the second unit. It was an extraordinary offer. The Imaginarium was only recently set up, but I knew that it was going to be a big learning curve for me and was going to set me up in terms of having that amount of experience behind a camera on a project of that scale.
Second unit on a project like The Hobbit trilogy is immense – you’re shooting an enormous amount of varied material from aerial sequences to battle sequences, working with principal cast, shooting drama scenes, etc. So, I was fully exposed to the highest level of filmmaking on a grand scale. And here I really thought my first film was going to be on a couple of digital cameras with a bunch of actors around London. Not on one of the biggest films around, using all of the latest technology and with such a large crew.
MM: What were some of the things you learned? What were some of the challenges you faced?
AS: We shot for 200 days for 2nd unit out of 270. So, just having that amount of experience as a director on a day to day level on such a behemoth project was terrific. Logistically, technically, shooting at 48 frames per second, working in 3D – those were all huge challenges. The biggest lessons were more logistical – decision making on a day to day level. It was a very complex schedule, always shifting. So, those were huge challenges. Stamina-wise, there were many, many challenges. But I was supported by an incredibly strong crew, many of whom I’ve known for years from having worked in New Zealand. It was a very collaborative effort. And Peter briefed me in advance. He was very clear: “I want you to make bold decisions. I want you to make your own choices.” From that, I knew that I was there to be his eyes and ears.
MM: What has been your most memorable moment or scene from the entire The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit series? The one moment that rules them all?
AS: (Laughs) From an acting point of view, my most memorable scene was in The Two Towers where Gollum and Smeagal duke it out for the first time. It’s the first time we explore his schizophrenic nature, where the naïve, younger Smeagal is abused and emotionally tortured by the Gollum side of his personality. That was a very big, important breakthrough and a signature moment for Gollum.
From a directorial point of view on The Hobbit, just working with such an extraordinary cast from Ian McKellan to Stephen Fry to Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman. And also shooting New Zealand. I cannot tell you the immense amount of pleasure I had from shooting all of the aerial shots, the chopper lifting, placing all of the dwarves in high places, and shooting beautiful New Zealand. That was amazing too.
MM: You did a phenomenal job in Rise of the Planet of the Apes as Caesar and will return in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes next year. What were some of the differences between King Kong and Caesar?
AS: It’s interesting and fair to say that they are entirely different characters. People always come to me and ask me, “Why are you playing another ape?” And I always say, “Why would you play another human being?” Because they are so completely different. King Kong is a 25 foot gorilla, the last of his species, a totally lonely, psychotic hobo, who survives from day to day, and is treated by the Skull Islanders on the other side of the wall as some kind of monster. He doesn’t connect with any other being; he just survives fighting from day to day, and is like some punch drunk boxer until he meets Ann Darrow, with whom he forms an incredible connection.
Caesar, on the other hand, is an extraordinarily complex role, playing a chimpanzee or a being from infancy to adulthood. He has a comfortable upbringing, being treated with love and respect through his teenage years only to be rejected from his father and discovers that he’s not who he thought. And then is thrown in with what he’s told is his own kind and they won’t accept him. So, he has to rise above that and galvanize his own species and communicate with them.
It was an extraordinary arc. And then of course, he’s an ape as well. With both of those characters, you think of the character first of all. You obviously learn the physical language and the behavioral nature of those beings and what defines them in terms of their species. But what really lies at the core of any of these characters I play is the heart and soul, the psychology and the emotional center. For Caesar, it was like playing a young, gifted child, with this enhanced intelligence, who suddenly goes into freefall, and has to choose between mankind, who were his friends, and his own kind, who have become the apes that he has to represent. So, they were hugely different journeys.
MM: With the intensity and the emotional connection of all of these unique characters that you play (the method acting), does any of it trickle into your home life? With your wife, with your kids, your friends, and family?
AS: (Laughs) It is a very intense form of acting. And it demands a lot of time, building those characters. But when it comes to the shoot, I think I’ve gotten better. And I think my family has demanded it more of me, especially as my kids have gotten older, that I’m able to turn it off at the end of the day. I’ve tried increasingly to include them as much as possible in the process. And they’ve come and visited sets since they were knee high and have grown up with it. They love being on film sets and I enjoy their presence with me. So, I’ve gotten better at switching off when I’m not in character.
MM: I read that there were a few replica rings and that you and Elijah got to keep them. For the sake of Middle Earth, is your precious in a safe place?
AS: The secret is safe! It’s in a very safe place. And we were both so lucky and honored to have been given these gifts by Peter and Fran and Philippa. It was amazingly generous. And it speaks to their sense of understanding that we were the ring bearers in those movies and therefore, I suppose, earned them.
MM: What can you tell me about your version of Animal Farm, the politics, and the relevance in today’s world?
AS: Well, I’ve always wanted to make a version of Animal Farm. It’s going to be completely performance capture driven. Every single character is driven by an actor. It will be authored by those actors on a stage with a director. And we have a clear idea of the politics. First and foremost, we are not making a film about Communism and Stalinism because if Orwell was writing the story today, he would be talking about other relevant topics like globalization and corporate greed. We’re investigating that world – the world of the overarching ego that corrupts the innocence of the potential utopia that the animals create. So, if you like the archetypes, all the characters are exactly the same and will represent the same as the book. It’s just that we’re not pinning them down to specific political targets, i.e. Napoleonism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, etc. We’re making a family film and it will be viewed from a position of innocence, which is what makes it so powerful. The message can resonate on so many different levels – it will really hit you emotionally. MM
The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug opens in theaters today, Friday, December 13, 2013.
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