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Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Andy Serkis interview

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANDY Serkis talks about some of the challenges involved with playing Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, including working once more with performance capture and the continued evolution of that process.

He also discusses the potential for sequels and why he thinks the film has resonated with audiences.

Q. You’re at the forefront of performance capture cinema and acting, even being described as the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ of the medium by director Rupert Wyatt. So, tell us about how you got into it…
Andy Serkis: Really, it came about via Lord of the Rings. To go back to its origins, Peter Jackson, while preparing to shoot Lord of the Rings, wanted someone to play Gollum, an actor to play Gollum… he didn’t want the actors playing Sam and Frodo to act against a tennis ball and a stick and have to imagine what the character of Gollum would be thinking, feeling and doing, because he drives so many of those scenes. And that was a really significant kind of shift and the beginning of a shift from visual effects and an animated character into a fully engaging, three dimensional, layered, nuanced character. It was very unclear as to how that would work. There wasn’t a sort of modus operandi at the time and it sort of found its way.

But I’ll never forget putting on the performance capture suit for the first time and trying to explore the character using that and looking into a monitor and, as I started raising my right hand or started to move as Gollum, seeing Gollum appear on-screen and move in synchronicity and real-time to my movements. And that was a real epiphany and a real moment of [clicks fingers]: “I absolutely love this and I absolutely get it.” So, that was the beginning of it and it evolved to the point now where we’re shooting and the perception’s changed and performance capture is realised for that it is, hopefully, and understood for being acting – and just acting – and no more than that.

I’ve never considered myself to be any kind of master specialist or any kind of performance capture lord. Any actor could do what I do and that’s how it should be. It’s just not been understood as a standard industry tool… it’s taken time for it to filter through. Some actors still do not understand how it works. But actually, all it is is another way of capturing an actor’s performance. But it allows you without being encumbered by… if you’re playing a physically extreme character like King Kong or Gollum or Caesar or Captain Haddock, it enables you to play those roles without layers of prosthetic make-up, which now seem old fashioned and cumbersome and not quite real.

Q. Has the perception changed enough in the industry perhaps that you could be recognised for this performance by, say, the Academy? There is some Oscar buzz…
Andy Serkis: I think there’s still a certain amount of education that needs to happen. I mean, people find it so much easier to understand an actor like John Hurt in Elephant Man being completely unrecognisable in a role where he’s had a team of visual effects make-up artists paint his make-up on and apply it every day for six or seven hours. So, you get the underlying performance and that was nominated for an Oscar for that. All that we’re doing that is different to that is that the make-up is put on after the fact, pretty much. And the artistry that goes into creating the look of the character is a separate thing to the actual performance and that is literally digital make-up that is put on after the fact. And until awarding bodies, actors and the acting fraternity and the industry really fully understand that it’s no more than acting, as long as there’s talk of special categories and whether there should be a digital acting category then, for me, it’s not being understood.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Q. Will the true freedom come when you’re offered the role of Ann Darrow, not King Kong?
Andy Serkis: Well, yeah… and I don’t think that’s far off. I think that is the beauty of performance capture. You’re not limited by your own size, shape, colour, age… an older actress could play Oliver Twist if they had the acting chops to do it and you wanted to go down that route. I mean, that’s a pretty extreme example but what I’m saying is that you can actually play anything. I don’t know if you remember the film Monster House, but Kathleen Turner played the house, so using her facial expressions, she was driving the image of the front of that house. So, that to me is an example of taking it to its furthest limits.

It is the beginning of a new arena of acting that’s very, very interesting… certainly in terms of video games and the way they’re now being populated by regular actors and putting on performance capture suits and playing roles in video games – that sense of convergence is already happening. But you’ve got to think about it in terms of 20 or 30 years down the line – how will we be receiving stories? There’s going to be 3D and gaming, so what will the shared experience be in 30 years time? I think performance capture will play a large role in that.

Q. Did Caesar bring any particular challenges?
Andy Serkis: Well, Caesar as a character was a hugely challenging role. That’s why I took the role because there were a million challenges in the playing of that role as an actor. In terms of performance capture, not really… in many ways, the latest development has allowed us to shoot on live action sets and our performances to be filmed at the same time as live action performances, so we could totally interact. So, the moment that you see in the movie of James Franco’s performance is exactly the same moment that you see my performance as Caesar. So, there’s a greater degree of integration and emotional connectivity between the characters.

But in terms of playing the role, there were huge challenges. I mean, I obviously play Caesar from an infant through to this revolutionary character via all of these emotional changes and moments of self awareness and enhanced intelligence. So, how we approached that between Rupert, myself, James and all the other actors, we very clearly charted his emotional intelligence, his physicality…. moving from this young, innocent chimpanzee, seeing him grow in stature and become more physically upright and more human-like in his behaviour but without over-anthropomorphising him. So, there were many, many challenges in terms of the role.

Q. Did it feel more like playing a human being this time, as opposed to when you did King Kong?
Andy Serkis: When we set out to do Kong… in the 1933 version of King Kong he was much more a semi-mythical monster figure really and we set out in 2004, 70 years later, with all the knowledge that we had about gorilla behaviour, we wanted to bring that to Kong. And so he was 100% gorilla. And although you could still read his emotions, it was much more his disconnect – that was really the attraction of exploring the relationship between a human being and a 100% gorilla.

With this, yes, we’ve got Caesar the chimp that becomes Caesar the hybrid freak of nature… John Merrick, outside of the Frankenstein’s monster, with him having received, unbeknown to himself, this high intelligence drug. So, it became about: “Well, how do you play his emotional intelligence and his level of empathy while still being a chimp?” And then constantly trying to buck expectations all the time… at the moment you think he’s pure animal now, there will be a sort of human characteristic or a moment of doing something extremely human or a look that was very human. We had liberty to play with that.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Q. You bonded very closely with a gorilla during the making of King Kong. Was there opportunity to form a similar relationship with a chimp as part of your research for this?
Andy Serkis: That’s right. But there just wasn’t the time to do that. I came onto the job very shortly before production. During Kong, I had met a young orphan chimpanzee and spent time with him at an institute in Rwanda. So, I had lots of footage from that. But also I started to watch lots of other chimpanzees. But Caesar is actually based on this chimpanzee I came across called Oliver, who was coined the ‘Humanzee’ in the 1970s. You can see footage of him. But basically he walked completely bipedaly; he never went on all fours, which is totally unusual. Chimps can’t carry themselves for that length of time… just walk around on two feet. But he displayed a lot of human behaviour. He was brought up by human beings like Nim in Project Nim.

But he was considered to be man and ape… they thought he was a hybrid. They thought he really was half-man, half-ape. So, a lot of experiments were carried out with him and then he became this sort of media freak and was travelled all over the world. But when all was said and done and the experiments were finished, he was then discarded, thrown into a cage and abandoned for about 30 years until he was re-discovered, completely psychologically broken down. So, he became the touchstone character for me on this and with good reason.

Q. Are you signed on for any sequels to Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
Andy Serkis: There has been speculation, obviously, and as we got closer to the weekend we were thinking about it. I know there is talk of it and Rupert and I have talked about. I’d love to do a sequel. I think this film leaves it in a really fantastic place and it’s ripe for exploration – the beginning of the apes organising society I think would be a really incredible movie.

Q. Has the success of the film in the States taken you by surprise?
Andy Serkis: Yeah. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. I think we knew that between us we’d made a film that was honest, that was about characters that had a great story that was emotionally powerful. And there aren’t a lot of films around that – without blowing our own trumpets, you just feel like there was a real appetite for that. So, I’m not overly surprised but you can’t predict what’s going to happen. I mean, it did well critically but that doesn’t necessarily translate into box office. But I think families are going to see it because it’s an intelligent and emotionally engaging movie.

Read our review

Read our interview with Rupert Wyatt