The Prestige - Andy Serkis interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ANDY Serkis, the actor who has played Gollum and King Kong, talks about working with Christopher Nolan on The Prestige, preserving the magic of movies and forthcoming projects…
Q. What was your blueprint for playing David Bowie’s sidekick in The Prestige?
A. I had this idea that perhaps my character was once a corporation man who got excited by this maverick, Tesla [Bowie], so jumped ship and went with the maverick. Tesla was someone who was not concerned with money at all. But my character is literally his gatekeeper, a bit of an Egor to Tesla’s Frankenstein. But he’s also quite practical and a bit of a conman, so it was mixing those aspects. Obviously, he’s a mirror image of Michael Caine’s character.
Q. Were you a big fan of David Bowie before you met him?
A. How could you not be? I kind of grew up gazing at those fantastic album covers. He’s such an incredible icon. Anybody my age can’t fail to have been affected by him in some way.
Q. Was it nerve-wracking appearing alongside him?
A. Not really because he’s very unassuming, very down to earth – he doesn’t laud his status as rock legend at all. He’s actually very at ease with himself and funny. We had a lot of laughs.
Q. Do you agree with Michael Caine’s comments about keeping the secrets of how a movie is made under wraps? I imagine from your point of view, it’s been quite beneficial to allow audiences to know about the work you contributed to roles such as Gollum and King Kong?
A. It’s a double edged thing. I am torn about it because obviously people have been educated in the process of motion capture and how an actor’s performance is used to create certain characters. But in my heart of hearts, the nature of acting has changed over the years and when you’re followed around by B-roll camera from dawn to dusk – and sometimes you’re preparing to do a scene and are aware that you’re being exposed – it’s almost like you’re being unclothed even before you get on set by other cameras. There’s no sort of privacy about creating a character, so that’s when I think it can be a little bit detrimental. Especially if you’re someone who wants to inhabit the world of a character without having a third eye on you.
But I do think when we grew up we watched Ray Harryhausen or David Lean films and we didn’t expect, or weren’t interested in the how. It’s all about striking the balance. I mean, my children had a birthday party the other week and we had a clown around but they were distinctly unimpressed by it all. They’re so used to having everything explained.
Q. Did it feel refreshing to be seen in this movie, as your role wasn’t reliant on motion capture or special effects?
A. Yeah [laughs]. But it’s just another character really and I never draw any distinction between playing a character whether you’re dressing up in a costume, putting on make-up and shooting on 35mm, or putting on a lyrca suit with lots of sensors on and standing in front of 100 motion capture cameras. You’re still embodying that character and playing it for real. If you’re asking if it’s nice to see my face up on screen, then only if it’s another guise. It’s a very interesting character to play and what drew me to it was the script and the possibility of working with Christopher Nolan.
Q. Do you think audiences have been spoiled by the developments in special effects and don’t pay as much attention to the story?
A. I think there is a danger of that. It can be that too much eye candy can make an audience lazy and they cease to be affected emotionally by what’s going on. The test of a great filmmaker is if you can incorporate both if it’s appropriate. That’s why Peter Jackson is such a great master of that because he never allows a special effect or a visual effect to crowd the drama. They always have their place and it’s knowing at what point of the story to use what tool.
Q. What was it like providing a voice for upcoming animation movie Flushed Away? How did a booth compare to a green screen?
A. It was a very peculiar experience. A lot of people assume that I’ve done lots of voices for characters but that was my first one. It’s a very strange thing when you do, say, three hours work and then you come back six months later and do another three hours. And so on… I was working on King Kong at the time and there was one time when David Bowers, the director, came down to New Zealand and I was playing this 25ft gorilla on the motion capture stage and then in the evening I was stepping into the booth playing a 6-inch mouse. Then you have to dive into the character and let it go again. It’s a very different way of working.
Q. What else have you been up to lately?
A. This year, I’ve been doing a couple of low budget British movies. One is Rendition, which is about terror suspects being flown out of countries in Europe to Middle Eastern countries for ‘enhanced information gathering’, otherwise known as torture which is sanctioned secretly. That’s a totally improvised film and the majority of the scenes take place in cells. It’s a very dark film, it’s all about performance, it was shot on high definition and has nothing to do with special effects.
I’ve also just done a film called Sugar House Lane, another low budget British film, directed by Gary Love, the majority of which is set on a council estate. I’m playing this ex-Ulster Defence Army coke dealer. It’s all very real and naturalistic.
Q. Are you also directing and starring in your own film as well?
A. I won’t be acting in it but I’m certainly setting myself up to direct. It’s two projects running along simultaneously that I’m trying to direct. One is Freezing Time and one is based on a book called Addict. So, when I’m not working as an actor I have to quickly refocus back onto these projects that have been in development for the last year or so.
Q. Will you be a part of the Lord of the Rings prequel?
A. I’d like to think that if it happens he would ask me. I mean Gollum is part of The Hobbit so I guess they might give me a ring, so to speak!
Q. Do you keep in touch with Peter Jackson?
A. Oh yeah, I’ve seen a lot of him this year. I was back in New Zealand directing performance capture for a video game for PlayStation 3. There’s this whole kind of fusion between gaming and cinema happening where a lot of artists are cross-fertilizing. I’ve been working on this game called Heavenly Sword, which I was invited early on to get involved with in terms of story design and character development. I finally got to cast and direct it, so I took everybody back to New Zealand to work with the same team that I worked with on Kong and Rings.
Q. When you did King Kong there was a lot of talk about an Oscar nomination. Some felt you deserved one, others did not because it wasn’t a real performance. Did that make you feel sad in any way?
A. It didn’t make me feel sad. As long as people understand what it is that I’ve been doing then the awards are not really the issue. I suppose people didn’t understand because there was no precedence before. Visual effects have got their awards and costume and make-up but what I do is purely acting. Where I interface with all of those is with the visual effects department and not with wardrobe and make-up. So, I suppose what it comes down to in the end is how much of a performance is enhanced or the blueprint for the character? Ultimately, all I do is play a character and approach it no differently to the character in this.
Q. When you were growing up, was there a moment that you thought you wanted to be an actor?
A. There was a defining moment that alerted me to the thrill of acting. I was watching a TV Play For Today called Gotcha, which featured a performance by Phil Davis as a kid who on the last day of term at school holds hostage his chemistry teacher in a storeroom. He has this packet of 20 cigarettes and he’s holding them over the petrol tank of a motorbike and basically launches a tirade at this teacher. I saw this when I was about 14 and thought it was so powerful. Then I got a chance to play that role when I was at college. I’d gone to study visual arts and, as a byline, I was doing set designing and there was a very experimental theatre at my college. So, when I played that role that was it. I knew this is what I wanted to do at the age of 19.
Q. At what point did you decide that you wanted to go behind the camera as well?
A. Well, I think because I’ve always painted and early on, when I was at college, I’ve designed sets and stuff I’ve always had a hankering to tell stories from behind the camera too. I started directing some short films and a play, so I’m now kind of ready to progress. I feel equipped. I mean, there’s an element of self-direction in the performance capture side of things and self choreography. I became part of other processes – not just acting – on Lord of the Rings.
Q. And you’ve certainly had two of the very best teachers in terms of the directors you’ve worked with…
A. Yeah. Working with Peter is like a textbook of film directing – he knows everything there is to know and is pushing the envelope on every single film. So I feel hugely lucky to have witnessed and been part of all of that.