Sometimes a performance changes an actor’s life– and sometimes it revolutionizes an entire industry.
Both occurred when English actor Andy Serkis played the part of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the first photo-realistic movie character created using the technique of performance capture.
Now Serkis is reprising his role as Middle-earth’s sallow-skinned “preciousssssss”-seeking cave dweller in Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which opens Dec. 14.
For Serkis, who has since become a digital acting specialist in movies like “King Kong,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” it was surprisingly hard to return to a character whom he had helped make iconic.
“Every single day of my life I’m reminded of Gollum in some shape or form, with someone walking up to me asking me to do his voice,” Serkis said. “For the first couple of days [on set] I felt like I was doing a huge impersonation of a character I had done 12 years ago. It was a peculiar sensation. It took time to emotionally connect with him.”
It is deep into the 174-minute movie that Gollum makes his first appearance in “The Hobbit,” when Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) unwittingly makes his way into the creature’s cave in what J.R.R. Tolkien fans will recognize as the riddle scene.
The battle of wits between Bilbo and Gollum was the first scene Jackson shot on “The Hobbit,” in order to give Freeman a chance to settle into the production with one of the movie’s logistically simpler sequences.
“Peter wanted to start Martin off with a one-on-one scene rather than him being surrounded by 13 dwarfs and a wizard,” said Serkis, who also directed second unit on the film. “We shot the scene in its entirety, like doing a piece of theater really.”
Thanks to advances made in capturing facial performances at Jackson’s visual effects house, WETA Digital, this Gollum, who is 60 years younger than he was in the last “Rings” film, is more lifelike and expressive than his digital predecessor. And though he still worked while wearing a marker-covered body suit, Serkis was able to deliver his performance on a typical live action set, rather than being confined to a soundstage.
“Now the director and the actor can relate to each other as they would on a regular live action shoot,” Serkis said. “Every single moment is connected. It feels much more like conventional shooting.”
Since he first played Gollum, Serkis has founded his own production company in London, The Imaginarium, devoted to the technique of performance capture, and he has acquired the rights to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to act in and direct.
But he hasn’t forgotten the creature who launched him.
“Gollum has been such a huge part of my life,” Serkis said. “He represented a turning point in terms of creating a particular method of playing a role, and took me from the world of conventional live-action acting to another form of acting, which has dominated the last 12 years of my life. I think of him affectionately.”
— Rebecca Keegan
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