‘The Hobbit': Andy Serkis says Gollum is ‘printed into my DNA’

Jan. 23, 2012 | 12:49 p.m.
apes1 The Hobbit: Andy Serkis says Gollum is printed into my DNA

Andy Serkis uses motion-capture gear to play Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

With Academy Award nominations looming Tuesday morning, there’s been a lot of buzz about a possible supporting actor Oscar nod for Andy Serkis, the performance-capture pioneer who played the resistance fighter chimpanzee Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Serkis, who helped put motion-capture technology on the map a decade ago with his portrayal of Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” films, received a Critics’ Choice Movie Award nomination for his Caesar performance, and “Apes” co-star James Franco has been campaigning on his behalf for awards recognition. Hero Complex sat down with Serkis earlier this month in a video chat with readers to talk about “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and his other projects — including Peter Jackson’s upcoming two-part adaptation of “The Hobbit” and Steven Spielberg’s current release, “The Adventures of Tintin” — and what performance-capture technology means for the future of acting, animating and filmmaking. Here are a few highlights from the interview.

On receiving a Critics’ Choice Movie Award nomination and buzz for an Oscar nod: What’s fantastic is that there’s a real growing appreciation for performance-capture technology as a tool for acting. Over the years, people have asked me, “Do you think there should be a separate category for acting in the digital realm? Or hybrid sort of awards for digital characters?” and so on. And I’ve always really maintained that I don’t believe so. I think it should be considered acting, because it is. My part in it, what I do, as say the authorship of the role, the creation, the emotional content of the role, the physicality up until the point of delivering that for the director, it is acting. Getting that nomination for the Critics’ Choice is a significant leap, really, in understanding. Again, this is not taking anything away from the post-production process and what all of those incredibly talented people do, whether they be animators or visual effects artists. This is not taking anything away from them, because their work is accoladed and has been for some time. So for instance, [at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards], “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” won the visual effects award and that’s fantastic, and quite rightly so; the way that those apes are brought to life is extraordinary. What was great about getting a supporting actor nomination is that it clearly shows, it defines an understanding within the industry that it is acting.

On preparing for the role of chimpanzee Caesar: I actually spent a lot of time when I was working on [Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of] “King Kong” studying primate behavior. I had many, many months of working in zoos with gorillas, and then going to Rwanda and studying mountain gorillas in their habitat and so on, and watching a lot of footage. But when it came to apes, to “Rise of the Apes,” obviously he’s a chimpanzee and has a totally different physical vocabulary and behavior. But the most important thing for that was two things really. One was learning chimp behavior… once you’ve established that is the character. So there was another set of parameters which drove finding Caesar, really, and mainly that’s to do with who he is as a being. He’s brought up with a surrogate father who he’s totally loved by. So emotionally, you’re creating a character point of view. Regardless of the fact that he’s an ape, what’s he going through? What’s he feeling? What’s he thinking? The love that he’s brought up with as a youngster is then almost taken away from him when he reaches his age of self-awareness and he’s thrown into this, in effect, hard-core prison. How he copes with that, the free-fall, the feeling like he’s a Frankenstein’s monster when he realizes that the life he’s been living isn’t what he thought. Then having to connect with his own kind and lead them to freedom. You start to combine physicality with an emotional journey that you’re creating.

On returning to Gollum for “The Hobbit”: Gollum’s never really gone too far away from me because he’s indelibly kind of printed into my DNA now, I think. I’ll tell you what was weird is going back and playing a character that has been so sort of absorbed into public consciousness that you almost don’t feel like you own it anymore. And to sort of gather it back — I mean, I did feel, I think, probably in the first couple of days going back into it that I was sort of doing a weird impersonation of him rather than being him because there have been so many spoofs and people’s impersonations and so on, and some people’s impersonations are really great. And I’m kind  of thinking, “Oh gosh, that’s how to do it, yeah.” And you know, then you get back into it. … Meaningfully getting back into it was really exciting.

lotr The Hobbit: Andy Serkis says Gollum is printed into my DNA

Serkis wore a special suit that captured his performance and re-created it in the computer-generated character of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. (New Line Cinema)

On doing Gollum’s voice: I think my vocal chords are so thrashed that I don’t really feel anything anymore there. During “Lord of the Rings,” I used to have to drink tons of what we call Gollum juice, which was lemon and honey and ginger. And actually when I went back to do “The Hobbit” this time, to reprise the role, I did , probably kind of more romantically and sort of nostalgically, get people to whip up a few bowls of Gollum juice which I used to drink. But it doesn’t really hurt, to be honest, anymore.

On working with Peter Jackson: Peter’s just been the most phenomenal mentor, supporter, friend, collaborator. I cherish working with him so much, and this incredible journey that he’s sort of set me off on, really. Because I’m working on “The Hobbit” not only as Gollum, but I’m directing the second unit. I actually went down there for two weeks to reprise the role of Gollum, and I basically stayed for a year to direct the second unit. So that’s thrilling. I’m really, really enjoying that and getting a chance to work with him from another angle. I’m being his kind of eyes and years for the second unit, really. We’ve just been on location for two months shooting the most beautiful places in New Zealand. That’s been extraordinary. I love working with Pete, and everything that he’s created at WETA. The whole team, the whole outfit in New Zealand in Wellington, is a very, very special, wonderful place that I keep willingly returning to.

serkis trio tall The Hobbit: Andy Serkis says Gollum is printed into my DNA

Andy Serkis (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

On performance-capture technology: Actors often ask that question, “Are we going to be replaced by digital characters?” I think this is all part of the bigger debate about the notion of what performance capture really is all about. For me, I’ve never drawn a distinction between live-action acting and performance-capture acting. It is purely a technology. It’s a bunch of cameras that can record the actor’s performance in a different way. In terms of animation, animators are actors as well. They are fantastic actors. They have to draw from how they feel emotionally about the beat of a scene that they’re working on. They work collaboratively. They all have to understand the psyche of the role that they’re developing. And that will never change. It’s an art form. It’s like saying, “Well, now that photography has arrived, nobody can paint anymore.” Or, “Now that we’re shooting on digital, nobody can use film anymore.” No one’s saying anything is to the exclusivity of anything else. … Without taking away any of the visual effects work that animators and visual effects artists and programmers and technicians in the visual effects world, in my mind, it is a form of digital makeup. … But look, Pixar’s not going to go away. All of those great animation studios, they’re doing fantastic, beautiful work with scripts that are just brought to life in a different way. … [Performance capture is] such a liberating tool. I am quite evangelical about it to other actors because I think it’s such a wonderful — it’s a magic suit you put on that allows you to play anything regardless of your size, your sex, your color, whatever you are. As long as you have the acting chops and the desire to get inside a character, you can play anything. so I long for it to be accepted by the acting profession so that it can proliferate.

– Noelene Clark

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