Andy Serkis Is Much More Than Some Damn Dirty Ape
Matt Grubb


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Andy Serkis Is Much More Than Some Damn Dirty Ape

We talk to the 'War of the Planet of the Apes' actor about pissing off apes and why awards don't matter.

The most recent iteration of the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise has been one of the strongest blockbuster film trilogies in recent memory, and it all comes to a head with Matt Reeves's War of the Planet of the Apes (in theaters today). The titular "war" in question refers to the ongoing post-apocalyptic struggle between the apes and the humans to regain and retain some semblance of control over the state of the world—a bleak concept, and big-budget Hollywood films have certainly been in no short supply of bleakness as of late.


But doom and gloom isn't necessarily the main draw of War of the Planet of the Apes. Reeves's films in particular—War and 2014's Rise of the Planet of the Apes—have paired some spectacular photography with absolutely captivating scenes of CGI apes communicating with one another, largely non-verbally. The visual effects that go into creating such a mesmerizing spectacle are impressive in their own right, but it's impossible to forget that there's a flesh-and-blood human being behind our ape protagonist Caesar: veteran actor Andy Serkis, who previously (and iconically) portrayed Sméagol/Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise.

In addition to being an expressive and skilled actor when it comes to motion-capture technology, Serkis is an accomplished stage actor and co-runs his own performance capture studio, Imaginarium, along with producer Jonathan Cavendish. He's also extending his reach into directing: He was second unit director on Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, he helmed the Jungle Book adaptation set to hit theaters next year, and this fall will see the release of his debut feature, Breathe, a biopic focused on Cavendish's own father, Robin, who was one of the longest-living polio survivors in Britain.

Read on for our conversation on people's misconceptions on motion capture, bringing Caesar to life, and the time a real ape got angry at him.

Your performance as Caesar has required a lot of emotion throughout the series. How did you approach the role for this film?
Most people assume that I had to go look at apes in zoos—and, of course, that was part of it. But we're also looking at a metaphor about the human condition. We're not just playing apes—we're playing apes-plus, and by that I mean it's ultimately down to character. You have to copy generic ape movements and studying the behavior of a particular species—it's like learning choreography—but you also ask, "Who is this ape? Who is Caesar?" That's a different sort of journey. I wanted to look into what's at the core of Caesar. What drives him? What runs his emotional connection to human beings? I've always approached him as a human in an ape's skin.


Is there something about Caesar that you personally relate to?
The sense of being an outsider. Love defines his journey because he's empathetic toward humanity, and he's able to be empathetic toward apes. He has a sense of being in neither world, which is the core of the character. I based him on a real chimpanzee called Oliver, who was quite well-known in the 1970s for being a "humanzee." He was very human in the way he behaved, and his caretakers believed there was something extra and special about him because he responded to their behavior in very human ways.

My interest in apes started a long time ago, when I was working on King Kong. I physically went out and studied apes, as well as gorillas in captivity. I spent a lot of time working with one particular female gorilla in the London Zoo, and there was also a male gorilla who'd been brought in as a part of a breeding program. The three female gorillas didn't take to him at all, and he really did not like me.

Matt Grubb

When you were at university, acting wasn't your first passion.
I wanted to paint. When I was 16, I thought I could become a commercial artist, so I studied visual arts not knowing that the school I'd chosen required another subsidiary course in your first year. I didn't have anything lined up, and there was a great theater studies department, so I thought, Maybe I'll get involved with that. Then I started acting in some of the student productions, and by the end of the first year realized this was something I wanted to do.


Was there ever a moment where you doubted your pursuit of acting as a profession?
I've always had a wide interest in lots of different things—from painting to photography to tenor saxophone. There have been times where was like, You know what? I'm just going to study jazz and become a tenor saxophonist. But in the early years, the acting was my guiding force. I'm very method in my approach to roles. As I've gotten older, I've been able to understand the function of my characters—to be objective and emotionally truthful, not just by believing I was the character.

Stage acting can typically involve more physicality than film and TV work. What have you taken away from working on the stage?
The way I tend to build a character is around physicality. Where does a character carry his pain? How do you carry yourself? Interestingly, people tend to think that performance capture is about doing a lot physically—and in certain circumstances, that's true, but performance capture also teaches you how to be very still. It's about learning how to create an internal energy that expresses the characters' emotions while still having incredible stillness. You've got to be able to create an internal energy that's going to come through, and that comes from theater.

Is there anything you need to do to physically prepare your body going away for these roles?
You have to be fit to play a role like Caesar. I played him as an infant chimpanzee and as this evolved, almost-human ape at war—all of which require a degree of being physically adept. It's more about creating a muscle intelligence, really. Also, in this film, Caesar goes through a lot—he's pretty much getting battered around and tortured, and we were shooting in minus-degree conditions on foreboding sets. You have to make sure that your body's going to be able to take it.


Matt Grubb

What led you to pursue directing more?
I've been heading toward directing over the last 15 years. Working on The Hobbit was a huge education process—a trial by fire in many respects, and certainly not how I thought I'd be starting my directorial career, but the most amazing experience. When Jonathan Cavendish and I set up Imaginarium, Breathe was one of the live-action films on slate. Then, Jungle Book came up, so that was the one that came through first, and then Breathe came along. The story's really about Jonathan's father, a pioneer who lived life to the fullest—a really life-affirming story. He was living life to the fullest, only two minutes away from death.

You were invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2012—nearly a decade after the Lord of the Rings films, and you have yet to be nominated for an Academy Award to date. Do awards even matter to you at this point?
What matters to me, above anything, is that people fully understand what performance capture is. It's just acting, and a technology that enables an actor to play anything. Some actors believe it's a threat to their profession—I don't know why—but for me, philosophically, it's the most liberating tool a 21st-century actor can have. You can go from being a three-and-a-half-foot hobbit, to a 25-foot gorilla, to an evolving ape. It doesn't matter what size you are, what shape you are, what color your skin is, what sex you are. You can embody anything, and that for me is very exciting.

I just want there to be clarification and understanding about what it is that performance capture is. It's acting—there's no difference in the process. We go on set, we work with the director and other actors, we create scenes, those scenes are put into a cut of a movie, and that cut is rendered. The performance is exactly the same as if I was putting on makeup before. I'm adamant about that. People literally say to me, "Those scenes were incredible, were you actually there?" And I'm like, "We're in 2017 and you're asking this question?" That's what angers me—and no matter how we try to explain it, there's either a will to not believe it, or a sort of disconnect. If I was wearing makeup and playing the same part, people would get it. But because it's the other way around, there's this sense that somehow I'm not authoring the role.

You've worked in video games as well. Where do you think the future of storytelling is heading?
I'm so excited about where the potential for next-generation storytelling is. Virtual reality and mixed reality worlds are about to take off in a big way. We can put performance capture in big movies and watch them in 2D. Have you heard of Secret Cinema? It's a UK phenomenon. They'll put on Moulin Rouge somewhere at a secret venue and sell tickets, but they'll create a theatrical spectacle around it with live performers and actors. There are companies like Punch Drunk, a British theater company that takes over a house and does a play that can be broken up and watched in different ways. It's a truly immersive theater experience. We're working with new platforms, and within the next ten to 20 years we'll be seeing much more immersive forms of storytelling which are shared experiences—versus virtual reality, which is of course an individual experience. The shared experience of storytelling is going to be a combination of theater, film, and mixed reality.

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