Andy Serkis Talks ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ Animal Rights, and Steven Spielberg and Explains Why “Performance Capture” is Really, Really Acting

Thelma Adams
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English actor Andy Serkis stands in the middle of a battle -- and it's not between apes and humans. It's in defense of actors doing performance capture, the technology that enabled him to crawl inside the skin of the simian Caesar in last summer's hit prequel "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Serkis, 47, became famous playing Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a role he reprises in the highly anticipated "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." He also plays the fully animated Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin." Meanwhile, he's become the poster boy for performance capture. There's a movement afoot to get him an Oscar nomination for Caesar, but before that can happen, he knows that people have to understand why. It's the technology, stupid.

James Franco has leapt to the barricades to defend his talented "Apes" co-star: "There is ... an acting revolution that has taken place. Andy Serkis is the undisputed master of the newest kind of acting called 'performance capture,' and it is time that Serkis gets credit for the innovative artist that he is."

We got a chance to discuss Caesar, Gollum, and Steven Spielberg with Serkis himself:

Thelma Adams: Let's face it, in "Apes," which grossed $481 million worldwide, it may star James Franco, but you play the lead character, Caesar the ape.

Andy Serkis:
I was first confronted with the script without thinking at all of Caesar as an ape. His story was very Dickensian. In the first act, he was a young character brought up in an environment to a point in his development where he doesn't realize that his surrogate father isn't his father after all. He goes into freefall in this moment of self-awareness, and then he's thrown into a hardcore prison, brutalized and rejected.

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TA: That's when he's incarcerated with a variety of apes.

AS: Yes. He has to decide what and who he is. And there are these other beings that he's never seen that are totally rejecting him. Decision: to reject humanity entirely or to embrace the best of it. And, when he sees this disparate group of screwed-up, wounded apes, he finds it within himself to bring them together.

TA: So, is this where he begins to decide whether he's human or an ape?

AS: The question is: He was brought up with humanity. Engendered in him is an understanding of humanity, although his difference in DNA separates them. Caesar was actually based on an ape called Oliver. He was known as a "humanzee." He displayed a lot of human characteristics, walked bipedally, and related to his carers. He would walk into a room and sit down and pick up a newspaper. Eventually, he was taken on a world tour, and he ended up becoming this kind of media freak. Then, Oliver was thrown into a sanctuary for about 20 years. By the end, he was a pretty broken creature.

TA: Did what you learned about chimps and humans for the movie alter your view of how we treat that species?

AS: It tells me that we no longer should feel that we have the right to experiment on apes like we do. In America, 500 chimps are still being used for vivisection and experimentation. This film, and this character, did bring up a big argument about whether we should or shouldn't do that. We are so close. It's wrong. It's about the rights of other species.

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TA: In addition to a new perspective on animal rights, it seems like you've also become a defender of performance capture as an underrecognized form of acting.

AS: I've become the inadvertent spokesperson for performance capture. There seems to be some kind of debate about authorship of a performance. It's a technology. It's not a genre. It's another method of recording an actor's performance by shooting with a lot of cameras.

TA: How does it differ from animation?

AS: Unlike an animated movie, the performance is very different from the visual effects team. They are great minds working, for which they are accoladed, and quite rightly so. The problem lies within the acting profession and the notion that performance capture is acting. It is. The emotional content of the performance, and the beat to beat of every single scene, is authored by the actor. And only at that point can the director move on to the next scene. The visual effects team adheres to what's there, which is different from animators with a voice actor.

TA: Can you give me an example from "Apes"?

AS: James Franco and I were acting opposite each other. He had lines of dialogue. I had other directions. There was absolutely no difference. That's the case in performance capture. I've been involved in two movies this year. One is a live action, and one is the animated "The Adventures of Tintin." Both of these are directed and begin their lives with actors authoring their performances. But they differ in the way the characters are rendered on the screen.

TA: What is that difference?

AS: Because [director] Steven Spielberg wanted to make the movie look like the drawings, he felt comfortable in dialing up areas of the performance in "Tintin." For my character, Captain Haddock, he wanted his mouth to be open slightly more, moving away from the actor's performance, digitally driving the facial muscles of these actors. You can dial up or dial down as a director.

TA: Does that, in essence, "Photoshop" your performance?

AS: The danger of doing that is that by embellishing the performance, you lose the initial dramatic spark before the animation begins.

TA: How did that differ from the live-action "Apes"?

AS: With "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the director was adamant that the performances were entirely copied muscle for muscle.

TA: Franco addressed that in his argument for recognition of the Oscar potential of performance capture.

AS: He absolutely understands and he's very eloquent in his article. It was always Caesar's movie. You end up rooting for the apes as a result. It's a brilliantly crafted script that takes this ape as a sentient character and makes the story be about him. James's role, which he played brilliantly, was always going to serve the central character of Caesar. James is one of the first actors who have spoken out honestly about performance capture, and how little it differs from live action performance.

TA: You began this journey by playing Gollum, and now you're back playing him again.

AS: I'm involved in "The Hobbit" now as a second-unit director. I've actually shot all of my Gollum scenes on location. It's different from last time. It was all shot on the live-action stage. Martin Freeman, who plays the hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins, and myself, are able to play lengthy scenes exactly in the same vein as "Apes."

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TA: That's a change since the "LOTR" movies, right?
AS: Yes. There's no disconnect anymore. It all happens in the same space. In the first "LOTR," I acted on set. Then for close-ups of Gollum, I'd have to do it in a CG environment. Now we can have all that interactivity, so there's absolutely no disconnect between the actors.

TA: Where are you now in the production?

AS: We are about to go into the last block of shooting. The first episode will be out next Christmas. The first scene to be shot on the movie was a Gollum scene. It was the key scene in the book between Gollum and Bilbo. I don't want to give away too much, because I'll just get my knuckles rapped. I know it.

TA: Well, it's no spoiler for any one of the millions that read the book. It's the encounter between Bilbo and Gollum in the goblin tunnels where they fight over the ring. While your experience with performance capture began with Gollum, there's definitely a larger point you're making as a pioneer in the field.

AS: Traditionally there's been a distance between animated and performance capture. One is seen to threaten the other when it comes down to isolating the performance. It's a divisive way of thinking partly to do with performance capture being misunderstood by the acting community.

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TA: And you're intent on raising that understanding, no?

AS: There aren't that many examples of actors who've used it, so there's a lot of mystery. But it's not going to go away. It's being used more and more. And it allows actors to be totally liberated and achieve roles they couldn't do previously. There are always people on each team -- actors, animators -- intimidated by new technology. The time has come to have both sides bury the hatchet and embrace each other and the technology in moving forward.

TA: We'll leave the last word to your co-star. Franco forcefully concluded in his article on Deadline Hollywood: "Andy doesn't need me to tell him he is an innovator, he knows it. What is needed is recognition for him, now. Not later when this kind of acting is de rigueur. ... Caesar is a fully realized character, not human, and not quite ape; this is no Lassie and this is no Roger Rabbit, it is the creation of an actor doing something that I dare say no other actor could have done at this moment."

See Andy Serkis in this featurette for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes':