Few actors have done more to revolutionise filmmaking than Andy Serkis, the unseen star of apocalyptic blockbuster ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. Wearing a ludicrous green Lycra ‘performance capture’ suit (basically a high tech leotard), Serkis has no qualms about wriggling around as Gollum in ‘Lord of the Rings’, or chestbeating in ‘King Kong’.
Rather than view it as a sideline to ‘proper’ acting, the 50-year-old north Londoner has become the king of performance capture technology, where an actor’s movements are digitally recorded and translated into a computer image. He’s even opened a dedicated studio in Ealing, the Imaginarium, where he’ll direct ‘The Jungle Book’. His turn as chimp leader Caesar in the new ‘Apes’ was shot in performance capture. It’s a breathtaking example of technology and Serkis’s raw and powerful acting – even if you can’t see his face.
Is performance capture your life’s work?
‘I’ve championed the technology because I really believe in it. It’s the most liberating tool for an actor. It enables you to play anything, regardless of shape, colour or sex. I wouldn’t say it’s everything, but it’s a massive chunk of my life.’
You’ve been doing it for years, but are there still times when you feel ridiculous in the Lycra suit?
‘Yes! There’s a scene in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” where 2,000 apes march down to the human colony. We shot it with just nine of us, all on horseback. But the horses found it very unsettling! As soon as I opened my mouth, bellowing out, “Apes do not want war!”, my horse Shirley started doing some weird dressage move. She completely freaked out, so did all the others. So it ended up with nine actors sitting on very tall ladders!’
You spent a lot of time with chimps in zoos and in the wild to research. Do you feel an affinity with apekind?
‘I do. Once I studied them in earnest I could see their different personalities, they’re so close to us. A couple of weeks ago I met a primatologist who’s actively campaigning to get ape rights, in the sense of human rights. I do feel that’s a good idea.’
How is ‘The Jungle Book’ – your first film as a director – coming along?
‘We’re in the process of casting, we’re creating the world, the aesthetics. It’s going to be very cool. I’ve wanted to direct for a long time. You probably know there are two “Jungle Book” films in the works [Jon Favreau is directing the other, with Idris Elba and Scarlett Johansson voicing], but I think there’s room for both. Ours is much closer to Kipling’s original stories. It’s very dark.’
You’ve been cast in the new ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers 2’. Is your goal to appear in every major franchise going?
‘That was always my ambition by the age of 50 and that’s this year! No, it’s just because my company is involved in the performance capture on both projects, so I’m playing cameo roles.’
When performance capture first came along, there was a worry producers would unearth old stars and make them do all sorts of undignified things. Would you like to play Humphrey Bogart?
‘It’s funny, Bogart is always the first person everyone thinks of. Look, if it was the right project and it seemed appropriate, I wouldn’t count it out. Digital resurrection is just like sampling: you take an old jazz musician and you put some beats under it. So as long as it’s honouring the performer I don’t see any problem. And that’s especially true with characters from history like, say, Winston Churchill. It could be fascinating.’
Oh God, will you end up playing Hitler?
‘Ha! Thank you very much! Actually, we do share the same birthday, so maybe…’
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is showing in Paris cinemas now.
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Read ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ review
Let’s face it, high-minded ideas are all very well, but can they compete with a chimp on horseback firing an Uzi? 2010’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ was as smart as modern sci-fi gets, ditching the 1960s-born franchise’s gritty dystopian roots for a slick, high-minded story of scientific overambition (with a few explosions chucked in for good measure).