ANDY SERKIS - Big on Character
In terms of acting there’s no difference in playing a conventional role and playing a CG character in terms of the acting choices and creative approach in building a character, a psychological profile for the role and so on. In those terms, there are absolutely no differences. But in technicality there’s a language you have to learn. It’s akin to being on a bare theatrical stage – you have to imagine everything. You don’t have a costume, or make-up to help you for instance, but what it’s about in performance is a very pure form of acting. With Kong, it was technically very difficult in terms of proportionality of Kong as compared to Gollum, who was one to one with my physicality in terms of size. With Kong there were huge technical challenges, with the length of the forearms and how we made him relate to the environment and so on, but in terms of acting, there’s no difference.”
Andy Serkis talks about building character in his roles as King Kong, Gollum and as "El Presidente" the King Pin of The Jolly Boys - their Last Stand comes out on DVD this week - AND his own ambitions to work behind the camera directing film action.
Andy, it's so nice to meet with Hollywood’s biggest leading man…..
Well James, it was certainly my first romantic lead, though I never expected that to be a 24-foot high gorilla! But you know… you take what comes along….
No Oscars category yet for Motion Capture, but then it’s a relatively new form of performance, isn’t it?
People are beginning to understand; it’s been a bit of an educational process. People are beginning to understand that there’s a very strong link between the acting and the CG manifestation on the screen, that this is not an animated character, but a CG character driven by the actor.
You are now the acknowledged as the leading actor working in Motion Capture - How different and difficult is it, having to perform to get technical results?
In terms of acting there’s no difference in playing a conventional role and playing a CG character in terms of the acting choices and creative approach in building a character, a psychological profile for the role and so on. In those terms, there are absolutely no differences. But in technicality there’s a language you have to learn. It’s akin to being on a bare theatrical stage – you have to imagine everything. You don’t have a costume, or make-up to help you for instance, but what it’s about in performance is a very pure form of acting. With Kong, it was technically very difficult in terms of proportionality of Kong as compared to Gollum, who was one to one with my physicality in terms of size. With Kong there were huge technical challenges, with the length of the forearms and how we made him relate to the environment and so on, but in terms of acting, there’s no difference.
What about things like interactivity between actors – do these technical problems get in the way of that?
With motion capture to date, and it won’t always be this way, we shoot everything on set first of all, so you live through the scenes, you create the scenes with the other actors. All the scenes between Naomi Watts and myself were conventional, played for real on the set.
Then I relived them on the motion capture stage, playing off her close-ups that we’d shot, so everything was specifically linked. But the way motion capture is moving on, in future, more and more films that use motion capture will be shooting them entirely on a virtual stage. So, going back to this thing about live performance, it’s just acting between two people. The interactivity thing is... Well, when you are working with a CG character the thing is to make him as real as you can, to have as many human emotions or tangible emotions as possible.
Millions know you from these big budget blockbuster roles with these wonderful characters – but which was your favourite character out of those two, Gollum or Kong?
Oh, Well, They are so entirely different from each other psychologically. Gollum was hugely fascinating psychologically because he is so complex with his lust and craving, his addiction to the ring, the schizophrenia – he’s a very rich character and has fantastic dialogue. But in many ways he was an easier character to play than Kong. Kong was a simpler character, purer, operated at gut level really, but from the acting perspective that’s not a simpler thing to do. There so much more to hang on with Gollum, with Kong it is very, very subtle. He needed a lot of understanding of character, of gorilla psychology and physicality. We wanted to keep him other. It was how we translated those emotions so that we weren’t anthropomorphising him too much and making his moments with Ann into magical movie moments. We were trying to create this real relationship. So trying to answer you question James, I enjoyed them both, for different reasons in each case.
You have another rather complex character in the lead that you played in The Jolly Boys – now that’s coming out on DVD shortly isn’t it?
Many years after its original release and I am so excited about it because it was a film made for almost nothing. Compared with making gorilla films, it’s getting back to the essence of low budget filmmaking and all relying on a great amount of skill. We made it in about three and half weeks on about £7,000, which is the complete opposite of a Peter Jackson experience! It is just great seeing it finally getting its audience. And it’s a perfect arena at the moment for it to come out. Audiences are ready for it. At the time it was made, very few films were shot on video and the while concept of shooting a feature film on video was almost unheard of. It was prior to Dogme films, prior to reality TV, prior to capturing that real life in drama documentary style. It was very fresh and while we were doing it, it felt like we were almost ahead of the game really.
It was pioneering in that sense, but did you have any qualms about that?
No, Not at all. I suppose what I love about acting is getting involved in projects that are pushing boundaries. We were fortunate enough to have a visionary director who said, “Look, what is there to stop us telling a tale that everybody is going to relate to?” For Chris it was very much about telling stories about people that we could connect to. Most dramas. Most feature films revolve around characters that you have no connection to whatsoever. They are metaphorical in the sense that you relate to them, rather than people you really feel about and care about. It was like we said let’s set out to make a film about being around a bunch of friends, about people that we know, that doesn’t revolve around high drama, that revolves around low- or no-drama. Lets do that and see if we can make it into a good story, a very passionate story for people to plug into.
How do you connect to characters like the lead in Jolly Boys, something of a late maturing man about him – maybe we are all late maturing men, I don’t know - but how do you find them?
Well he’s based very much on my brother actually. My brother lives very much the life of Tony Dale. He’s not very much like me. When he was at school he had a gang of mates exactly like The Jolly Boys. In fact they all still live within about a one-mile radius of each other in Amersham and they all go around slapping each other with fish – I expect they’ll grow out of it. I mean the other day we were talking about stag do’s and on his, he went down to Bath with all his mates and he ended up skateboarding down the main shopping arcade in a pair of tights, pretending to be one of the gladiators and ended up in a shop window. He totally relates to it, the whole kind of mad culture, the stag night culture. People who go through these things will totally get this film.
It makes you wonder if we had exactly the right brother playing the role, if you see what I mean?
[Laughs] Hah, Yes, that’s absolutely true! I know exactly what you mean. But going back to what we were saying, it is about this point in time where your life changes and you have to make the decision to move on. Tony, the character that I play, has reached that point in his life where things are more serious. He wants to mature and the Jolly Boys isn’t going to do it for him any longer, which causes a sort of cataclysmic bullet for his friends and traumatises his best mate, Des, who has been asked to direct the wedding video. All his side, for a present, are going to make the wedding video. Then the home truths begin to come out and it is very painful. And the observation in the film, the way it was written and the way it was performed by all the cast, including Sacha Baron Coen of course and Ed Marlow who plays Des. It’s very richly acted and very subtle. In fact one of the best compliments I have had for that film was after a screening of it with punters. A woman turned around and said, “That film was amazing!” Then she turned around again and said “You were in it were you? You’re actors – its incredible!” That is such a huge compliment.
Low budget films can attract well-known actors, but don’t actors have to keep moving up in budgets to maximise their exposure - is there good motivation to work in films like this?
Any actor worth their salt will do a script if they like the project, if they believe in the story. It’s all about story and character. Yes, at some point it is nice to have a payday, but as a true actor, as an honest actor, you are going to want to tell stories that affect people, that touch people significantly. I think its interesting that in the States in particular this year, the low budget film is beginning to be applauded. Film like Crash, Capote, all lower budget films with some kind of political or personal message, or the personal story. They are all coming to the fore and they are vying with the big budget movies. It’s really reassuring to see that audiences are prepared to commit to those movies, especially for us in Britain where in filmmaking we really are at the low budget end – it’s quite encouraging really.
Is that one of the reasons you’ve been keen to step behind the cameras, to try your hand at directing your first feature?
Before I became an actor I studied visual art, so I suppose story telling has always been of interest to me. When I became an actor I loved the idea of story telling; of being the actor storytelling on stage or on screen. But I have always had a hankering to direct… I have directed a short film and a play and now I’m in a position to direct my first feature and it is something I am very excited about. It’s not that I want to stop acting and become a director, its just that I feel this particular story is one that can achieve best by telling the story from behind the camera, from a directorial stance.
The film’s called Addict, is it not? What can you tell us about it?
That’s right. It’s based on an autobiography by a man called Stephen Smith, who is an extraordinary survivor and led a life that was a roller coaster of a ride, particularly through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. He was a Dexedrine addict. His book is… well, you could tell a thousand stories about his life. Part of our problem has been finding which parts of his life we should concentrate on because we can’t possibly get it all in within 90 minutes.
What sort of budget will you be shooting to and when?
This will be a low to medium budget, about five to six million pounds.
We’re in early stages of pre-production at the moment. Shooting later on this year is the idea, but as always, if you hit the first base, suddenly you are up and running and then the next thing is you are standing behind the camera and calling “action.”
After Addict, you have another film you are planning to direct, haven’t you?
Do you mean Mybridge?
That’s the one I had heard about…
Yes, Mybridge, it’s the story of one of the early pioneers of moving pictures actually.
He’s the man who photographed the movement of horses, on a treadmill or something isn’t he?
[sounding surprised] That’s correct, Yes! He’s another fascinating character, who had a life full of intrigue and scandal. He’s also someone who has been very under-credited for being one of the fathers of modern cinema and moving pictures. I hope that will be happening next year, in 2007.