Rogue of the Week: Andy Serkis

Friday, 19 August 2011 14:16 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Rogue of the Week: Andy Serkis

Just a few months ago, pretty much no one had high hopes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a summer blockbuster.  By March, 20th Century Fox had released just one image from the film, showing James Franco rocking a Bluetooth headset, and the would-be event film then underwent a title change and release date shuffle.  As the number one film for two consecutive weeks, though, Rise of Planet of the Apes is performing well beyond all expectations and earning uniformly strong reactions from critics and audiences.  The most singularly praised performance comes from an actor has yet to disappoint, but whose face also never appears in the film: Andy Serkis, the magus of motion capture and the man who plays Caesar, a sort of chimpanzee Spartacus.

Serkis is, in some respects, a sort of secret celebrity.  The best example of this phenomenon is Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson, one of the most prominent and beloved characters in American popular culture.  Yet Castellaneta can walk the streets and go to his local grocery store without receiving a second glance.  Serkis is more easily identifiable, having appeared in films that didn't feature motion capture, even playing Smeagal during a prologue in The Return of the King, but his public profile is still considerably more low-key than one would expect for an actor who has played such popular, iconic roles.

As Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, Serkis was an indispensable component in creating an indelible character that represented a huge leap forward in motion capture performances.  For the first time, the technology brought to screens a visual effect that was, more importantly, a believable and complex character for whom the audience could feel equally complex emotions.  Gollum, seen briefly in The Fellowship of the Rings and taking a central role in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, represented a truly massive achievement for Weta Digital, but it was Serkis' inspired and dedicated performance that invested the character with a soul.

The actor reunited with Jackson and Weta to play the most famous simian in movie history for Jackson's 2005 remake King Kong.  In order to convey the character's immense size and carriage, Serkis was required to wear heavy weights on his arms, waist, and legs, and he recently remarked that the resulting bruises and callouses have yet to fully heal.  The actor brought an uncanny ferocity to the undisputed alpha creature of Skull Island, but he and Weta Digital also gave Kong moments of tenderness and real vulnerability.  Late in the film, for example, Kong is rampaging though Central Park when he discovers ice for the first time in his life.  Overjoyed, he spontaneously slides around in an impromptu dance and expresses a delight that is childish in the best possible sense.

As with Gollum, Andy Serkis managed to make King Kong more than simply a visual effect.  He is an actual character, who we very quickly find ourselves believing in as fully and emotionally as we would one played by a conventional actor.

Rise of the Planet of Apes is the first film in the 43 year franchise to create its apes by any means other than traditional makeup effects.  Director Rupert Wyatt instead opted to portray the primates exclusively through motion capture technology.  Serkis' character, Caesar, is a hyperintelligent chimpanzee who the film follows from shortly after his birth through his happy, well-adjusted juvenile years to his adulthood as the leader of an ape revolution that will eventually lead to a world in which Charlton Heston screams, "You maniacs!  You blew it up!  Damn you!  God damn you all to hell!"

Serkis plays Caesar even as a toddler, and the character is the most remarkable that he and Weta Digital have created yet.  New technology allowed for on-set performance capture, even in outdoor locations, and as a result of advances in both hardware and software, the character owes more to Serkis than ever before.  Caesar isn't simply believable, he's a compelling, captivating protagonist.  Like Gollum and Kong, when you look into his eyes, you don't see pixels, but emotion and intelligence.  His every move conveys his strange place between two species.  Despite the presence of actors like James Franco and Freida Pinto, the movie itself is well aware that Caesar's the star, gradually reducing the roles of its human characters until, by the end, it's undoubtedly Caesar's movie.

Even before Rise of the Planet of the Apes debuted, there was considerable talk about Serkis finally earning the Oscar nomination that many people feel he should have received for his work as Gollum.  While that's supremely unlikely, owing to the politics of the awards and the perception of motion capture in the industry, Serkis can rest assured that his work at the intersection of acting and visual effects will endure in the collective memory far longer than any award.

Andy Serkis will next be seen in the flesh alongside Simon Pegg in Burke and Hare, a comedic thriller from legendary director John Landis.  That film receives a limited Stateside release on September 9th.  This December, Serkis will once again be playing a motion capture character as Captain Haddock in director Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin (Pegg also appears in the 3D mo-cap film). 

For the currently-filming two-part adaptation The Hobbit, which is divided into two halves subtitled An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again, Serkis isn't just returning to the role of Gollum.  Serkis is taking his unique collaboration with Peter Jackson even further, serving as second-unit director for the entirety of the mammoth production.

Check out our exclusive video interviews with Serkis and Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt at this year's San Diego Comic-Con.

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