When the opportunity arose to chat with Andy Serkis about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, of course we jumped! The man is just as interesting offscreen as he is on. Check out the following interview!
Dread Central: The film looks brilliant; what was this experience like for you?
Andy Serkis: I think when you talk to [director] Matt [Reeves], you’ll understand where he’s coming from with this movie, and why it’s an important movie.
I mean, if you’re going to be involved in a blockbuster movie, these are the ones I think to be involved with, and why I came into acting and why I love acting – it’s about being able to completely bury yourself in the character and tell about the human condition. Also to have the liberty as an actor to portray a character so far away from yourself and yet so close to yourself- it’s a magical combination. Then when you have an actor’s director like Matt working on it, he was so the right person for the job, as was Rupert Wyatt on the first movie.
You could go so wrong with a Planet of the Apes reboot; you could make it melodramatic, you could make it campy, you could fall into so many traps with it. But what we all wanted to do, and what Matt loved about writing Planet of the Apes, was its honesty, and the emotional center of it. It is a film that is about family as well as empathy and prejudices, and those are things that surround us on a daily basis.
To be able to play characters which are apes that are anthropomorphic to the point where we can really see the human condition, and all of its difficulties and complications… It sets up a world where you’re finally in a beautiful, utopian Garden of Eden really, that is suddenly shattered in a violent and dramatic way.
Caesar ten years on since yesterday, he’s galvanized all these tribes of apes, and it’s succeeding, it’s working. The next generation is becoming educated; the design of their community reflects their intelligence. They are resourceful, they can build aqueducts, they have plentiful food supplies, they respect each other as different species: Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimpanzee can all speak equally and communicate equally. Until the arrival of human beings, who, by the way, are not the villains of the film! They are also a species who are very much suffering from being almost completely wiped out.
So we’re encouraged to see really both sides, the human and the ape, of the story. It’s not over celebrating a peaceful ape community at all but realizing that both sides have complexities and necessities and things that drive them, and what they’re prepared to do to save their own tribe.
DC: You said you like to bury yourself in your character. How do you maintain a sense of self when you are acting? Or do you?
AS: You’re always drawing on aspects of your own person. For instance, the journey of Caesar and his teenage son, River, for me is very much based on my relationship with my teenage son. You have to access those emotions- that’s current and relevant to me right now, it’s tangible and that’s what breathes life and truth into a character and a performance. There are also points in this film where I’ve had to build myself up to a point of rage that is out of control and very aggressive; and you have to go there; you can’t hide behind anything when you’re playing these kind of roles.
DC: Being known as the best in the field of motion capture acting in the world, what were the extra challenges where your own facial expressions weren’t being directed?
AS: Well, they are! The facial expressions are directed. My children were actually watching last night, and they recognize Caesar totally as me… and did with Kong and with Gollum, sadly.
Because the technology, the fidelity to replicate the nuanced performance choices of the actor is so close now! When you see the side-by-sides, it’s fantastic.
DC: So you don’t have to do extra work, then? You’re acting as you normally would on film?
AS: Yes, you’re playing a character. I mean, there are certain things that Caesar does: He has a twitch, he holds his face… that kind of worried set default position. However, if I were playing the father of a teenage son in a live action movie, there would probably be a lot of worry in my face too.
DC: There seems to be a theme through your work as ‘the outsider’ – Gollum of course, and Kong was a misunderstood creature. Have you ever felt like an outcast?
AS: I suppose I have felt a little like an outsider, in that my upbringing, my father was Iraqi and I was brought up in Baghdad partly; and my mother, I’ve got 4 brothers and sisters, we were all brought up in England, so I was separated from my father quite a lot. And I’ve never felt really British, nor anything I suppose. With that comes a sense of freedom, not being linked to any one country, but also a sense of rootlessness.
DC: So really you don’t feel British, even though everyone from the UK is so proud of you?
AS: I mean, I certainly AM British, I’ve spent most of my life there. But there is an Otherness part of me as well.
DC: Was it helpful to have a lot of other actors also doing motion capture?
AS: It’s a great ensemble cast, really talented actors. I don’t actually see myself as the best of motion capture. I think I’m a relatively good actor, but there are amazing actors in this film… Karin [Konoval], who plays Maurice, is fantastic; she turns in a wonderful performance. I think it was a strong cast, and we had a great performance coach, Terry Notary, a very talented individual, who was responsible for teaching the cast how to use ape behavior and to walk as apes.
DC: How much of your improvisation and theater background do you use when creating these individualized performances?
AS: All of them – they all present, all of your accumulated work over your career helps to build whatever characters you will be working on with the next job. And working for Mike Leigh is a great time. You work for nine months on a character, rehearsing, improvising, just completely immersing in that character.
DC: Do you have the freedom you need on a movie like this with specific technological requirements?
AS: Yes, because you still do all of your preparatory work yourself, you have good rehearsal period. There was one really valuable rehearsal period where we all sort of worked out how exactly we would use voice and gestures. And how articulate the apes would be. I have to say Matt was totally great for that environment, he totally respected the actor’s process, and it really comes through.
DC: Do you think of this film as a warning? And how much do you think a film can do as well as being entertaining?
AS: I think these films were always about civil rights, and I think that metaphor carries through and resonates with audiences worldwide. Why do you think the Apes franchise has endured so long? Because anthropomorphizing is something that we do, even with our pets, and we do that because we have grown further away from animals and are encouraged to see ourselves as an elevated species; when in fact we could learn quite a bit more from animals. And we learn so much more from apes, because they are so close to us genetically.
I don’t think there’s one specific metaphor; when Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, the Arab spring was happening, there were riots in London, there was an attitude of real unrest and people wanting change, and being oppressed, and standing up and saying, “I’ve had enough,” and not knowing what’s going to happen next. And we’re still in the throes of that worldwide. The beginning of this movie is setting up a society, which may or may not work but seems to be working, until something else happens that conflicts with that.
This is a very balanced film, it’s not siding with the ape story, and the human story is just as important; it’s not saying one is more important than the other. And it truly is about prejudice and empathy. There are certain characters from the human side and certain characters from the ape side who want to make things work, who want to engage, who want to find peaceful solutions- and there are characters who don’t, and that’s the world we live in.
DC: Are we looking for the empathy of the audience?
AS: Absolutely in the way that Matt has gotten to the emotional heart of this story; the movie is very much about family.
DC: Is a Utopian society like the apes have at the beginning of the move possible in your opinion?
AS: 100%. Yes, I think you have to think like that. I mean, that’s what we do as artists, we live in the world of un-reality so that we can shine a light…. we have the ability to move out of the realms of reality in order to address the problems that we face.
DC: How’d you get your ape communication skills down?
AS: Well, of course Caesar was brought up with human beings and has always felt an outsider. The way I approached him was as a human in ape skin. He never saw his skin, he always just thought he was a human until his right of passage, in his teenage years when he was sort of made to realize, in a moment, where in protecting Will, his father, he loses his temper, and gets aggressive and is then taken away to the sanctuary. Suddenly he realizes he’s surrounded by other apes. And he looks at himself and sees for the first time what he is, which is not human. When Caesar comes into this movie, he knows that Will was a good man, that he’s given to him some valuable life skills that he should carry on with.
So the Utopia isn’t just about being an ape. It’s about using his skills to galvanize the apes, to bring them all together. And language is one of the ways of doing that- Orangutans have different ways of communicating than Chimpanzees, than do Gorillas; they all have different sounds. So sign language, which Caesar was taught, becomes a way of teaching them all to have a communal language. And then the use of vocalization, and then language, as a way of educating and elevating themselves.
DC: You must have done a lot of research about apes for this film. Has that changed what you think of apes, primates, and animals in general? Do you believe there is a barrier between humans and animals?
AS: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with apes, not just for this movie, but for Kong as well. I actually spent quite a bit of time with one female Gorilla, whom I got to know pretty well over the course of months and months.
DC: What kind of relationship did you have?
AS: Her name was Zayier, we were very close. We would play games with each other, she would recognize me, I could call her name, she would let me stroke her, we would hold hands.
DC: Where did she live?
AS: London Zoo, and then my wife came down and said, “It’s gotta stop.” Now we text occasionally… (laughs)
DC: Can you explain a little bit about the relationship between Caesar and Koba?
AS: Really, Koba has suffered terribly at the hands of humans, he’s been brutalized. In many ways, Caesar hasn’t, Caesar’s been loved, he’s been brought up with love; Koba’s been brought up with hate.
DC: So it’s violence against good?
AS: I suppose that is their relationship, although Caesar sees him as his core celeb. He wants to make an example and say, “Look at this character who has suffered so much, survived, and look where he is now.” So that’s really the role of Koba; and they are like brothers, actually. They respect each other, and adore each other like brothers.
DC: The duality between Caesar and Koba, sometimes this duality is in your own character, such as Gollum was sort of two people, and a little bit of duality makes for a more interesting character, gives you lots of choices I’m sure. Do you feel that we are prisoners to our own duality, or are we guided by some higher purpose that supersedes us?
AS: We all have duality within us, we can build cathedrals or we can build concentration camps. And life is about finding the balances that enable us to be optimistic, to help where we can, and be altruistic. But also to stand our ground, and not be taken advantage of, and not be weak. I certainly don’t believe I’m guided by any higher principle than to find balance, really.
DC: Were you able to direct on this movie as well?
AS: Oh no, not this one.
DC: What upcoming projects are you working on?
AS: I’m about to direct Jungle Book. I’m thrilled to be doing it. Also, at the same time, my company, Imaginarium, our actor’s studio is doing an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
DC: Your kids must be excited about Jungle Book.
AS: They are! But this returns to the Rudyard Kipling, much darker, law of the jungle, much more right of passage.
DC: Disney, and as a whole, children’s cinema has been getting much darker lately…
AS: I think that at the moment we all want to see truth in some way, even through our fantasy; much like the old fairy tales. Snow White and the Huntsman, for me, is a great retelling of that story because it has a real edge to it, a real darkness to it, that Freudian stuff that appeals to us in those stories. Somewhere along the line of the wisecracking, camp, the post-Shrek (which was obviously brilliant), I think we’ve sort of had our fill of it; and there’s been a real desire for a return to a more honest form of storytelling.
DC: In Tin-Tin you got the biggest laughs out of any character you’ve played; can we expect to see you in more comedy roles?
AS: Oh, I would love to do more comedy roles, I haven’t done any full out comedies in a few years.
DC: What goes through your mind when people say that you should be nominated for an Oscar for your work as Gollum?
AS: I feel very lucky to do what I do, the reward for me is genuinely playing the characters. It’s lovely to be acknowledged of course, but that’s not what I’m in it for.
DC: Do you think there should be a separate category for motion capture?
AS: That is one thing I DO have an opinion on, and I firmly believe that there shouldn’t be. It’s just acting, it’s just another method of recording an actor’s performance, it’s new technology; it’s exactly the same process on set – you’re being directed, you’re making character decisions, the director is saying, “Yes, we’ve got that in the camera, moving on,” they cut the movie, there is no difference. So I believe there should be no separate category. Your role and performance either touches an audience, gets them to cry, or to laugh, or gets them to the point of saying, “This deserves to be [recognized]” or not. I’ve never seen any distinction between live action and motion capture filming in that regard.
Look for the film in theatres – in 3D of course – on July 11th, 2014. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smith-Mcphee, Enrique Muriciano, and Kirk Acevedo; James Franco has a cameo.
It’s directed by Matt Reeves from a screenplay by Mark Bomback and Rich Jaffa & Amanda Silver based on characters created by Jaffa and Silver.
A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.
For more visit the official Dawn of the Planet of the Apes website, “like” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on Facebook, and follow Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on Twitter (#DawnOfApes).
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