March 10-16th 2008
GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Best-known as the man behind groundbreaking motion-captured creations Gollum and King Kong, British actor Andy Serkis is building a reputation as an acclaimed actor in his own right. But as his new horror-comedy film The Cottage opens, he tells Leigh Singer that for him, it’s all just acting.
Chances are if you put up three mug shots – Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong (the 2005 film version) and actor Andy Serkis – it’s the latter who would be least recognisable to the general public. Ironic, since it’s the 43-year old Brit who created, aided by motion-capture effects wizards, those other two iconic characters. Every gargled Gollum hiss, every giant ape grunt and every single physical move or facial twitch belong to Serkis.
More seasoned moviegoers, however, may just recognise Serkis himself. Post-Peter Jackson’s blockbusters, the actor has been an increasingly visible presence in his own right – and body. He’s essayed sinister supporting turns in high-profile projects like Stormbreaker and The Prestige and recently won a Golden Globe nomination for his chilling turn as Moors Murderer Ian Brady opposite Samantha Morton’s Myra Hindley in Longford. All this alongside key roles in low-budget British flicks like gangland thriller Sugarhouse and now comedy-horror The Cottage, the new film from acclaimed London to Brighton writer-director Paul Andrew Williams.
“I wanted to underpin all that big, experimental [motion-capture] stuff, development of a new kind of acting with where my roots are as an actor,” says the exceptionally genial Serkis by way of explanation. “So it served it very well as a counterpoint.”
There was also another advantage for the London resident and father of three young kids: “Lord of the Rings was three and a half years in New Zealand, then King Kong was straight after that,” he tallies up, “and then I went back to direct the performance-capture for this video game Heavenly Sword, so it was like five or six years going down there. I wanted to work at home.”
In The Cottage, Serkis and League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith play a pair of hapless brother kidnappers, who abduct a foul-mouthed, feisty Scouser (Jennifer Ellison), only to inadvertently stumble across a homicidal farmer who’s taken to slaughtering more than livestock. Before you can say ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, kidnappers and hostage are fighting for their lives.
It’s hard to envisage anything more removed from the gritty social realism of London to Brighton than the gleeful carnage of The Cottage but Serkis, despite noting Williams’s two films are “very, very different”, believes there are overlaps, particularly those that appeal to actors.
“No matter how twisted and fucked-up the characters are,” he offers, “you still feel some compassion for them. My character’s a crook but the brother relationship is potent and there’s a sort of tenderness between them. If you can hook people into those universal family things, then having invested in them you can take them on the macabre, axe-wielding maniac thing.”
The film’s humour isn’t so much laced with scares, as doused with buckets of blood. “There are other benchmarks now,” admits Serkis, “but if you think back to when this was written, there was no Shaun of the Dead at that time, no Severance. But when you read it on the page it genuinely affects you viscerally. It does make you toes curl.” Or, in the case of one poor character, get lopped off with a spade. “Exactly,” grins Serkis, with a throaty chuckle not far removed from Gollum, “which I love.”
Acting wasn’t always the obvious career path for Serkis. The son of an ethnic Armenian doctor (the family’s surname is Serkissian), his father’s peripatetic career meant that he spent much of his childhood in the Middle East, specifically Baghdad. Unsurprisingly he has a keener insight than most into life out there and is critical of the war, yet he’s also perhaps more sensitive to opposing viewpoints.
“My dad actually suffered under the Ba’athist party,” Serkis recounts, “he was in prison and friends of his were killed, so he totally believes that what America has done and the removal of Saddam Hussein was absolutely the right thing to do. It’s interesting because he’s lived in that culture and has a particular experience, so, in a way, who are we to judge?”
Once at University in England, though studying graphic design, student drama soon found Serkis bitten by the acting bug. “It was a real epiphany moment,” he marvels, “and made me think, this is what I want to do creatively, being able to inhabit the mind of this other person. I never looked back really.”
After many years working on stage and then onscreen, it’s Gollum and Kong that really put Serkis on the map. But rather than bemoan the fact that his big break came under layers of digital animation, Serkis declares himself “evangelical” about these technological advances.
“I find it fascinating and challenging and I want to continue to develop it, it’s in its infancy,” he says proudly. “The thing is, I’ve never drawn a distinction between acting in performance-capture or acting onscreen or on stage - it’s just whether it’s filmed on 35mm on a live set or gone through a computer on a motion-capture stage. The data that you capture is an actor’s live performance, every single beat and choice. As long as the soul of the character is represented, it doesn’t matter how.”
So for now, he’s still happy to do the ‘Gollum voice’ for fans, safe in the knowledge that his other projects, both motion-capture (he’s an integral part of the upcoming hush-hush Peter Jackson / Steven Spielberg Tintin project) and live-action, including plans to direct, are liberating, not restricting, him.
“None of us in our work want to be boxed off as doing one thing. I remember getting a cab once,” Serkis recollects, “and this driver said ‘God, I feel really sorry for you, you’re never going to able to live that Gollum character down.’ And it had never struck me before because I’d always thought this is the beginning of something. I just get a buzz out of the next project I’m working on.”
Gollum would gurgle appreciatively, Kong would bellow in satisfaction. Andy Serkis does neither, content to allow his entire body of work to speak for itself.
The Cottage opens on March 14th.