Andy Serkis loves to disappear into a role.
As the guy who portrayed Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films, Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” and now Caesar, a chimpanzee, in the just-released “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Serkis has become the face of motion-capture performance, a combination of acting and computer manipulation that means, in all of those high-profile roles, Serkis’s face isn’t seen at all.
That’s fine by him.
“I think actors are afraid that if they’re not seen on-screen, then that’s a real problem,” Serkis, 47, said during a recent interview in a hotel suite at San Diego’s Comic-Con, the pop-culture convention where the London native had come to promote “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” “But for me, that’s never been an issue because I love filling a role that, like I say, transforms [me].”
Serkis — a fit and diminutive man with a mop of brunet curls on his head — has spent more than two decades assuming other identities. He’s done it both in theater, movie and TV roles — you might remember seeing his actual face in the HBO film “Longford” or Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” — as well as performance-capture parts, where his physical movements and expressions are recorded, then turned into data that infuse human emotion into computer-generated characters.
To Serkis, there is no creative difference between the two approaches. “There’s no such thing as a performance-capture role or a performance-capture movie,” he says. “It’s a tool. It’s just another way of recording an actor’s performance.”
Continued advances in technology are minimizing the divide between standard screen acting and the sort that requires stars to dot up their bodies with motion-capture markers. All of which could signal that now — a decade after the watershed moment when Serkis first turned Gollum from cleverly rendered visual effect into the fully realized schizophrenic creature coveting his “precious” ring — performance capture may start to become more widely embraced by the SAG-card-carrying community.
In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” for example, Serkis and his fellow performance-capture colleagues were able to do something that had never been done before: shoot all their scenes on regular sets or in real-world environments, just as any cast member would when working on location. That meant that Serkis — who, whenever he assumed the role of Caesar, suited up in a leotard and a helmet with a face-capture camera attached to it — was able to play opposite co-star James Franco and other actors on a 350-foot-long portion of a Vancouver bridge that doubles for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the film. That may not sound like a significant leap forward, but after years of relegating most performance-capture work to carefully modulated, isolated sets known as “volumes,” being outdoors and in the moment felt incredibly liberating, Serkis says.
“As a technical achievement,” he says, “it was huge to have all of the actors bounding along and interacting with all that stuff. And it feels so real.”
That attempt to achieve realism may have paid off. “Apes,” a modern-day prequel to Fox’s long-running “Planet of the Apes” franchise that opened this weekend in theaters, has been greeted with largely positive reviews. And many of them cite Serkis’s ability to convey Caesar’s transition from innocent infant to grown-up, simian revolutionary as the key element to the film’s success. Time’s Richard Corliss wrote that Serkis “gives a performance so nuanced and powerful, it may challenge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to give an Oscar to an actor who is never seen in the film.”
In other words, as important as all those motion-capture cameras and computer programs might be, it’s the skills of a gifted actor — the way he conveys vulnerability with just a small glance or suggests simmering rage with the subtle curl of a chimp’s upper lip — that still give a film its emotional resonance.
Rupert Wyatt, director of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” says Serkis has the ability to achieve that kind of subtlety without being distracted by the wiring and technical gadgetry that surrounds him.
“When you’re wearing a gray leotard, a helmet and a face-capture camera on your head, all of these things are potentially incredibly intrusive,” Wyatt says. “It really takes a great actor to be able to push that to one side and focus on playing the role, and I think that’s what makes him so special in embracing this technology.”
Of course, Serkis’s work in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” isn’t the first time that a performance-capture role has sparked talk of Oscar-worthiness. The same chatter surrounded Serkis’s portrayal of Gollum and, more recently, Zoe Saldana’s role as the fiery Neytiri in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” None of it led to nominations, perhaps in part because, as Serkis says, the attitudes of some actors toward performance-capture work have not kept pace with the technology that continues to push it forward.
“I just wish that there was an easy way of communicating what it is and that the mystery of it all would disappear,” Serkis says. “I’m sure it will. It’s so much easier to demonstrate than it is to talk about. And if people came in and could see what’s going on, it’s actually fantastic.”
In the meantime, Serkis has two more performance-capture roles on the horizon: He’ll play Capt. Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s 3-D, computer-animated “Adventures of Tintin,” which comes out this Christmas. And he recently wrapped the reprise of his role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s much anticipated “Lord of the Rings” prequel, the two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Serkis is returning to the set next month however, in his role as a second-unit director on the two films, an exciting opportunity for the actor, who is keen to start directing.
As for the performance capture done on “The Hobbit,” it, too, was shot on standard sets and in the real-world environments pioneered by “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
“That’s it,” Serkis says definitively. “That’s the way forward now.”