Forty-five minutes late, and surrounded by minders—who are frantically negotiating their vehicle through Manhattan rush-hour traffic to its next destination—Andy Serkis is in the throes of a press tour that’s just taken him to the couch of Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, where he tantalized the Tolkien fanboy with his readings of President Donald Trump’s early-morning rage-tweets in the voice of Gollum, and the following day will see him teach correspondent Sara Haines some dance moves on the set of Good Morning America.
He is, at 53, more in demand than ever before, having just wrapped Black Panther and Star Wars: The Last Jedi whilst putting the finishing touches on his ambitious directorial debut, The Jungle Book. And he is such an unrelenting force of nature that, when he recently told The Guardian he has sex “four, five times a day,” the internet actually believed him (for the record, he was just taking the piss).
Serkis is busy promoting War for the Planet of the Apes, the dramatic conclusion to this century’s most underrated blockbuster film franchise—one that’s seen him embody the character of Caesar, an ape imbued with human-like intelligence, from infancy to old age. It is a stunning achievement, even eclipsing his iconic motion capture turn as the aforementioned fiend in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that deserves serious awards consideration.
In director Matt Reeves’ War, Caesar and his clan of apes have been locked in a seemingly never-ending battle with the humans in the two years since the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. When Caesar learns that a battalion of reinforcements is coming to help the humans eliminate the apes once and for all, he plans to lead his fellow simians on a journey across the desert to start a new civilization. But his plans are dashed when a war-hungry Colonel (Woody Harrelson, excellent) murders Caesar’s wife and eldest son, sending him off on a mission of revenge.
The Daily Beast spoke to Serkis about his triumphant turn as Caesar and the evolution of motion capture.
In War for the Planet of the Apes we are treated to a more hardened, battle-tested Caesar.
He is a leader during a time of war that’s trying to ensure the survival of his species, but he’s still holding on to the hope that he can find a peaceful solution to the conflict—until the events that happen in the beginning of the movie that spiral him off on a journey of revenge and hatred. And were it not for the people around him, his soul would be lost forever. For me, it was a very personal journey, actually, because Caesar has become more human-like, so his emotional responses are much more aligned to me. I wanted to put myself in the position of Caesar and draw from that. Going from this empathetic leader to this character who is literally torn apart was a huge challenge.
Caesar has ascended to Biblical status in War. There are scenes of him leading his apes across the land like Moses, as well as ones of him tortured and tied to a cross.
We fully intended him to be, for this sake of the journey, the making of the legend of Caesar. If an ape civilization were to be created, you could point to this figure as the seminal figure who brought about their coming into being. Matt Reeves always intended to have the scope and scale of a 1950s Biblical epic—combined with a war movie. And he modeled it after films like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments.
You’ve shepherded this character from infancy to adulthood. What was the biggest obstacle in War when it comes to embodying this ever-evolving character?
It was about bringing him as close to evolving to humanity as possible without overstepping the mark. That was the big challenge. From his speech to connecting to his emotions, it was always walking on a tightrope. And for me, as an actor, it was holding the audience’s hand and saying, “See the world through Caesar’s eyes, and I’ll be your guide.” But we couldn’t cross over the line to where he was too human and therefore unbelievable. Matt Reeves and I worked tirelessly on the way Caesar communicates and expresses, and I think the scenes with the Colonel were some of the biggest challenges. It’s such a fascinating meeting, coming face to face with the man responsible for the death of his loved ones, and yet finding a fascination in him—and therefore an understanding. Once he begins to unfold the story of his personal loss, and his personal sacrifice, it meant that Caesar could not let go entirely of his hatred for him, but begin to understand him.
The humans are of course the villains here, and fear of the other seems to be a running theme in these Apes films, which are awash with social commentary.
It’s in their DNA and always was, from the original onwards. Obviously they were dealing more contextually with the Civil Rights Movement in the earlier movies, but they’ve always connected to the zeitgeist. When this film was written, which was two and a half years ago, it was way before current political events were beginning to unfold. But like all good sci-fi, it plugs into the ether and is prophetic in that way. The atmosphere was ripe for talking about a world that was careening towards the demise of empathy, where we’re disabled from feeling or sensing equality with other cultures, people, species, the planet. It’s very much a push to the far-right, fundamentalist, Darwinian survival of the fittest mentality that we find ourselves in. That’s what Matt wanted to get at.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, Woody Harrelson’s villainous Colonel attempts to erect a giant wall to protect his soldiers from an oncoming attack, and forces enslaved apes to build it.
The film is not topical in the Saturday Night Live sense. The wall that’s talked about in the movie, we were not aware that Trump was going to come up with that. But it’s just in the ether—that sense of putting up a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ If you watched this film in ten years, you wouldn’t think it was about Trump or Syria. Hopefully, it would be about what’s going on at the time.
Has motion capture acting made you more in tune with your body? And has it made you a better actor?
I think I was always a physical actor. As you probably know, actors have different ways of finding a root into a character, and for me, physicality—and linking physicality to psychology—has always been important. When a character carries their pain, do they have tension in their shoulders? If there’s anger, where does that come from? Is it from the heart? Is it from the head? When performance capture came along, it fit like a glove for me. That said, what performance capture does is it allows you to play the character very internally, too. It’s not just physical activity, but how you place your energy. When you’re working with this technology, you are both puppeteer and marionette at the same time, so you become very attuned to the subtleties. In the rehearsal periods, you can see on a monitor—that’s almost like a magic mirror—that the suit with the dots on it drives a real-time image of the character, so you can very subtly understand what your shifts in posture and movements can do to a character. And that’s how you learn to drive the puppet, if you like. You become acutely aware of the physicality in that sense.
How would you compare the experience of playing Caesar to, say, Gollum? And how has motion capture evolved in those 17 years?
This is a combination of things. The cameras are now placed 360-degrees around the set and have all become more robust, allowing us to shoot in real locations—out in the wild, in snow, etc. But the essence of performance capture acting hasn’t changed that much over the last 17 years. Rise was a very domestic film that mostly took place in the home or a laboratory, and with Dawn and now War we’ve gone much further afield—into the woods, into the wild. Since Gollum, we’ve worked with Weta closely for 17 years, so they now how my face works—every muscle twitch, every expression, every flicker of my eyelids. Those have been scanned and analyzed time and again, and there’s a team of artists who have grown to know how to interpret the performance that we shoot on the day. The rendering is so extraordinary.
Have you spoken with members of The Academy and noticed a sea change when it comes to the perception of motion capture? Because it’s about time these performances start getting some awards recognition.
I’ve always maintained that acting is acting, and there is no difference between putting on a costume and makeup and playing the role or just playing the role and having a digital mask placed on something you do afterwards. If you go back to the original films, they wore prosthetic makeup and that was the way of doing it then. This is the 21st century version of that. But the acting is the same. I’ve always maintained that there shouldn’t be any special category or a different way of approaching it. The visual effects awarding bodies will award the great work that the visual effects companies do, and I think the acting branches need to really get behind understanding what performance capture is, which is acting. It is changing. As more A-list actors play performance capture roles, the perception is changing, but I think it’s important to be fully understood for what it is. That has changed a lot, but it has a ways to go still.
Your character Ulysses Klaue featured quite prominently in the first Black Panther trailer. How would you define Klaue’s role in the film, and what would you say sets Black Panther apart from the rest of the films in the MCU?
It’s a great character. I think it’s gonna be an extraordinary film. I don’t want to discuss it much, since it’s such a long ways out. As you can tell from the trailer, it has huge vision. Ryan Coogler is one of the coolest directors, and the performances I was witnessing around me were absolutely extraordinary.
Are we likely to see more of Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi than we did in The Force Awakens?
You are likely to see more of Snoke, yes.
And in addition to all these projects, you also are putting the finishing touches on your directorial debut, Jungle Book.
Jungle Book is coming along really well. That’s going to be coming out next year, and it is, as we always intended, a darker version of the story—a PG-13 that is much closer to the tone of Rudyard Kipling’s book. It’s been a crazy year.
Serkis’ father is an Iraqi-born gynecologist of Armenian descent. He was primarily raised in the U.K. by his mother while his father worked abroad in various parts of the Middle East.
In an old profile, you said that you were “much drawn to the karmic possibilities of energy transference.” How does that apply to acting—embodying these different characters?
I seem to gravitate towards roles and projects that center on the notion of being an outsider. That really comes from my roots: my father being born and brought up in the Middle East and my mother from England, and me having a childhood that was partially in the Middle East and partially in England. I suppose I’m drawn to projects and characters that have something about the outsider in them. But I do believe in putting out good energy, and then hopefully receiving good energy. I hold that as a central belief.