You won’t recognize Andy Serkis as the lead ape in Rise of the Planet of Apes, but then again, Serkis rarely plays someone recognizable. The motion-capture actor is best known for his turn as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise, a part he’ll reprise in the two upcoming Hobbit installments. He’s also got Steven Spielberg’s motion-captured The Adventures of Tin Tin coming up, and in this week’s reboot/prequel of Planet of the Apes, his portrayal of a simian named Caesar makes you want to switch teams: You can’t help rooting for the chimps. Vulture caught up with the versatile Englishman to talk about his monkey business (he was also the non-human lead in King Kong), cuddling with James Franco, and the art of making Gollum sing.
When Caesar’s a baby, he’s so cute. I almost wanted my own ape!
Good! [Laughs.] That’s the response we want.
Obviously, though, you’re not baby-size. That’s just facial capture, right? At what point did your full-body performance kick in?
When Caesar’s a toddler, so really, when James Franco is teaching him sign language, and you see him at the table. All that really early toddler stuff is what physically I was doing — running around, jumping around, when he gets injured by the next-door neighbor. And even though it’s still not my size, I could play the top body. There’s ways to get around it. But all that play between him and Freida Pinto, that’s all for real on the set.
Even all the stunts?
Obviously, there’s stuff that’s physically impossible to do, but some of the climbing I did, some of the spinning, the twisting. Some of it was done by a digital double, the same way a stuntman would do dangerous stuff. And that’s where the divide would happen. What the animators will do is take reference for the stuff you are capturing, and be able to morph into that, so the facial capture is still there, and at the end of the day, there’s the physicality and the emotional journey.
So much of Caesar’s relationship with James’s character is physical, especially with the changes over time in how they hold each other. Is James a good cuddler?
He’s a great cuddler. [Laughs.] The great thing about James, he totally bought into the process, and the fact that I was wearing a performance-capture suit and a performance-capture helmet with a camera rig on it, it really made no difference after half an hour of acting together. Because it’s all about the eyes. And he was only going to be as good as the Caesar he was playing opposite, and vice versa. Caesar goes from this young innocent who believes himself to be the progeny of his father figure, and the dawning realization as he questions who he is, what he is. When he’s called on to defend his family, he experiences rage and aggression for the first time, which is out of kilter with the love he’s been taught to have. And then he’s ejected into this hard-core prison environment, in effect, with a bunch of dysfunctional apes he can’t connect with, and it drives him to a place where he needs to make a choice between the humanity he’s grown up with, with James’s character, and his own kind, and leading them to a revolution.
Which is why he can’t really fully hug James anymore.
He’s reached a point where he’s distancing himself. So there’s a respect, a thank-you, a mano a mano moment, and it’s time for them to let go.
Was there a lot of monkeying around on set?
The crew was always throwing bananas at us! And there was a lot of monkey jokes, piss-taking, but we rose above it. [Laughs.]
The original Planet of the Apes movies had a time-travel paradox: The apes are evolved only because they went back in time and gave birth to an ape in our time, also named Caesar.
Yeah, so we’re ditching that. I wasn’t watching Roddy McDowall and thinking, How do I become him? We’re free to start all over again. These are apes that we know, not humanoid apes thousands of years down the line. And if we get to make the next one, I think it would be amazing to see how the apes begin to organize their society.
You get the sense that Caesar would push for democracy. After all, he gets to be alpha male by giving everyone cookies.
There you go! [Laughs.] He’s not a dictator. When he’s leading the charge across the bridge, it’s because they’re trying to find a haven; they’re not on a rampage to destroy everything in their way. When the policeman gets dismounted off his horse, and Buck the gorilla wants to get him, Caesar stops him and says, “No.” Because he still retains some of that humanity that he’s grown up with. So that’s the route he’d take.
If Caesar’s not a dictator, is Gollum? What are you like as a director, now that you’re doing second-unit on The Hobbit?
I’m a complete fascist now. [Laughs.] No, you work with film directors on set, and some of them shout and scream and bully. But others lead by example and collaborate and allow people to be valued. And that’s how I think it works. I’m learning from Peter [Jackson]. He’s the perfect example of a leader who leads by enabling. It’s about people feeling good about what they’ve done, and then you get the best work out of people. So that’s kind of how I work. And I’ve been directing everything from drama to battle sequences to big stunt scenes to inserts of maps to vista shots.
But not Gollum’s Cave.
I didn’t direct anything with Gollum. That would have been too much. But oddly enough, there was a day on Lord of the Rings where I directed myself: the Smeagol/Deagol fight that led to the ring. So it can be done, but not with such a lot going on.
How do the advancements in performance-capture technology that we see in Rise of the Planet of the Apes affect how you do Gollum this time around?
We shot on the live-action set, Bilbo and Gollum acting with each other, because WETA reached that point, and that will be the modus operandi for the rest of time.
Have you changed how you do Gollum, because this time he’s not in as much withdrawal?
He’s still pretty paranoid about losing the ring. The big thing is that he’s nearly 600 years old in Lord of the Rings, and in The Hobbit he’s 540 years old, so that’s a subtle difference. But you know, there are now so many impersonations of Gollum out there in popular culture, it was like, “Hold on, I’ve got to bring it all back inside and put him on again.”
Like when people sing as Gollum? Did you see Adam Savage do “I Will Survive”? What did you think?
I saw that! I thought it was okay.
You could do better.
[Laughs.] Of course I could. Singing as Gollum is my secret weapon.