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Andy Serkis on The Hobbit, the Oscars, and How to Do Your Best Gollum

Andy Serkis. Photo: Getty Images

The fellowship in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is more about the Dwarves this time around, but there is one creature in Middle-earth who really needs and finally gets some company: Gollum. When Bilbo falls into his cave, the two play a deadly game of riddles, and the hobbit escapes with his life by stealing the Precious, giving us one of the highlights of the film. The real crime, however, will be if Andy Serkis doesn’t get an Oscar nomination this time around. The actor, who pulled double-duty as the second-unit director on the Hobbit films, chatted with Vulture about what his awards season campaign might look like and how to best impersonate Gollum.

You’ve said that when you were getting back into character at first, you felt like you were doing an impersonation of an impersonation. Any specific impersonation? What did you think of Stephen Colbert’s?
He was brilliant! [Laughs] I think he was actually better than me. Like I told him, I might be out of a job. But on a daily basis, either someone asks me to do it, or they offer up their own, so it’s not any one specific impersonation, just the volume of them. I’ve never encountered that with any other role. It’s a strange phenomenon. They’ll ask me to leave a recording for a voicemail, and I do it with some signature Gollum/Smeagol-ness — [in Gollum’s voice] “They’re not here right now.” [In Smeagol’s voice] “Well, yeah, they are, but they’re just not answering!”

If you want to do your own, the key is to act like you have a furball. You wobble your neck, you constrict your voice, and you talk through it. And, you know, that’s how I got the voice of Gollum. I owe a lot to my Diz, my cat, who sadly isn’t with us anymore. It’s all Dizzy’s fault. He came into the kitchen, right when I was preparing for my first audition for Gollum, and I was thinking, What does Gollum sound like? And right then, Diz just threw up on the kitchen floor, like a furball. So I thought, Oh! It has to be something he can’t control. And his whole body moves with it: [in Gollum’s voice] “My precious.”

The key is the whole body. You’re not just doing the voice, even though some Academy voters are reluctant to recognize this. How do we change that? Any plans to release the riddles-in-the-dark scene with you and Martin Freeman before the CGI, the way Fox did for Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
I would think so. Peter’s probably got plans to do so, because we shot it as one continuous take, like a theater piece, and it was the first scene we shot. It’s a strange one, really. Fox was really proactive releasing the side-by-sides of me doing Caesar, and it’s only getting better, as far as combating that reluctance. It’s important for it to get better, because it’s the truth of the performance. I don’t want to be seen as an evangelist, but I’ve lived for years with people saying, “Andy Serkis is the voice of Gollum,” and that’s not the whole truth, so that’s been frustrating but it’s changing. Performance capture is now regarded as more of a different way of recording a performance, not a genre of acting. That’s been my main message, because you don’t approach the role any differently, if it’s CGI or not. It’s still about the psychology of the character and finding a physical vocabulary for it. And when Peter’s in the edit cutting it together, there is no Gollum there. He cuts together the actor’s performance, so the authorship of the role is the same.

This time around, you also directed second-unit. Your team had special jackets.
[Chuckles] Our production manager had those made: “Andy’s Flying Circus.” That was really fun. Second-unit can be cold and dislocated because of the scale, but we tried to make it fun. I think that’s why Peter asked me to do it, because he knew I was heading towards directing, and he trusted me, I guess, to be there to support the performances, and give him the maximum amount of choices.

Which specific scenes did you direct?
A lot of the stuff with the Dwarves in Bag End, the feasting and “Blunt the Knives.” Some of the troll fight, sequences that we built to fit into the big fight. All of the aerial shots, the traveling shots. A lot of Radagast the Brown, including his sledging with the rabbits. The warg chase, and all of the aerials of the Dwarves running around.

When you watch the movie, do you take extra pleasure noticing which moments are yours?
Yes! Especially the first time I watched it. I kept going, “Oh! Oh!” Plus, you know, when we were shooting in the studio, we had these incredible sets, but if there was any green screen in the back, I had to fill that in and see it in my mind’s eye first. We did a lot of pre-visualization and moving animatics of the scenes, because the way Peter works is you need a total piece, and then you riff on that and refine it. So I did a lot of work in lots of different ways.

Are you a Sherlock fan? Did working with Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug give you an extra thrill? Did you give Benedict any tips for doing performance capture?
I am a big Sherlock fan, and Martin and I had been circling each other in London for years. I remember seeing his first short film, and I am absolutely a fan of his. But I didn’t get a chance to work with Benedict, although we did meet up and I sort of encouraged him. He was training just before the shoot, and he was really keen to do it, so I told him, “Go for it.” Smaug is obviously a huge dragon, so performance capture is perfect for that, to show his real inner life. And it will totally read. You’ll be able to see his thought processes, even if it’s just facial capture. He’s an amazing creature.

So is Gollum. And he looks a lot better this time around.
He’s a lot hotter this time around. [Laughs] The teenage girls are going to love him! Sorry, I was being cheeky. I hope people don’t get the wrong impression — I don’t think anyone’s going to have a crush on him, even if they like bad boys.

Andy Serkis on How to Do Your Best Gollum