Andy Serkis is mostly known for characters who don’t show his face: A 25-foot amiable gorilla, a tiny sleazy rat, and a certain bug-eyed, pale fellow who craves his “precious” from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it seems these days, his name rhymes with the way his career has been going of late.
Serkis (pronounced "circus") admits his career is a bit of a three-ring circus, and he's having trouble himself knowing which way to turn. In one corner he's spending the year working on an upcoming video game. In another corner, he's showing his face in dramatic, action adventure and thriller roles like The Prestige, Stormbreaker, Longford, Rendition and Sugarhouse Lane. And most recently, he's continuing his anonymity, voicing his first animated role as a rat in Flushed Away (coming out Nov. 3), from the team that won Best Animated Feature last year at the Academy Awards for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
"Yeah, I'm keeping busy, and in an odd way it is like starting all over again, because people are only beginning to recognize me as something other than Gollum," laughs Serkis.
The rather scruffy 42-year-old British actor embodied the spidery character in all three Lord of the Rings films, and he’s the guy who gave King Kong all his movies, even though he also did a cameo in the film as Lumpy, the cook.
He can now also be seen as the sidekick to real-life inventor Nicholas Tesla (David Bowie) in the fictional The Prestige, co-starring Michael Caine, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. He co-stars with Jackman again in the animated Flushed Away as said rat, with a vocal cast which also includes Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen and Jean Reno.
Serkis sits down with Hollywood.com in the usually secretive DreamWorks Studios in Glendale, Calif. He says a lot of people were surprised that this is the first time he's voiced an animated role—particularly his directors, David Bowers and Sam Fell, who were also on the studio back lot to promote the DreamWorks/Ardman collaboration.
"This is actually the first time I've ever done a voice for an animation," he laughs. "People seem to think that I've done and so on, but I haven't. This is actually the very, very first time. . . . . [I'm] playing a sort of neurotic rat who wants to be bigger than he really is."
At the time he was voicing the role, he was studying gorilla moves for King Kong. "When you do an animation you do literally three or four hours on your first day and then you don't see the character again for six months, seven months while the animators work on it and then you come back and you do another sessions for three hours and then again like that. So it was a very new way of working for me. I mean, luckily in the very first session I got the chance to work with Bill Nighy. So we worked out characters and our voices kind of in counterpoint really. I mean, obviously, he's also going to be a slower kind of character. So we were able to sort of our pitch our characters to each other."
Serkis and Nighy portray Spike and Whitey, two rats who work for an evil toad (McKellen). They are out to destroy an underground town in the sewers of London inhabited by a rat named Rita (Winslet) and her family. Roddy (Jackman) is a pet rat that accidentally gets flushed down the toilet to the town and befriends Rita.
"We really lucked out with our cast, we got exactly everyone we wanted, because they were all such a fan of Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit, so they just came to the studio and read what we gave them," says Bowers, who worked on the Oscar-winning Were-Rabbit animated feature as well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Chicken Run, Shark Tale and The Prince of Egypt. Fell worked on the Oscar-nominated short Wat's Pig. This is the first feature film for both directors.
"It was fun working with Andy because he had experience with this doing the motion-capture work, but he also was coming at it as a new experience," says Fell.
The newest experience Serkis is excited about working on is his own directorial debut, which is also in the works.
"Before I became an actor I studied visual art and then when I started getting into theater I started designing sets and I was lucky enough to go to a college where they had a great program for theater so I've always wanted to—appropriately for certain stories—take a more objective view of a story rather than just seeing it from one perspective," Serkis explains. "So I started directing short films and I've directed a play recently, and I also suppose that working on Lord of the Rings and King Kong where—there is an element of motion capture where you have a third eye on your performance and you're kind of choreographing yourself into a scene and learning the sort of technological side of that has made me realize that I've been sort of writing for a while. So I've been pushing towards directing for some time."
The first project he wants to helm is based on the life of Sir Eadweard Muybridge, who confessed to a murder and was a pioneer in camera innovation. "The movie is called Freezing Time, and he is the photographer who sort of invented stop-motion photography and really is a kind of forefather of cinema as we know it. He's an amazing character who is, again, sort of an obsessive character, a workaholic. He's got a very twisted and very interesting life story."
Serkis continues: "Then there is another film called Addict which is based on an autobiography by a man called Steven Smith which is about this child who basically takes a wrong turn in life and through committing a minor crime is sentenced to a mental institution by his father who is embarrassed of him. He's committed to a young offender's prison and is basically committed to a mental institution for medical reports, and during the process of that happening he ends up being put on Dexedrine by the doctors and then ends up abusing it. It really is an amazing story that takes place over twenty years in the '50's, '60's and '70's. So that's something that I've been working, that script, for the last kind of year-and-a-half with the writer."
He doesn't plan to be in the films, just direct. With his acting, Serkis has gone off on a more serious direction, too. "I think that there've been two roles recently like that that I've played. One is this film Rendition where there is a serious, serious responsibility about what we're doing in that film and in Longford' which was about Lord Longford's campaign for [accused murderer] Myra Hindley's release. There is a serious amount of responsibility to cause change, to cause political change. Rendition is [kidnapping thriller] that's happening as we speak and is something that's not known about. So that was very much a part of accepting that role and accepting that project. You're taking on the stance of the film as you're holding up that banner, and sometimes, as you say, you realize that at certain times in your life you're taking on a role that you hope will make big changes or cause change in some way."
He's also going to show his face in the upcoming action adventure family film Stormbreaker with his rat co-star Nighy. "We started working on [Flushed Away] after that one and it's a great kids' book. For that age group they are really, really great, kind of empowering kid's books and I think that Alex Rider the main character is a really sort of cool model. Obviously, Mr. Grin was just like another freak to stick in the gallery really for me, and I still was doing Kong or I had just come back from doing Kong , and it was a couple of days work and I was like, 'Yeah. I fancy that.' "
A project he didn't think he would fancy at first is working on a video game called Heavenly Sword. Not a gamer, Serkis says he has spent most of his year this year working on his performance for the game.
"I got involved with it through a company called Ninja Theory who is producing Heavenly Sword. They approached me and I thought that there was a real gap between concept art and the look of it and the technology and actually the performance. Well, there is a real appetite out there for games now with performance. I didn't know really what this was about. I hadn't done games before and so I came at it purely from a dramatic perspective. So I got involved in the story design and the character development and then in the casting," he says. "We went back to New Zealand and we rehearsed it and then we shot all the motion capture. I directed all the performances for that game."
He has two sons and a daughter, who have just become school age, and he fears they are better gamers than he will ever be. "I'm beginning to understand the enjoyment and the kind of excitement and how you can get engaged in games. I think that we're just at the beginning of it and I think that it's so how storytelling is going to be received by people. I think that it is worthwhile to invest a lot of time, and I'm prepared to and want to invest my time into games, because my kids are getting to the point where they're going to start playing them. There are so many bad games out there."
It's only a matter of time that acting schools will have to teach acting for video games, Serkis says. "I think that kids at drama school should do that, and in the future I think that games will be part of the whole thing. . . . With motion capture it's the same thing. You've got a hundred dots all over your face and so the first thing that you're aware of are those dots and then the next day you forget about that and you just get on with it. It's a very pure form of acting. "
For Serkis, the one role that he still would love to play doesn't seem out of character in the least. "I'd love to play The Hunchback of Notre Dame because I think that's a tremendous character." He adds, "If Peter Jackson is ready to do it, so am I. But then, we did use a lot of the Hunchback in both Kong and Gollum."