He’s portrayed many of the most iconic characters in Hollywood’s highest-grossing movies. And if you don’t recognise him, that’s the point
The man in the million dollar monkey suit
“People come up to me all the time and ask, ‘Can you do Gollum for me?’ or ‘Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?’” says the British actor whose portrayal as the former in the Lord of the Rings films earned critical acclaim, and as the latter in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens still provokes furious debate about, well, who is Supreme Leader Snoke.
As the supreme leader in performance-captured acting – a craft that requires being cloaked in cutting-edge computer graphics mapped to your every move and facial expression – Serkis has scored suitably majestic movie roles.
He played King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, and this year he’s reprising Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, playing villainous Klaw in Marvel’s Black Panther and, this month, returning for the third time to arguably his greatest role – emperor chimp Caesar, in War for the Planet of the Apes.
THE RED BULLETIN: How do you inhabit the role of a talking, super-smart ape?
ANDY SERKIS: A lot of people think performance capture is about pantomiming, doing extraneous movements and pulling your face about. It’s the opposite. Believe what you’re going through and it will read. It’s very nuanced what the cameras pick up.
Do you imagine yourself wearing an ape suit?
When I first played Caesar (in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes), I approached him as a being that felt like a human in ape skin. He’s brought up with humans and reflects human behaviour. I also based him on a real chimpanzee called Oliver, who was bipedal and demonstrated human physicality and expression. People called him a ‘humanzee’ and believed him to be the missing link – he literally looked like a blokein an ape suit.
There’s still no Oscar for performance capture. Don’t they realise it’s real acting?
They’re beginning to. There’s an old guard who will never get it. No matter how much you explain, they’ll go “But how long did it take you to put the make-up on?”
But if you did put make-up on, you could be nominated.
That’s the John Hurt argument. [Oscar nominated as John Merrick in 1980’s The Elephant Man.] It’s an amazing performance that relies on the artistry of a great make-up team. Here, it’s the digital artist transforming the actor’s physiognomy into an ape’s face. Watch the underlying performance and, in a way, you wouldn’t see anything different.
You’re directing The Jungle Book, with Benedict Cumberbatch as a motion-captured Shere Khan. Did you show him the ropes?
I certainly did not teach Benedict Cumberbatch how to act. He’s a talented physical actor and a force of nature. It’s a very powerful rendering of the role. Also, Christian Bale is playing Bagheera and Cate Blanchett is Kaa the snake.
Did these actors fall easily into performance capture?
They have the ability to place themselves in any situation as anything, because they have great imaginations. That’s all it requires. And you’ve got to not be vain, because your face is not going to be on screen, but your performance is.
Speaking of concealed faces – who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Come on.
I’ve got to be so careful here. I can’t say, I just can’t. You know, really, what you’ve seen of Snoke so far is a hologram. That’s all I can say…