He created Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and now British actor Andy Serkis takes on the iconic King Kong, creating a soul and emotional resonance for this extraordinary creature. It’s a seamless performance by an ingenious actor. Garth Franklin caught up with Serkis in New York.
Question: So I heard it was your idea for the ice sliding scene that takes place in the last act of King Kong?
Serkis: The true way that it happened was when we were experimenting with how Kong reacted to being put in the middle of Times Square, once he jumps out of the theatre, and he knows where he’s going up to that point because he’s very focused on Jack. But when he bursts out of the theatre, he’s suddenly in this environment, which is freezing cold — because of New York, winter — and he’s got this slippery stuff that he’s never encountered before having come from a tropical rainforest. So I started experimenting with him slipping and sliding.
On the motion capture stage, my original version of that scene was him slipping and spinning ’round, but I’m thinking kind of gathering up all these cars and trucks and people in between his legs as he’s spinning around. But Peter said, “No, let’s …” It was actually Peter’s idea to actually take that and make it into a scene between — he always had this intention to make a scene between Ann and Kong, which turned into this magical sort of moment in Central Park. And it was originally going to be a Christmas tree and him playing with the lights, a sort of innocence about it. So we transposed my idea and had Kong slipping on this slippery stuff which you would then find out was called ice with the Ann Darrow character, and that became a fleeting moment of reprieve before the attack ensued.
Question: Discuss the time you spent in Rwanda with gorillas. Were you ever in any danger?
Serkis: Sure. The story starts slightly before then when I was working at the London zoo. I spent a lot of time in the Regent’s Park Zoo with the four gorillas there. Zaire. There were three females and one male. One of the females is called Zaire, whom I particularly formed a relationship with. The thing about gorillas in captivity is that they reflect human behaviour a lot more than gorillas in the wild. That’s one of the things I was to discover, because they’re surrounded by human beings from birth. Their keepers. They’re reared by human beings and surrounded by “hunters” all day long.
But Zaire, this gorilla, chose me, she beckoned me over and we got on very, very well. The male of the group, Bob, didn’t like me at all. He intimidated me on a number of occasions because he didn’t really have the ability to be an alpha male since he’d been brought up in a circus with chimpanzees. So he didn’t have the social etiquette to know how to be an alpha male with these three females, so they found it frustrating. I was in the middle. So he used to take it out on me a bit, which included throwing a whole pile of rubble right at me when I had my video camera on him, and it smashed, scratched the lens of my camera.
So I spent two months at the London zoo and then I had the chance to go to Rwanda and seeing them in the wild is another thing altogether. You’re watching them in groups now. You’re watching them in big groups — 23 was the group I was part of — 23 animals, beautiful gorillas. And you see the whole structure and hierarchy of family in operation, 10,000 feet up in the Virunga Volcanoes. It was quite magical, really, and to have nothing between you and them is phenomenal. I was with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, who monitor their welfare and they’re habituated gorillas, so they’re used to human beings.
They didn’t know me. They spotted me immediately as the odd man in the group because they hadn’t seen me before and were very curious. They’d come up. You’re supposed to keep to the 7-meter distance between them so you don’t transmit human diseases because we share so much of the same genes, it’s very easy to transmit disease from us to them — and that’s fatal because it can wipe out a whole group very, very quickly. So I had a mask, I had a paper mask and they were very curious about that. So they’d come up and sort of be very curious with me. Then one or two of them would be cheekier, the young adolescents came running past and giving me a bit of a thump.
The one time I really — I didn’t feel so much in danger because I’ve been grilled in etiquette and how to respond, but there was a charge by one silverback that took me so by surprise because it was so fast. There’s very, very little warning. It’s all in the facial … it’s all in the eyes. They avert their gaze and then suddenly they’re off. It’s like nought to 60 in nothing. They stand their ground and they’re very rigid. They strut and rise up and they beat their chest. They beat their chests with open hands — as opposed to clenched fists, which they did in the original “King Kong” — because they have inflated chest sacs, which when they hoot, opens up and it sounds like a drum, the sound is very taut, like wood blocks. They beat their hands 17 times a second, very fast. Like that. That can be quite scary, but you’re supposed to not move. You’re supposed to defer. But it’s all bluff; it’s all display — unless you transgress that, and then you’re a fool.
Question: You’re the first name in this kind of motion capture acting. Do you have any thoughts on competitors like “Polar Express” and “I, Robot”?
Serkis: I think Gollum and Kong are both photo-real characters and actually, “I, Robot” was as well. But “Polar Express” was slightly different. It was a much more painterly style, much more animated style. It was slightly different from what we were doing, although it was I think the first film to use facial motion capture for capturing actors’ facial performances. But with this obviously, it’s not trying to replicate a human face. The difference between the way we tried to capture facial expressions with this and Gollum was with Gollum my performance was shot on 35 mm film, and the animators copied my facial expressions and keyframe animated that. With this, it was directly from 132 markers on my face, which then drove the CG face of Kong, of course with some of the animators then enhance that and augment the lower muscle movement because it’s very hard as a human being, the way that the jaw moves and the way it’s connected to what’s called the sagittal crest on a gorilla. But the eyes, particularly, represent the acting choices that I’ve made and all the physicality of the way that Kong is and his personality is portrayed through performance capture.
Question: Who played the dinosaurs then when Kong is fighting them?
Serkis: The T-Rex fight sequence is predominantly, I would say, the animators’ domain. What we did was to facially motion capture the entire fight, and then they basically took off my face and stuck it on the keyframed animated fight. I did some sequences with stunt men, but very little for the actual T-Rex fight. Some for when he’s hanging, to get the actual physics of him actually hanging, trying to get back up. That was specific and also the dramatic beats through a fight. Obviously a fight sequence is also telling a story; so there’s a progression through there with all the close-ups of the face when he’s being bitten and all those performance moments. But the actual physics of fighting with the three dinosaurs that was one area that was particularly keyframe animated because of the interaction of the other CG characters. But all the stuff with Ann particularly and the more static stuff, the more emotional stuff was more heavily physical motion captured stuff.
Question: In the motion capture sequence when Kong is pushing Ann around, did you have a Naomi Watts doll?
Serkis: Yeah, I did actually. I had several different Barbie dolls weighted with a lead shot. And a slightly more malleable one, sort of a rag doll weighted with lead shot that I could actually push with my fingers and pick up so there’s some weight. The motion capture phase — there are two phases to stages to creating a character. One is obviously the on-set performance, working opposite Naomi, and that was crucial for her performance and for synchronizing our performances so that we’re playing very specific moments together. Everything I was doing, she was able to respond to and everything that she was doing, I was able to respond to in the same way an acting performance would be working with someone on the other side of the camera, off camera. Peter’s prime aim to have an actor play Kong was so that the actress playing Ann Darrow didn’t have to imagine what Kong would be like. That way she wouldn’t have to make decisions for what he might be doing. I was doing those things, and Naomi could respond to them being the actress that she is. She’s phenomenally adept and she’s an amazing actress and wanted the connection.
If it had been any other actress who wasn’t interested in forming a connection, but just wanting to do a performance by herself, I think it wouldn’t have worked because it is all about the connection between the characters. She’s one of the best actresses of her generation, as far as I’m concerned. It was a pleasure and honour to work with her. The second part was then having shot the scenes on set with Naomi was then when we came to the motion capture. I got a chance to experiment with the personality and the character of Kong. I would then work off her shots, her close-ups. I was looking down at monitors for the less physical scenes where I could be static, set down. Kong is sitting down a lot, when he’s got Ann in his hands or is looking down at a place, specifically to her shots. And that’s how we synchronized the performances.
And in that motion capture phase, which was two months after principal photography, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Christian Rivers — the two writers basically and Christian Rivers who is really in charge of taking my performance through to WETA Digital. I just gave them lots of choices in terms of performance and how close Kong would be to human behaviour and how close he’s be to gorilla behaviour in how we expressed his emotions. We just carried on experimenting for weeks and weeks and weeks until we kind of cracked the character. That’s the joy of working in that way. You just keep going and keep going. So that’s the kind of two-step process for creating Kong.
Question: Was Kong more difficult to do than Gollum?
Serkis: Immensely more difficult because so much of Gollum was his voice and the way he spoke. The character emanated from his — he’s called Gollum because of the way he sounds. The physicality came out of the voice. I had to get myself into certain physical positions to make that voice really work. He explains himself to other people, his predicament, and he talks to himself in very rich dialogue from talking — from Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh. And that was one of the biggest challenges, how we were going to convey that range of emotion with a so-called mute character like Kong.
Of course once I started researching gorillas I found out that they used a lexicon of vocalizations. That was a big key into it. You found out that they sing, they chuckle, they have very specific ways of communicating within a group. And just the breath, actually. The breath worked throughout the whole thing. Again, in order to achieve a real performance — what we wanted to do, the way I was directed — was that on set I had a sound system for Naomi to respond to, but on the motion capture stage they recorded sound as well. So the sound is linked to the physicality. The chest expands and contracts. You’d have that breath happening for real and being recorded. So it wasn’t ever a sense of it being an effect with a sound effect stuck on top. It was enhanced of course. It was beefed up and very amazing things are done with the original sound that I made. But it emanates from a living, breathing creature, i.e. a human being creating those sounds in sync with a physical performance. So in that’s sense, it’s no different from doing dialogue. But the range of emotions and the experimentation with finding who his personality was — you know, the fact that he was unlocked by Ann. He as a character is changed, transformed by her, and years and years and years of this suppressed socialized behaviour that he has with these sacrifices that are put over the wall to him, the cycle is broken with her. And he’s freed to a certain extent, although he then becomes slightly disempowered by her in that transitional scene.
He’s an old — someone described him and I think it’s a quite cool way of looking at him — he’s an old, psychotic hobo. He really is. He’s not used to — although it’s in gorillas’ innate desire to connect with other beings — he’s just not used to it. The only contact he has are with creatures that are trying to attack him or threaten. All creatures are screaming at him and then he doesn’t know how to deal with them. We found that Ann Darrow’s strength is humour. Her character is an actress, is used to entertaining people and making people laugh. And that’s her way of surviving. And that’s the way she engages Kong. Gorillas have a sense of humour. They do. They have a huge range of emotion. And finding the humour there was a big, big key into their relationship.
Question: What was your reaction seeing your performance on the big screen?
Serkis: I’m still recovering from it really, because I’ve lived and breathed every single moment of that character for such a long time now. I’ve seen it change incrementally from CG, the motion capture puppet, the slight renderings, the layers and the levels, and then three weeks ago it still wasn’t finished. I’m recording the final vocal tracks. Last night — I have to watch it again. I was so overwhelmed. It’s such an assault on the senses all around. I’m really dying to see it again as quickly as possible. Because you just pick everything apart when you’re watching your own performances. It was very hard last night to get really emotionally carried along by it because I was being a bit analytical.
Question: Is there more motion capture in your acting career or go for flesh and blood roles?
Serkis: I don’t see the difference between flesh and blood and motion capture. For me, acting’s acting. What I’ve done with Gollum and Kong is no different to any other character that I’ve ever played. It’s acting. I don’t cut out a chunk of my flesh and blood mode, put it on a hanger and insert ones and noughts and do a different type of — it’s just acting to me. Whatever. It’s all through the character and script. If someone came up and said, “Now, here’s a great CG role,” and I read it and thought the script’s amazing, okay, it’s a CG role. It wouldn’t make any difference to me.