The man behind the masks
Best known for his groundbreaking motion-capture work, Andy Serkis is about to release his first film as director. He tells our film critic about his personal connection to the story of a disability-rights activist
His films have grossed billions, and he's worked with some of the most celebrated directors of his time. But if you put Andy Serkis in a line-up, film fans might struggle to pick him out. A star, yet not a star, the versatile English character actor is not immediately recognisable because his most celebrated performances have been hidden behind special effects and CGI.
His portrayal of Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy would surely have won him an Oscar if the motion-capture technology used to create the unfortunate villain hadn't been so experimental, and misunderstood, at the time. King Kong followed, and Serkis's work on the Planet of the Apes franchise is, if anything, even more impressive, but as Caesar, the implacable leader of a simian uprising, his face is once again obscured. And while there have been some memorable effect-free performances, in films like Brighton Rock and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Serkis has become synonymous with motion capture since the early noughties.
Don't feel too sorry for him, though. His expertise in what he winningly calls "cyber-thespianism" has made him a sought-after consultant, and in 2011 he and producer Jonathan Cavendish set up their own production company, The Imaginarium, which has provided motion-capture sequences for the Planet of the Apes films, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They've also started producing their own films, and with Breathe, Serkis makes his debut as director.
A moving and well-told period drama starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, it was a deeply personal project for both Serkis and producing partner Cavendish, because it tells the story of Cavendish's early life. His well-to-do parents were living the colonial high life in Kenya in the late 1950s when his father, Robin, contracted a particularly virulent strain of polio.
Within weeks he was paralysed from the neck down and could only breathe with the help of an iron lung. When the Cavendishs returned to England, Robin was condemned to a specialist hospital ward, and given just months to live. He wanted to die, but his young wife, Diana, who was pregnant with Jonathan, encouraged him to fight by promising to get him out of hospital.
The idea of a man with Robin's level of disability living at home was unheard of in those days, and angry consultants told Diana her husband would be dead in weeks. But she didn't listen, and Robin would live into his sixties, blazing a trail by living a remarkably full life and becoming a compelling disability rights campaigner.
"Breathe was Jonathan's idea, obviously," Serkis tells me, "but I'd got to know his mum Diana well, and knew the whole story, so it was a passion project for us both. My mother worked with disabled children, and my sister has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, so maybe that made it a bit easier for me to get at this story."
But he was wary, he says, of straying into a maudlin approach. "We could have been sentimental about it, but that wouldn't have been true to the Cavendishs and their attitude."
In the film, Robin employs the celebrated English stiff upper lip when describing his nightmarish condition as "a bit of a bugger".
"Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't seem to have come into it," says Serkis, "they wanted to get on with things, and live as full a life as possible. And they did."
Garfield gives a remarkable performance as Robin Cavendish, using his mouth and face to amplify the charm and playfulness of a sporty, active man cruelly condemned to total immobility.
"He's extraordinary in it I think," says his director. "He got to watch lots of home-movie footage of Robin, and really wanted to get as close to how he'd actually been as he could. He had these false teeth made that were exactly modelled on Robin's, and that helped him a lot I think, in terms of reaching the character.
"And he and Claire Foy worked together so well: when he was on set, he'd stay where he was, in that bed or on the chair, and Claire would be his helper. They developed this deep and intuitive understanding that really shows in the film, I hope."
In one of Breathe's most chilling moments, Robin visits a German facility for people with his condition and is shown a room where patients are kept in gleaming metal pods, with only their heads visible. "All that awful German technology, those pods, are exactly historically accurate," Serkis assures me. "Those doctors thought they were being kind to disabled people, I'm sure of it, but basically they were abandoning them to die.
"Robin had decided to live, and he and Diana were pioneers, they did things no one had done before and helped change attitudes. People said you couldn't do this and you couldn't do that, and they didn't listen. That gave their story another angle entirely, I think, and they gathered this whole kind of extended family around them who helped them in many ways, but were also so inspired by them."
In the film, Hugh Bonneville plays Teddy Hall, an Oxford professor who invents a motorised wheelchair so his friend can move around independently, and even embark on nerve-wracking foreign holidays.
I wonder what it must have been like for Jonathan Cavendish and his mother to see their lives so vividly dramatised. "Diana insisted on not watching it with me and Jonathan - she watched it with friends. I think if her and Jonathan had watched it together, it might have been too much. But it must have been overwhelming, all the same, seeing it all up there on a screen."
Breathe is released next Friday, and next year The Imaginarium will release their version of The Jungle Book, which Serkis has already finished directing, using the motion capture techniques that have become his trademark. "I loved what Jon Favreau did with the Disney remake last year," he says, "and I think it's a great piece of film-making, but ours is a lot darker.
"It's closer tonally to Rudyard Kipling's book, it's a PG13 and it's live action - we shot on location in South Africa as opposed to a CGI jungle, and we used performance capture as opposed to animation. All of our actors play the characters, like we did in Apes, so when Benedict Cumberbatch played Shere Khan, he was actually playing him on set and we physically captured him; Christian Bale with Bagheera, the same; Kate Blanchett playing Kaa the same. Also, it's a Mowgli-centric story (played by Rohan Chand), our version, so it really centres around his psychology and his search for his own identity, you know."
Serkis - who plays the existentially afflicted bear, Baloo, in the film - was eking a tidy but modest living from TV, film and stage work in the late 1990s when Peter Jackson approached him about playing Gollum in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Initially, Serkis thought it would be an animation voice-over job, and wasn't interested, but when Jackson explain that groundbreaking 'motion capture' technology would be used to record his every grimace and expression, allowing him to deliver a full and nuanced performance, he was fascinated.
"Despite all the technical stuff," he says, "I quickly realised that it's still acting, and becoming a character. But instead of putting on costume and make-up beforehand and then acting, it's like having all of that done afterwards, and you go through the same process of building the character emotionally and psychologically, and embodying the role." But it was only when playing King Kong in Peter Jackson's 2005 blockbuster that Serkis fully understood the potential of the technique.
"What's wonderful about motion capture is that it's this totally egalitarian acting tool, which levels the playing field because it allows any actor to play anything, no matter what your size is, what your shape is, what sex you are, what colour you are, it doesn't matter - as long as you can embody the character, you can become anything. I love it for that."
He believes that motion capture is going to play "a huge role" in the future.
"More and more films are using performance capture, we can now produce performance capture for television, it's already been used in video games, and we were recently involved in creating one of the first on-stage motion capture performances at the RSC with The Tempest. So it really is very much a part of the future of storytelling."
Does he ever get tired of people asking him about Gollum?
"No," he says, "I mean there are other things I'm proud of too, like Caesar in Planet of the Apes, and these directing projects. But I love the character of Gollum, and I'm very proud of him. He's been a huge part of my life, and he started me out on this journey."