Andy Serkis: Beneath the digital makeup, a box-office powerhouse

Andy Serkis: Beneath the digital makeup, a box-office powerhouse
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" star Andy Serkis has established a track record of box office hits. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Andy Serkis may be the only top-billed star in a summer blockbuster whom you wouldn't recognize if you passed him on the street.

A master of motion capture, Serkis has made his name breathing life into digitally rendered characters such as Gollum, King Kong and, most recently, Caesar, the hyper-intelligent chimpanzee at the center of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."


In doing so, the 50-year-old English actor has quietly emerged as a box-office powerhouse and dark-horse awards contender. Here's a look at some of his successes and upcoming ventures.

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-2003): Serkis landed his breakout role as Gollum, the covetous creature in Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy novel. It was Serkis' first experience using motion capture, which entailed him wearing a skintight suit outfitted with sensors. His movements were painstakingly recorded, converted to a computerized model and fleshed out by digital animators. As for Gollum's odd voice: It was inspired by Serkis' cat coughing up a hairball.

The "Rings" films were huge successes, grossing more than $2.9 billion combined at the worldwide box office and winning 17 Oscars, including best picture for "The Return of the King." Serkis garnered widespread critical acclaim for his performances, and his name popped up in the Oscar conversation as a potential nominee for supporting actor, though in the end he didn't get the nod.

"King Kong" (2005): Years before Serkis would play Caesar, he inhabited another famous cinematic ape, reteaming with Jackson for a remake of the classic monster movie "King Kong." Serkis once again donned a motion-capture suit, and this time he added prosthetic teeth and a microphone outfitted with a "Kong-a-lizer," which altered the sound of his voice. "Kong" received favorable reviews and grossed $550 million at the worldwide box office.

"The Adventures of Tintin" (2011): Though performance capture is often associated with live-action movies, Steven Spielberg used the technique in his animated adventure movie based on the beloved Belgian comics series. Serkis played Capt. Haddock, the hard-drinking merchant marine.

"Tintin" underperformed domestically, grossing $77 million, but it proved popular overseas, where it grossed $296 million. It also won the Golden Globe for best animated feature film.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014): By the time Serkis made his first outing in the rebooted "Planet of the Apes" franchise, advances in performance-capture technology allowed for more mobile and streamlined shooting, and more nuanced expression. "Rise" was a surprise hit to the tune of $481 million worldwide, and Serkis' performance was roundly praised, prompting studio Fox and costar James Franco to call for an Oscar nomination for Serkis for supporting actor.

"It is time that Serkis gets credit for the innovative artist that he is," Franco wrote in a guest post for Deadline Hollywood.

Academy members, however, once again proved reluctant to recognize Serkis with an acting nomination. Serkis' performance in "Dawn" has been much lauded too, and the sequel opened to $73 million and strong reviews last weekend.

"The Hobbit" trilogy (2012-2014): Serkis reprised his role as Gollum in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first installment of Jackson's second Tolkien trilogy. The movie met with mixed reviews but crossed the $1-billion mark at the worldwide box office. Many reviewers also cited Serkis as a highlight.

Serkis didn't act in the follow-up, "The Desolation of Smaug," which grossed $958 million worldwide and earned solid reviews, but he has been serving as Jackson's second-unit director on the trilogy, which will conclude with "The Battle of Five Armies" on Dec. 17.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Star Wars: Episode VII" and "The Jungle Book" (2015 and beyond): Next year, Serkis will appear in two more blockbuster franchises, Marvel's "Avengers" sequel and Lucasfilm's next-gen "Star Wars" movie. Who he'll be playing in either film has yet to be revealed, although it is known that he'll be consulting with Mark Ruffalo to take his Hulk performance to the next level in "Ultron."

Serkis is also set to put his performance-capture expertise to use as the director of an adaptation of "The Jungle Book" for Warner Bros.

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