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In the primate of his life

Times Staff Writer

It’s the eyes. Sometimes blue and fierce, blazing with pain, at others brown and gentle, looking for love. But always they are expressive. They have gazed down from the heights of a movie screen for years now, though rarely from the same face.

While actors always try to shift their appearance from role to role, few are as unrecognizable as Andy Serkis has been. Then again, he’s not really known for playing humans. Serkis’ movements and facial expressions were captured for the computer-generated creation of the pale and wasted Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and again for the title character of Jackson’s just released “King Kong.”

But it’s his eyes that bring a certain humanity to the creatures he plays, a wounded look, a longing for understanding. And, for “Kong” especially, his nuanced physicality creates an empathy for his characters.

Serkis spent 18 months creating the 24-foot Kong, which included working for several months as a temporary keeper to four gorillas at the London Zoo.

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And much like Kong becomes smitten with his beautiful captive, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), Serkis became the object of the affections of a thirtysomething female ape named Zaire.

“She became particularly attached to me,” says Serkis over the phone from Wellington, New Zealand, where “King Kong” had premiered the night before.

“We had a strong relationship. She used to bound up to me every day and would recognize me. In fact, I saw her a few days ago -- a year and a half after we started -- and she totally recognized me.”

Zaire also became quite possessive of the 41-year-old British actor whenever he tried to spend time with his other charges.

“The thing is, when you are up close and personal, gorillas in captivity particularly seem to reflect human behavior a lot more because they are surrounded by human beings all the time. We are 97% genetically the same.”

But that 3% difference kept Serkis from entering the gorillas’ cage. “It was too dangerous,” he says. So he played with them through the bars.

“Zaire would flick a stick at me through the bars and I would flick it back. She would try and pull my shoes. She would put her hand through the bars and wanted to sniff my hands. It was extraordinary. The more you spend time with them, the more you realize how similar they are to us. They do have this extraordinary range of emotions and facial expressions.”

But that wasn’t the case when he arrived at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in Rwanda to study mountain gorillas. “I was working with these primatologists who taught me about socialized gorilla behavior and the hierarchy in the group,” Serkis says.

“When you’re with mountain gorillas, because they live in a rarified atmosphere and are surrounded by their own, there is an otherness about them, an air. They are much more enigmatic and slightly less expressive facially.”

Serkis and Watts performed every Kong and Ann scene together, no acting to a green screen. “If you have two characters in a scene -- Ann Darrow and King Kong -- you don’t have Ann Darrow making character decisions for King Kong,” Serkis says.

“She has got to respond in a real and truthful way to what the other characters are doing.”

To aid their performances, Serkis wore a furless gorilla muscle suit. To simulate the knuckle-walking gait of a gorilla, he used arm extensions and sometimes walked on his knuckles.

“One of the crucial ways we were able to link for me emotionally on the set was the use of a sound system” he says. “I was close-miked up to a real-time sound process, which dropped my voice by three octaves, and it went out through massive speakers on set so Kong’s presence was very much there. I had learned these gorilla vocalizations when I was researching the gorillas in Rwanda.”

Serkis found the only difference in playing these scenes as opposed to a conventionally acted scene was that he was “raised up on cranes and ladders. It was to create an eye line for her. Sometimes we would be fairly close, and it was quite intimate. I would be just past the camera so she could reach out and stroke my face.

“Also, the relationship between Ann and Kong has to evolve, and you can only have that if there is an emotional dialogue between them. Naomi seriously affected me and I affected her.”

Ready for his close-up

Upon completing his scenes opposite Watts, Serkis spent the next two months on the motion capture stage at WETA Digital (Jackson’s special-effects house) giving the character emotions, expressions and a distinct movement that animators would turn into the computer-graphically animated ape.

“When it came to playing the scenes on the performance capture stage, I would play off her close-ups,” Serkis says. “We would have small hand-held monitors sometimes in the eye line of me playing to her. I was responding specifically to what she was doing on the set. The scenes are totally connected. There is nothing generalized or random about [Kong’s] response.”

Serkis says technically it was more difficult to play Kong than Gollum on the performance capture stage “because of the proportionality of the character. With Gollum, my performance was filmed on 35 millimeter and the animators key-framed my facial expressions to match. Gollum’s face looks more like me than Kong.”

To play Kong in the lavish remake of the 1933 classic, WETA used facial-motion capture. Serkis donned 132 electrode-like markers that “captured my facial movements as well as Kong’s eye movements. The thing about gorillas is that there is a central connection they have to you without necessarily looking at you. We didn’t want to make every single Kong moment a movie moment with him gazing into her eyes. When he looks into her eyes is specific and reflects my acting choices.”

Screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh worked with him on the motion-capture stage evolving the character.

“What we would experiment with is how gorilla he would be in order to convey his emotions. We realized it would be stronger to keep him much closer to gorilla behavior and allow the audience to project their emotions on him, because if you spoon-feed them every facial expression, it doesn’t work. There is a sense of mystery about the character that you don’t know 100% of what he’s feeling.”

Because Kong’s arms are longer than his back legs, says Serkis, “we had to build every single set on the motion capture stage on two levels, so I could knuckle walk on raised podiums. It was like learning another physical language.”

Jackson, he says, is an “amazing collaborative” director who “trusts the self-reliance of actors. He will point in your direction, but he was entrusting quite a lot in my own intuition.”

Jackson was so taken with one of Serkis’ improvisations he went back and reshot the sequence between Ann and Kong in Central Park. Initially, the scene had the two taking a brief respite sitting among some Christmas trees in the park. Now it is a hauntingly touching scene in which the two slip and slide on the frozen pond before they are discovered by the authorities.

“I played the scene [on the stage] where he bursts out of the theater and into Times Square slipping all over the place because this is a totally alien environment for me. Peter decided to make that into the ice pond scene.”

Serkis also appears in the film as the salty dog of a cook named Lumpy who meets a particularly nasty end on Skull Island at the grasp of voracious pit slugs.

“It is a cool death scene,” Serkis says. “I think Pete kind of relished the fact he had given me an on-screen character and then devoured me with CG.”


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