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He’s good as dead

You’ve seen and not seen him, creeping along the slimy stones in hot pursuit of hobbits or hanging around the Empire State Building. But though Andy Serkis has breathed life into iconic characters, some of his most recognizable scenes have involved his demise.

“I’m going to cut a show reel together of my great death scenes. I think it could be a bestseller,” says Serkis with a deep-voiced laugh. After all, he has taken a swim in the fires of Mt. Doom in his performance-capture role as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and, perhaps even more memorably, plunged to his death as Kong (not to mention that in his small -- human -- role as a cook in “King Kong,” he was eaten head-first by a ravenous worm.)

“That’s a pretty good one,” Serkis says of becoming worm food. “My son’s been traumatized by that for years. He was about 5 when he saw that. The Freudian nature of his father’s death by CG hasn’t left him, really.”

Serkis, very much alive, is calling from New York, where he’s promoting his new fantasy film “Inkheart.” Based on the novel by German author Cornelia Funke, it concerns Silvertongues -- otherwise ordinary people who can bring written stories to life by reading them aloud. In the film, Silvertongue Mo (Brendan Fraser) is searching for his missing wife and is menaced by Serkis’ Capricorn, a character brought to life from the book “Inkheart” who is determined to stay in the “real” world and harness Mo’s power.

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The villain has ramrod-straight posture and a hard, shark-like smile suggesting a forced -- and brutally enforced -- humor. As with Serkis’ best-known performances, it’s that physicality that jumps out at the viewer, but those polished surfaces are just the tip of a carefully considered portrayal that adds brittle dimension to an otherwise simple movie.

“Capricorn, in the medieval world of the book, is a gopher, really,” Serkis says. “He’s really low status. He lives in the woods, he’s pretty much filthy and not very finessed. He hates that about himself and is full of anger about the fact that he’s been dealt a bum deck. When he gets dragged into the modern world, he absolutely adores everything it has to offer in terms of material gain.

“So he refines himself -- he would have had elocution classes and been taught to stand much in the way that, for instance, Adolf Hitler was taught by an actor how to speak and how to orate.”

The Hitler reference is not random; although one might miss it from casually watching the seemingly straightforward family film, Serkis says authoritarianism is a subtle theme.

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“There are undertones of the rise of fascism -- the references to black shirts, the burning of books. That rather Nuremberg-rally-esque pageantry that goes on, that Capricorn imposes on the villagers, is something that I found very interesting; the emblems that Capricorn was hanging onto as a way of showing his power. So I watched a lot of Leni Riefenstahl movies,” he says.

Scenes were shot detailing the character’s evolution from the lowly servant in the fictitious book to the tyrant outside it, but they didn’t make the final cut. He doesn’t mourn their loss; he focuses on what audiences can glean from what remains of Capricorn’s persona.

“When he is in public, he thinks he’s being witty, showing off how clever he thinks he is,” says the actor. “That fits his delusion of grandeur that we know dictators to have.”

Capricorn’s idea of charm is that vicious smile, mirthful as a hangman’s joke book. You could say his malevolence is written all over his face -- literally. The budding despot has passages of text magically tattooed across his visage.

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Soon, Serkis will start shooting Steven Spielberg’s installment of the “Tintin” series, another digitized performance-capture extravaganza that will “adhere very much to the style and the energy of Herge’s comic books.”

He’s also excited about playing punk-era rocker Ian Dury (“It’s not a straightforward biopic, it’s a more impressionistic view of his energy and life”), and he’s in talks to reprise Gollum in Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Hobbit.”

But apart from all this, the painter, tenor sax player and father of three is passionate about -- video games.

“I do believe it’s a hugely important arena of storytelling. When [children] play games, they will be receiving a massive amount of storytelling. We’ve got to be very, very careful with it. We need to put some good work into it,” he says. “I worked on a game two years ago called Heavenly Sword, trying to make the characters more emotionally engaging, and now performance-capture has reached a level where it’s possible to do that.”

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So Serkis hopes to remain on the frontiers of storytelling, bringing characters to life a la Silvertongues, committed to the importance of the task.

“I suppose I go through phases of believing and not believing it can change the world,” he says. “I still do hold on to that, that art can change the world.”

--

calendar@latimes.com

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