Andy Serkis' ape evolves, and so does motion-capture acting

Andy Serkis' ape evolves, and so does motion-capture acting
As Andy Serkis' character Caesar becomes more advanced in the "Planet of the Apes" films, so do Serkis' motion-capture performances. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

This isn't about technology. It's about acting. It's about performance.

"We wouldn't be having any of these debates about whether it's acting or not had we been wearing prosthetic makeup," says the nattily dressed Andy Serkis, who has taken the art of performance-capture acting to new levels. "The important thing to remember is that we're not there as reference for animators, to work from later on. These are our performances, authored on the set. It's what will become the cut for months to come before the effects are put in."


Among the actor's iconic portrayals are Gollum, King Kong and now Caesar, the most human of chimpanzees in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and this year's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." But Serkis, 50, was a successful stage, television and film actor before bursting onto the international scene as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy; since then, he has been honored by the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, the Emmys, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and many others.

So let's stipulate he is an accomplished actor who approaches his work as an actor.

"When I read the script [of 'Rise'], it became apparent to me that this was the most incredible journey of a character that happened to be an ape. It's the story of an outsider who is like a gifted child," he says. "It was obviously very important to research apes, but I always approached Caesar from the other way 'round, almost like a human trapped in ape's skin."

Between "Rise," the first precursor to "The Planet of the Apes" movies of the late '60s and early '70s, and its sequel "Dawn," Caesar has become the founder of a simian society.

"I looked a lot at world leaders and based him mostly, I suppose, on Nelson Mandela in that he's an egalitarian leader who is not leading in any sense from a position of being authoritarian, but trying to value everyone within a society," says Serkis.

"Then I looked a lot at leaders in the beginnings of their terms and at the end, and the way they've been physically affected. How it bears in their faces, the stress of having to make decisions every day."

Serkis has a unique view of Caesar's progression.

"I've played him all the way through his life. The way he uses his hands in 'Rise' is much more simian. In this one, the way he uses his hands is much more human-like.

"He's much more bipedal in this, and I was quite pleased because I'm a little bit older myself," he says with a sly smile. "Playing Caesar as an infant and how physically tiring that was, the energy and bounding around as this young, bright, very energetic child, to now — the weight and the bearing, the gait of the character."

Not only did the actor have the obstacles of an ape's physicality and severely limited spoken dialogue, but he had to communicate on different levels with apes that covered the spectrum from normal to enhanced intelligence. Much of Caesar's dialogue is in American Sign Language, some in simian vocalizations and some in spoken English. Serkis wore a sports mouth guard to keep himself from over-articulating.

These types of physical demands may be easier for observers — including Oscar voters — to get their heads around than the intellectual and emotional aspects of the performance.

"His choices are complex," Serkis says of Caesar. "He is the most internally conflicted because he has this worldview that is sympathetic towards humans. Caesar is an empathetic character, and the weight of empathy breaks you down."

Performance-capture technology has progressed to the point where tiny articulations of mouth muscles and the refraction of light in an actor's eyes are faithfully interpreted. Serkis is quick to point out that the expertise of those wielding that technology has likewise risen to new levels.

But, he notes, those improvements simply reinforce the quality of the actor's performance. Serkis' Caesar is layered and heartfelt. The ape bears the weight of being not only a warrior and leader but also a husband and father.


"That scene towards the end, where he really connects with his son for the first time … Caesar has to explain that the big flaw in his understanding, his big failing as a leader, was assuming that apes are better than humans," says the actor. "That was a very, very complex and emotional scene."

Serkis has seen it from in and out of the green leotard now, as he is directing a formidable cast in the performance-capture "Jungle Book."

"We've got Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale delivering incredible performances. As soon as you do it, actors realize there is no difference playing a performance-captured role or a live-action role.

In "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "they don't have to imagine Caesar standing there; it's not a tennis ball on a stick with an actor reading lines off [as is often the case with special-effects movies]; you're working with an actor who's giving energy back to you, making you feel something.

"That's what acting is."