‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Star Andy Serkis to Awards Voters: I’m a Real Actor

“It is crazily Luddite and backward-thinking to not recognize what we do as acting,” the performance-capture virtuoso tells TheWrap

Andy Serkis has spent the last 17 years of his career playing memorable roles that look nothing like him. Whether as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, King Kong in Peter Jackson’s version of the giant-ape flick or the chimpanzee leader Caesar in the three recent “Planet of the Apes” movies, Serkis has become the face of performance-capture technology, always alongside the visual-effects artists at the New Zealand-based Weta Digital.

“War for the Planet of the Apes,” the new film in which Serkis stars as an angry Caesar who faces off against a brutal human colonel played by Woody Harrelson, may well be the most astonishing example to date of what performance capture can achieve. Director Matt Reeves’ film is epic in scale, but also deeply intimate: For every large-scale battle scene, there are half a dozen startling dialogue scenes shot almost entirely in close-up.

The last in a trilogy that began with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and also included 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the new movie is one of the year’s best, both a thrilling action movie and a poignant character study. The fact that most of its characters are simian rather than human doesn’t make them any less indelible — but it might make Serkis and his co-stars a little less likely to reap acting awards for their efforts, a sad state of affairs that we definitely got around to discussing.

Not long ago, you posted a video on Facebook [below] in which your face morphs into Caesar’s as he’s talks about how a better world could emerge out of the carnage, “a world dedicated to freedom, tolerance and justice.” Is there a message there beyond promoting your movie?
[Laughs] That’s what these “Planet of the Apes” movies are for! They were created back in 1967, 1968 to have a resonance with the world that surrounds them. And this is no exception. We do live in very dark times, and empathy is a problem around the world, full stop. And this film is all about that.

But we’re not making a movie that’s topical. It’s not satire, it’s not “Saturday Night Live,” we’re not talking about Donald Trump. It’s not that direct. Hopefully, when you watch this movie in 10 years time, whatever is happening in the world at that time will resonate in a similar way, really.

But it’s incredible, because Matt [Reeves] and Mark Bomback wrote this script two years ago, and the notion of a wall being built was not in common parlance at the time. These films do tend to be slightly prophetic. So the idea of isolation and fundamentalism and us and them, and one side or one belief system being better than the other, is what we’re living with at the moment in this world. The ways of expressing that do tend to find their way into the use of this metaphor.

For years, we’ve been having a conversation about why the Oscars and other acting awards never recognize performance-capture acting. Is is frustrating that the conversation is still going on?
It is frustrating, actually. Some awards bodies do recognize it and some haven’t yet. But it is crazily Luddite and backward-thinking to not recognize what we do as acting.

You do not approach these roles in any other way than you would a live-action character. You’re going through exactly the same process: You’re acting with other actors, you’re delivering a performance. And in a way, as you see from that video, what’s great now is that the technology is getting closer to honoring the authorship of the role. Hopefully, as the time goes by, people will see that is the case.

Performance capture is an actor’s tool. Without being disparaging in any way, shape or form to animators, the actor is the sole driver of character, not a committee of animators. This is a live-action role invented by the actor and director on the set, and in a sense the visual effects artists are trying, in the manifesting of the character, to get to the emotional core of what was delivered on the day, and what the director lived with in the cuts for months before the visual-effects shots came in.

When people say to me, “Do you do the voice of Gollum?” or “Do you do the voice of Caesar?” it’s like, “Are you kidding me?” We’re on the set for months playing these roles — it’s not like we stroll into a voice booth for a couple of hours and talk into a microphone while someone video references us. It’s a totally different method of work, as you well know. And we’re still having the conversation.

You’ve always been of the opinion that performance-capture acting should be considered alongside all other acting, not given a special award or its own category, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m really, really of that opinion. There’s no special skill to doing what we all do in the “Apes” movies, whether it’s Steve Zahn playing Bad Ape or Terry Notary playing Rocket or Karin Konoval playing Maurice. You could do this with prosthetic makeup, except that you would have to fight through an artifact to play with the level of nuance that we can. You’d be struggling with a layer that would probably disable you from being as truthful as you are without that stuff.

Performance capture has had this mystery attached to it for so many years, because somewhere along the line people started believing that the performance is enhanced. And it’s not enhanced. It’s a manifestation that is necessary to make the performance look believable on an ape’s physiognomy. But the performance is what the actor does.

The remarkable thing about this movie is that a huge portion of it is told in close-ups of ape faces, and yet we buy every second of it.
I know. It’s cool. Weta has done extraordinary work. I’ve worked with them for the last 17 years, and they are world leaders in performance capture, and in interpolating performance from an actor’s face to a digital creature. But it isn’t just technology — it’s skills. It’s a knowledge base built up by people who’ve done this year after year, who’ve studied, for instance, my physiognomy to the nth degree, who know every single muscle move and expression and twitch that my face does.

Of course the skin texturing, and the fur and the eyes and all of that stuff is improving, but it is the artists who are able to make all that work.

As a performer, has the experience of doing it changed significantly for you over the course of the three “Apes” movies?
The materials are more robust. “Rise,” as you remember, was a very domestic film. It took place in a laboratory, an ape facility or a house, apart from the bridge scene at the end. But with “Dawn” and this one, the equipment was more robust. We could work in minus conditions, in rain, in 100 percent humidity. All of that kind of stuff is improved.

But it doesn’t affect you as an actor. All the scenes take place on a live set looking into the eyes of the other actors. But that has been the case since “The Lord of the Rings.”

So what were the biggest challenges for you on this one?
When I started working with Matt on it, we wanted to make Caesar feel much more human-like as he evolved. And so we were always testing the limits of how far we could go without breaking him and turning him into “Man in Ape Suit,” albeit a digital ape suit.

Caesar has gone through this process of a sped-up evolution, so when it’s down to language and linguistic articulacy, how do we do that without making him sound too casual and too human? And in terms of physicality, he’s much more human-like. He’s bipedal for nearly all of it, and he uses his hands differently, he opens his chest differently and all the rest of it.

In “Dawn,” the challenge was, how do we see apes begin to use human language? In that film, human language was used in a very direct, emotional way — staccato sounds and staccato words worked very well. Whereas this was much more complex. We had Caesar speaking as a human does, but finding an ape way of doing that.

And also, of course, there’s a massive change in the direction of the character. He was a peace-broker trying to desperately hold onto his empathy for human beings as well as apes, but the events at the beginning of the movie completely shatter that, and he becomes full of hatred and rage. Emotionally, it’s a much darker film, and in a sense was drawing much more on me and my emotions than previously.

As he walks more upright, does that make it easier for you physically?
It does, absolutely. Without doubt. [Laughs] But that was countered by the fact that I spent most of the time getting beaten up. Every single day was an intense experience, whether it was emotional, physical, the snowy conditions, the pouring rain in that bleak concentration-camp set … It was a really dark time when we were shooting, in many ways.

Does that affect you personally, or can you shrug it off and have fun?
Well, obviously you can break away from it sometimes. But most of the time, I was strapped down or put in a cage or isolated in one way or another — something drastic was happening to me. You kind of have to keep in that zone, and it’s quite hard to pull out of it. And also, you want to be in that right emotional space to do those scenes. There were times on some of the other movies where there was levity on set, but they seemed to be few and far between on this one.