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Andy Serkis, Caesar the Ape, Has a Message for the Academy

That ambiguity has been the source of much film-world controversy. A 2011 campaign by 20th Century Fox to have Mr. Serkis nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” has not persuaded the academy or other major groups that performance-capture acting is, as Mr. Serkis put it during an interview here last month, “no different” from any other kind of acting.

An actor in a performance-capture role receives a script, works on psychology, emotions, motivation, and goes on set to be shot in exactly the same way as any other character, he said. “That performance is used to cut the movie, and it’s that performance that creates emotion, pace and drama,” he said. “The visual effects render the character, just like putting on makeup, except here it happens after the fact. It’s digital makeup if you will.” Mr. Serkis added that he did not want to deny the “brilliance” of the visual-effects team. “But the awarding bodies should not discriminate about this being different,” he said. “If they don’t think Caesar is good, that’s fine, but a different issue.”

Mr. Serkis has dark curly hair, a compact muscular frame and a straightforward, friendly manner. He speaks with a unactorly London accent (which is to say, not especially upper-crust), is married with three children and could be your nice next-door neighbor. Except that your neighbor probably hasn’t been embodying a chimp for the last five years, nor starring as Supreme Leader Snoke in “Star Wars” and Ulysses Klaue in “ Avengers,” while also directing a movie (“Breathe”) scheduled for release in the fall.


Trailer: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’

A preview of the film.

By 20th CENTURY FOX PICTURES on Publish Date July 6, 2017.

Photo by Twentieth Century Fox.

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With the producer Jonathan Cavendish, he also has his own studio, Imaginarium, which specializes in performance-capture techniques for use onstage and in other forms of performance as well as on film.

“It’s been a mental year,” Mr. Serkis acknowledged, using a popular British expression. (The partners are currently plotting a performance-capture version of “Animal Farm.”)

He did not plan to be an actor, he said. One of five children, he grew up in a west London suburb; his father was an Iraqi-born gynecologist and his English mother a teacher working with disabled children. In his teens, Mr. Serkis wanted to be a painter, and after school he began a degree in visual arts at Lancaster University. His curriculum required an additional course, and he chose theater studies, thinking he would do “posters and sets and stuff.”

He was soon acting in student productions and was hooked, rapidly switching focus and working for several years in touring theater after graduating. “Fourteen plays back to back, turnaround every three weeks, completely classic old-school repertory training,” he recalled.


Gollum in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was Mr. Serkis’s first role using motion-capture technology.

Warner Bros. and MGM

He was living in London, getting “decent” parts in films and on television, when his agent called about auditioning for Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Initially, Mr. Serkis balked: “I said, no, I want to play a real role. But I went to the audition and thought, I can’t just do the voice, I’m not that sort of actor, and I climbed up on a chair and made a strangulated cat sound that made the whole body ripple. Eventually I got a call saying, ‘Peter wants to meet you.’”

Mr. Jackson explained to Mr. Serkis that he was thinking about using the new technology of motion capture for the “Ring” movies, and wanted the actor playing Gollum on the set. “I found myself flying to New Zealand in early 2000, with no real idea of how it would work,” Mr. Serkis said. “So I just went about creating the character in the way I would for any role; what drives him psychologically, physically, emotionally?”

The “Rings” trilogy, he said, ultimately represented a “benchmark change” for performance capture and computer-generated imagery. He added: “We weren’t the only people doing it, but everyone seems to agree that Gollum in ‘The Two Towers’ was probably the first C.G. character where a single actor was providing authorship of the role.”

After working on “The Lord of the Rings” for three years, Mr. Serkis said he assumed his life would return to being a “normal” theater and film actor. Then Mr. Jackson asked if he would like to play King Kong. “That moment was an epiphany because I realized how huge performance capture could be,” he said. “I had played a three-foot hobbit, and now a gigantic ape. The actor in the 21st century has a tool that enables you to totally transform into anything you want to play. It is the end of typecasting.”


In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Mr. Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke.


A few years later, Weta, the digital-effects company that had worked on “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong,” suggested Mr. Serkis to the producer Peter Chernin when he was developing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

“We really had no idea how we were going to do it,” Mr. Chernin said in a telephone interview. “We looked at performing chimps, at animatronics. Weta said, ‘Frankly, you would be crazy if you don’t get him. There is no one better.’”

Mr. Chernin added that “Rise” had been a huge gamble for the studio. “No one had created a movie from scratch in C.G.,” he said. (He declined to give a budget for “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but said it was in line with a big-budget summer movie.)

Mr. Serkis said that he wasn’t initially sold on playing another ape character, but was eventually won over by the script and the way the film showed the action from Caesar’s point of view. While preparing for the role, he began a daily regime of working with the arm extensions he uses in the films, and spent “a lot of time quadrupedding, climbing around, brachiating.” (Asked if the role was hell on the knees, he laughed. “You take a lot of battering physically,” he said.)

“I’ve played this character from an infant, which is very rare,” he said. “He essentially goes from chimp to human, starting to use sign language, becoming more upright.” He added, “It’s a subtle balancing act, because if you go too far on the human end, you can sound like an actor in an ape costume.”

Matt Reeves, who directed “Dawn” and “War,” said he was very conscious of maintaining that balance. “When I saw ‘Rise,’ I was blown away by the level of emotional identification I had with Caesar, the most I’d ever had with a C.G. character,” he said in a telephone interview. “My approach was to start in the world these apes had created, the dawn of intelligent apes. Their speech, their movement, comes from a place of emotional urgency, and it can’t be casual.”

It has been fascinating, Mr. Reeves said, to discover that the technology is essentially about recording those nuances. Mr. Serkis isn’t just one of the greatest performance-capture artists, he said. “He is just one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.”

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