Andy Serkis. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
It's really difficult to guess exactly who may be turning up for this interview!
Andy Serkis is the real deal. He literally makes himself into other people for a living. Wait. Even "other people" is too limiting. Try other Stoor Hobbits (Lord of The Rings), other 50-foot Gorillas (King Kong) and other talking Criminal Rats (Flushed Away). And even when he is limited to his own body, Serkis is a chameleon.
Most Americans have never heard of English rock legend Ian Dury. But he coined the phrase "Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll" and Lord knows we have embraced it, not only as a phrase but additionally as a potential life-style!
National treasure Ian Dury was a series of contradictions: a glamorous rock star who was terribly disfigured, an adoring parent whose creative life came first, a devoted husband and an abandoning Casanova. Andy Serkis is currently playing Dury in the new biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Dury's obituary called him "one of the few true originals of the English music scene", but his life was never that simple. Ian Dury was so many different people simultaneously that the film's writer, Paul Viragh, knows how right he is when he demands "Who else could play this role but Andy Serkis?"
And as if by CGI, Serkis completely becomes Ian Dury. His limbs shrivel, his voice completely alters, and you begin to see another man look out from Serkis' blue eyes. He even sings Dury's songs! Andy Serkis turns up for his interview, and as he speaks his face slowly begins to reveal all the faces he has ever played. Spend half an hour with Serkis, and learn that is all the same process. Whether doing Shakespeare, tragic monkey, or rock legend, Andy Serkis possesses that rare gift of true transformation.
After a thoroughly exhausting eight hours of festival work, we are both brought Coronas by the assistant and we have a beer together, God bless her.
This is the best part of my day so far, Cheers Andy.
Serkis: Cheers! (clink of bottle necks)
So you began as a stage actor in Lancaster, England?
Serkis: Yes. Doing fourteen shows back to back. I'm very grateful that Jonathan Petherbridge was the first person I worked for. He was a left wing person and socially minded political director who thought theatre was a service to the community. You weren't there to be lauded as an actor, you were there to investigate and be a storyteller. I've always retained that as an attitude that as something to aspire to in performance. He really believed that art can change society.
Do you believe that?
Serkis: Absolutely. I believe that when people experience an event as a community it can transcend and change people's lives.
You performed the Fool in King Lear completely in drag. You were a man playing a lady. How did this come about?
Serkis: It came to play because we were looking at a very male-dominated environment with Lear. His daughters in competition, he's surrounded by men. And where is Mrs. Lear in all this?
Where is Mrs. Lear?
Serkis: The Fool was a replacement for her, because it was a very military environment. The Fool represented the woman who was allowed to be in male company. The setting of the piece was Victorian, and I looked at drag and then drag with Vaudeville. In that way that drag acts have a license to be really blunt and honest within this incredible manifestation, it was a perfect metaphor for the play. As Lear is on the run and on the Heath, it all begins to unravel for the Fool. The make up runs, his clothes fall apart, the façade fails and he becomes a refugee. The woman who is allowed to be with Lear because he is really a man.
You may probably be best known to millions and millions of fans for your work as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Yes. (in Gollum's voice)
(laughs) Is it true that you based Gollum's voice on your cats coughing up a hair ball?!
Serkis: Yes, it's true. When I first learned I would play the role. The first thing to do was to read Tolkien. We had a cat named Diz (named for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie) and I watched him. Gollum is named that for the way he sounds. It's an involuntary reaction to the guilt he feels about killing his cousin. I thought, how can I find a sound that feels physicalized? When a cat coughs, the movement from the tailbone to the tip of the spine, that choking sound was perfect for where Gollum kept his pain. The sound lent itself to the physicality.
Had you read Tolkien before this?
Serkis: I'd read The Hobbit. An extraordinary piece. Gollum was so interesting to me because he's morally ambivalent and I love the notion of a quest that is to lose something. Not to gain, but to get rid of something.
Does this have a relevance in your own life?
Serkis: When you have children, you realize that at the end it's all about passing on, about handing down. With our children, our daughter Ruby is just turning into a young woman. Watching that happen, seeing her develop and letting out the reigns very gently. The process of letting go, not attachment, but appreciating the beauty and value in the change, the transformation.
What do you think Tolkien means for us in a current sense?
Serkis: The canvas is epic. What's wonderful about Tolkien and Shakespeare is that they show up your own individual microscope. They're so infinitely vast. You can reinterpret them in so many ways. Each age will have its own resonance with Lord of the Rings. Our strange own political coincidence was that it was a time of fear and war. It was just post 9/11 and when the films came out people couldn't help but draw comparisons with that level of understanding about big power shifts in the world. Those two events are indelibly linked in my mind.
What is it like to be part of a film that may well live on for the ages? Just like The Wizard of Oz is still watched now and was ground breaking in it's day.
Serkis: Undeniably, it's very gratifying to be part of a storytelling tradition that has been recognized as a worldwide phenomenon. But you do realize that eventually there will another Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings and Gollum have been a huge part of my life. The journey of creating that character and then playing that role. And being a part of creating that role through the advancement of technology.
Some say that your Academy Award nomination (for Rings) was stolen from you after it was decided that the Academy couldn't award a technology-based performance. Isn't all of the technology based on your voice, body language and expressions? What is a performance, if it is not those three things?
Serkis: I go back to the tradition of acting. Going back to Greek Tragedy, they wore masks. This is an ongoing debate. Performance capture is a genre of acting which is not going to go away, it's going to proliferate more and more. I'm passionate about it, and I love it. It's the most liberating tool an actor has, because you are not limited by your own physicality, look, or color of your eyes...since Lord of the Rings it has evolved hugely and I've been part of that. After that I played King Kong and have been directing performance character for it with video games and doing interactive storytelling. Working on the TinTin trilogy, (Spielberg) working on films like Avatar. I've never drawn a distinction between playing Gollum or a live action character like Ian Dury. The acting process is no different.
Tell me about Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll?
Serkis: Ian Dury is a phenomenal, unique English treasure. He transformed the British music scene in the 1970's. He was the Godfather of Punk/Funk. He studied pop-art with Peter Blake and suffered from Polio as a child. It became a huge driving force in his life, although he never considered himself disabled. From the age of 8 when he contracted it, it gave him a desire to grab life by the horns and as he would say, 'Be magnificent.' He was severely disabled and withered through the left-hand side of his body. He was slightly too old for rock stardom and couldn't particularly sing but was an absolutely brilliant lyricist. He had very strong female influences. His father was working class and he had left and then distanced himself. The persona he adopted onstage was really his father as a kind of working class hero. The lyrics and vernacular he writes in are drawn from his father's side of the family.
When did you first encounter him?
Serkis: When people saw him live, people would say, "There is a man who's prepared to die every single time he goes on stage." He put that much into his performances. It seemed like the last time you'd ever see him, he was that driven! I first heard Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick when I was 14 years old. When you watched him on Top of the Pops he was a whirling dervish of energy, I'd never seen anything like it. He was all about celebrating uniqueness. A very chaotic complicated human. The film is about father and son relationships and particularly about him and his son Baxter, how difficult it can be when you have a massive creative drive like he did. Everyone had different stories about him, but whether they loved him or they hated him, band member or family member, they all missed him terribly when they died. He challenged you to make you a better person.
How do you play a Polio survivor?
Serkis: I lost a lot of weight and built up the right side of my body because I didn't want to think about it when we were doing it for real. So that it was the running condition of the character. Sophie, his widow, talked to me a lot about his disability, how he used people as human props, how he got from one place to another, even love making. Acting, and anything creative-- I also paint and direct, is all-consuming. Paul (Viragh, the writer) had the idea and we met and decided even before we had a director involved, that we wanted not to do a normal rock biopic. We wanted a caleidoscopic view of the essence and energy of the man and the chaotic brilliant nature of him. And that he would tell his own story because he was such a brilliant raconteur, a storyteller. And that he would tell it from the stage. It would be like a self-séance. You'd come back to the stage and then be taken back to different aspects of his life. We wanted it to be like a live Blockheads gig. We got to know the family very deeply. I think they feel in retrospect that the process of making this film has enabled everyone to move on in a lot of ways. They gave so much of themselves. In a way, you would almost never know he was disabled. He had that much energy and power. He had such an extraordinary way of conducting himself on stage. Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols even copied his physical energy, draping himself all over the mircrophone. That was Ian's physicality.
What do you want people take away about Ian Dury?
Serkis: His living in the moment. And for them to investigate his lyrics. Bringing him to America because he never really made it over here.
Serkis: Until now. And that it's all about the outsider, and as he said, to Be Magnificent.
Andy Serkis can be seen next in Inkheart with Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany and Brendan Fraser and in Steven Spielberg's TinTin.
See his award-nominated portrayal of Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll: