Andy Serkis: Beastie boy

Andy Serkis: Beastie boy
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 16/03/2008

You can take Andy Serkis out of the animal gear, but you
can’t take the animal out of Andy Serkis. The man who’s played both
King Kong and Gollum talks to Catherine Shoard about apes, anger and
his latest (human) role. Portrait by Michael Clement

The blue-eyed monkey is a rare sight in Britain. Anywhere, in
fact. Of all the species, all round the globe, very few have anything
but brown eyes. A handful in Bangkok buck the trend, as does the Indri
lemur. And Andy Serkis.

Strictly speaking Serkis is homo sapiens: bright, articulate, no
tail. But there’s inescapably something of the monkey about
him. Regard the arms. Observe the curls. Look at that grin.
‘I’ve always been really in touch with my primal instincts,’ he
confirms. ‘In my profession you have to be.’ We’re having breakfast at
the Covent Garden Hotel, in London, with his toddler son, Louis, off
playschool with a mild fever and swinging from his father’s leg. ‘You
have to be open to going where your emotions take you. Acting is a
sort of pressure cooker that allows the fizz to come out the top. God
knows what I’d be like if I didn’t have that. Even more animal,
Serkis, now 43, has played some singular creatures in his time. Most
famously, Gollum, the creepy demi-hobbit in Peter Jackson’s Lord of
the Rings trilogy, whom he acted via the magic of motion capture
technology (he prefers the term ‘performance capture’) and whose voice
he copied from his cat, coughing up furballs. A breakthrough theatre
role in 1992 was in April De Angelis’s Hush as Dogboy, a schizophrenic
tramp who kills his pet pooch, takes on its spirit, and challenges the
prejudices of a middle class family whose home he breaks into. Serkis
spent the play entirely naked and often barking. ‘I found that a hard
role to shake off,’ he says, darkly. ‘It really messed with my head.’
But it’s simians he feels most empathy with. Researching his role as
a lovelorn King Kong in Jackson’s 2005 remake (another triumph of
motion capture), he travelled to Rwanda to see the apes in situ and
spent months working as a keeper at London Zoo, becoming so close to a
thirtysomething gorilla called Zaire that whenever his wife, Lorraine,
tagged along, she was angrily squirted with water. These days he
fundraises for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and does voiceover duties
on Monkey Life, Five’s terrific documentary series filmed at Dorset’s
Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre (‘While most of the gang are enjoying
their treat, dominant female Sally doesn’t join in’).

‘They really are our closest cousins,’ he says pouring the tea (not
PG Tips). ‘There’s honesty there, and integrity, it’s visceral and
direct. Watching their social structure – adolescents together,
mothers and children, old males knocking round together sagaciously –
you just think: this is no different from us at all. In fact, certain
gorillas are more evolved than certain human beings I know.’
And when Serkis isn’t playing some kind of beastie, it’s these
bestial types he tends towards. He made a venal Bill Sikes in ITV’s
Oliver Twist (1999). His Ian Brady in Peter Morgan’s Longford (2006)
was especially chilling, all the more for its compassion. ‘You can’t
go into something like that just playing a normal villain. You have to
find a comparison with yourself. For Brady, the moment when he was
most complete, most joyful, was when he was on the moors with
Myra. Mine was when I was with my wife and our children were being
born. Bringing life into the world, taking life out: there’s a
His latest role is as David, a thuggy kidnapper in The Cottage, Paul
Andrew Williams’s comedy horror follow-up to his acclaimed
prostitute-thriller London to Brighton. It’s a muddled film, neither
as funny nor as scary as it ought to be, but Serkis is memorable: a
growling, leather-clad panther of a man.
‘He’s a failed gangster really, and for all that he’s done, he’s
really the voice of reason. His bark is bigger than his bite. But he
certainly knows how to look after himself.’
Has Serkis ever scared himself in the line of duty? ‘Regularly. You
can lose control.’
Last year he was rehearsing Sugarhouse, Gary Love’s little-seen
crime saga about a former Ulster terrorist called Hoodwink now running
a drugs ring in London. When one young actor called Teddy deviated
from the script and stood up to Serkis’s character, he threw him to
the ground, started smacking him about the face and shouting: ‘Are you
f—ing fronting up the Hoody?’ Teddy ran off set, crying.
‘I do have anger management issues,’ Serkis says, toying with a
butter knife. ‘Not clinical. Probably no more than most people. But
you’ve got to keep yourself open so your tolerance levels can be blown
off. I don’t have a huge amount of actual rage in me but I’ve got a
phenomenal amount of energy that bursts out and needs a conduit.’

This is something he thinks would benefit most
people. Violence in London, he reckons, lurks ‘just a hair’s breadth
away’. He points to the spate of shootings and stabbings last
year. ‘The human condition is taxed at the moment to quite a great
degree. It’s interesting because in this country we’re not faced with
oppressive regimes or wars or deep-seated cataclysmic events. It’s
still all about class. The divide [between rich and poor] seems to be
getting larger. And there are so many people slipping through the
net. Whereas for my generation people would sort themselves out with
fist fights and it was a big thing to carry a knife, now it’s almost
become acceptable to carry guns. And that’s quite a scary
prospect. But you can see why it’s happening.’
Serkis turns out to be someone who feels things extremely
deeply. He’s impressionable and, though kind and courteous, easily
riled. Though he doesn’t have a lot of personal bugbears, his
shoulders do seem to bear the weight of a lot of other people’s
chips. He reports a knee-jerk instinct to fight for the underdog. ‘If
I hear someone say something and they’re 100 per cent about it then
it’s almost inevitable that I’ll take the opposite view. I guess I
feel at odds with things like society. Absolutism is always a trigger
for me.’

Serkis says he grew up feeling an outsider. Unlike Lorraine, who
hails from some close-knit Manchester streets, he was never especially
rooted in one community. Home was Ruislip, west London, with his
mother, who taught handicapped children, and three sisters and a
brother, while his Armenian father worked as a doctor in
Baghdad. Holidays were spent with Dad, until he returned for good to
Britain in 1978. Serkis hasn’t been back to the Middle East for more
than a decade.
His early ambitions lay in painting (you can see a couple of his
accomplished, vaguely tortured canvases at ), and he
went to Lancaster University to study visual arts. Then, in his final
year, he was cast as the lead in Gotcha, a Barrie Keefe play about a
schoolboy who holds a couple of teachers hostage and threatens to burn
down the school. It was a surprise: he was only meant to be the set
designer. What does he think his tutors saw in him? ‘A sense of
injustice. I knew this boy. He was factory fodder, a lost soul who was
going to be undervalued for the rest of his life. I could tell people
about it.’
Seeing acting as a form of social work was a turning point for
Serkis – his definition of an actor is someone who researches the
world, comes back and presents his findings to an audience. He’s
passionate about the role of theatre in a community and rails against
cutbacks in Arts Council funding. Reality TV predictably sickens him,
as does anything that detracts from the ‘nuts and bolts of the craft’.
He’s an old-school rep grafter, an energetic Leftie who was for many
years heavily involved with the Socialist Workers Party, until he
questioned the extent to which his profession might mean he naturally
sympathised with their cause. ‘It’s easy to get swept up. But you have
to ask yourself, if push comes to shove and there’s a revolution, what
am I going to do?’ And there was the other tug: for applause and
recognition. ‘You’re trying to buck the system and fight the fight but
you also want people to enjoy what you’ve done,’ he admits. ‘I was too
keen to be liked sometimes. I do genuinely feel over that now.’

Small wonder. Fantasy fans are a devoted lot and, thanks to Gollum,
must have showered Serkis with enough love to last a lifetime. He’s
eager to repay them, attending the Elf Convention in Amsterdam, and
gamely sticking up for hobbit-heads (another of his
underdogs). ‘They’re only scorned because they’re into something
popular. But it’s just the same as supporting a football team or being
madly into Picasso or Brahms. And it’s certainly a lot more fun than
And while his collaborations with Peter Jackson have given him a
huge public profile, they’ve also earned him the professional cachet
to be able to put himself on the line ‘as a creator rather than just
an interpreter’. He’s directed a short film starring Lorraine, and a
video game, Heavenly Sword, for PlayStation 3. In the pipeline are a
thriller, Dark Blue Rising, and Freezing Time, a biopic of the
photographer Eadweard Muybridge, both of which Serkis aims to direct
and star in.
He’s not quitting interpretation just yet, though. Next year he’ll
return to ‘performance capture’ in Jackson and Steven Spielberg’s 3D
Tintin film. He plays Captain Haddock, though one can’t help but
wonder whether he wouldn’t be more suited to Snowy. And later this
spring we’ll see him in a BBC/HBO joint venture, Einstein and
Eddington (he plays Albert; Doctor Who’s David Tennant is Sir Arthur),
a project that meant more to him than you’d imagine.

Learning about the theory of relativity, he explains,
helped him conquer a crippling fear of death. ‘When I was a kid I’d
morbidly fantasise about my parents being killed, and it really,
really upset me.’ As an adult, he would wonder what would happen to
his children – Ruby, nine, Sonny, seven and Louis, three – were he or
Lorraine no longer around. ‘Playing Einstein blew the lid off it,’ he
says, eyes alight, feet tapping. He hauls Louis, grizzling gently,
onto his lap and uses his hands to demonstrate the solar system. ‘As
we’re sitting here having this conversation, our planet is whizzing
round at a huge, huge velocity. It’s amazing. We’re unaware of it, but
when you start looking at cosmology, that transference of energy is
very exciting.’
Serkis has been an atheist since his teens but feels spiritual when
he’s up a mountain (he once climbed the Matterhorn solo) and is much
drawn to the karmic possibilities of energy transference. ‘Not in a
woo-ey way,’ he smiles, ‘but the idea that your energy lives on after
you I find very relieving.’ He paraphrases Edith Sitwell: ‘People are
either drains or radiators. And I just hate the idea that I’m not
giving anything out.’
Serkis needn’t worry: he’s a one-man central heating system.

‘The Cottage’ is on release now