Helen Murdoch on the underappreciated genius of Andy Serkis…
When the actor Andy Serkis’ name is mentioned in a conversation you’re tend to either hear “who’s that?” or “is that the motion cap guy?”. The fact that Serkis isn’t a household name is in my mind a travesty. With the final part of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy being released this month I thought we should celebrate this tremendous and revolutionary actor.
Starting his acting career back in 1989, Serkis spent much of the 90s in an array of soap operas, dramas and mini-series. With the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings in 2001 and the subsequent two films in 2002 and 2003 everything changed. As the motion capture created Gollum, Serkis gave us a performance like nothing we’d ever seen before. Whilst CGI characters had existed before, none had ever felt as real as Gollum and this is due to the advancements in technology as well as Serkis’ performance. He created a character that didn’t just feel like a collection of pixels. Gollum had a distinct voice and personality and because of the technology the audience could see real facial expressions in front of them. Whilst this revolutionised the film industry and allowed Serkis to take on some meaty roles, he is not recognised for his contribution.
Since Lord of the Rings, Serkis has taken on numerous physical and mo-cap roles. He was King Kong, Alley in The Prestige, Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the serial killer Ian Brady in Longford and many other roles too numerous to mention. And of course he is Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy.
When I heard that Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was coming out I wasn’t interested. But one day I sat down to watch it and was completely blown away. The script was great, the supporting cast were on top form, but it was Serkis who stole the show. Completely devoted to his art, Caesar looks and feels as real as any other animal. Take the ending of Rise when it comes time for Caesar and his owner Will (James Franco) to part ways. There is more emotion coming from Caesar’s CGI created face than in plenty of real life human performances that have received critical acclaim and awards. My main criticism of the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) when I reviewed it was that the human characters felt flat against the richness of Caesar’s story and Serkis’ performance. Does it not say a lot that the stand out performance in a film comes from an actor who is able to shine through the technology?
There have long been arguments that motion captured characters should be eligible for Golden Globes, Oscars etc and I do wholeheartedly believe that they shouldn’t be ignored. I’m not saying that we should just hand Serkis an Oscar (although depending on how good War of the Planet of the Apes is we might have to see about that) what I’m saying is that his performance deserves the respect of any other actors. Arguably in creating any of his motion capped characters, Serkis has a tougher job than an actor playing a human character. He has to completely embody the animal or creature to make the audience believe it and he commits time and time again without ever giving a dud performance. Is his physical commitment to becoming Caesar et al any less challenging than an actor changing for a real life role?
An actor of Serkis’ calibre deserves to stand next to the greats and be hailed as the truly revolutionary actor that he is. Hopefully one day his contribution will be fully recognised and he will be honoured for the phenomenal actor he is; for both his motion capture work and his traditional non CGI characters.