SAY ‘Andy Serkis’ and most folk will look at you blankly… until you add ‘Gollum’. That groundbreaking performance as The Lord Of The Rings’s reptilian baddie (‘My preciousssss!’) instantly made Serkis the undisputed king of motion capture, a special effects technique blurring the boundaries between acting and animation.
Since then, this dynamic 53-year-old Brit has starred in some of the 21st century’s biggest blockbusters, from his Oscar-tipped turn as Caesar in The Planet Of The Apes to Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars, his features typically disguised by layers of computerised trickery. He’s even founded his own motion-capture production company, Imaginarium, specialising in ‘next-generation storytelling’.
So why is his directorial debut a modest, almost old-fashioned period romance about a British couple struggling with polio who take on the medical establishment?
‘I think I have surprised and upset a lot of people,’ Serkis declares cheerily. ‘Some people have taken umbrage and said, “Oh, this is just a drama and there is no performance capture or visual effects”, which is what audiences know me for.’
Breathe, the true story of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), who was paralysed by polio aged 28, and his wife (Claire Foy), is the passion project of Serkis’s co-producer at Imaginarium, Jonathan Cavendish — the couple’s only son. However, Serkis also connected with it on a personal level.
‘Not least of all because I have a sister who has multiple sclerosis, my father was a doctor and my mum taught disabled children,’ he says. ‘Also, I played Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, who was also a polio sufferer. It looks like I’m going for a polio trilogy!’
Joking is very much in the Cavendish spirit. ‘Breathe wasn’t ever going to be a morbid disability story,’ Serkis says. ‘Neither did we want to shoot it like a grey, flat documentary. The whole palette, the timing and everything is trying to emulate what their lives were, which was this kind of maverick, out-there response to staring death in the face and having fun along the way.’
Breathe wasn’t intended as Serkis’s directorial debut. He’d started shooting Imaginarium’s new take on The Jungle Book (out 2018), with himself playing Baloo the bear.
‘Unlike the Disney version, our Jungle Book is live action, shot on location and uses performance capture,’ he says. ‘It’s darker, more savage and closer to Rudyard Kipling’s book, where Baloo is nicknamed Iron Paws and he’s more like a gnarly colonial boxing trainer or soldier who’s very rough with the wolf cubs he teaches. He’s not the happy-clapping Bare Necessities bear.’
Could this be the role that finally wins him that landmark best actor Oscar nomination for a mo-cap performance?
‘I really do believe the understanding is changing and younger academy folks are realising it is part of standard industry practice now,’ he says. ‘It is sort of a 21st-century actor’s tool, much like working with prosthetic make-up.’
If that Oscar’s ever going to go to anyone, you can bet it will be him.
Breathe is in cinemas from Friday
With the Dark Side in The Force Awakens
Ruling the roost
As Caesar, noble leader of the apes
Putting mo-cap on the map as Gollum
Smitten and causing chaos as Kong