Even pissy film purists who swear CGI is cinema’s killer have to admire Andy Serkis. Furthermore, thanks to the chameleon-like English actor, they should reevaluate that opinion. The king of motion-capture acting, Serkis is at the forefront of wearing fancy gadgetry and delivering award-worthy performances, despite the fact that you hardly ever see his face on screen. He’s embodied seesawing evil and vulnerability as the schizophrenic Gollum/Sméagol in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films and last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; he brought shattering humanity to the legendary giant gorilla in Jackson’s epic King Kong remake (2005); and he played an animated human for a change in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011).
In 2011, Serkis topped all of those performance-capture turns, however, in the four-star franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, covering a vast array of character beats as future ape leader Caesar. Starting the Rupert Wyatt-directed film as a scared young ape, Serkis’ Caesar learns to act human and comes of age before turning into a war-ready revolutionary, and every second of the animal’s transition into a universally relatable adulthood is made heartbreakingly believable by Serkis.
The actor’s fans haven’t seen anything yet, though. This weekend, Serkis reprises the Caesar role in the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Set ten years after Rise, Dawn shows what the world looks like after the first film’s Simian Flu outbreak has nearly erased the human population; only one out of every 500 people have survived, though Caesar and his fellow apes don’t know that. As far as they're concerned, the apes have taken over, now living in the woods outside of San Francisco under Caesar’s guidance. On top of running the simian show, Caesar is also now the proud father of a teenage son, the rebellious Blue Eyes, and a newborn baby. Shortly into Dawn, the few humans left, all of whom share a rare immunity to the flu virus, make their presence known, disrupting Caesar’s community and prompting his anger-fueled best friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) to challenge Caesar’s unique love for the flesh-and-blood kind.
With remarkable visual effects and an even stronger emotional through-line, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is far superior to Rise, and also an early contender for this summer’s best big-studio release. And, if there’s any justice in Hollywood (of which there isn’t, of course), Andy Serkis will be in the awards season mix later this year. Put through the ringer, Caesar has to reignite his connection to humans, by learning to trust fellow father/hero Malcolm (Jason Clarke), teaching Blue Eyes optimism without force, and withstanding Koba’s budding coup. All of the character’s pain, resiliency, and hopefulness are right there on his computer-generated face—it’s all Andy Serkis.
Here, Serkis, who's currently prepping to star in J.J. Abrams' mysterious Star Wars: Episode VII, chats with Complex about leading his fellow actors through “Ape Camp,” making Caesar’s communicative skills seem authentic, and always treating the character as if he’s human.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes caught a lot of people off-guard when it opened three summers ago. With that film’s unexpected success and widespread critical acclaim, was there a ton of pressure while making Dawn, or did you all have more confidence this time because of the first one’s success?
Before I met up with Matt [Reeves], I was concerned about where the story was going to pick up and then end up. That’s a hugely important part of the process: Where do we want to drop anchor on this story? But as soon as I had lunch with Matt, he described what he loved about Rise. He’s a big fan of that film himself; he was really taken with Caesar as the emotional center of the movie.
Given that we know where the final film will end up, back in 1968 with the original Planet of the Apes and the apes having inherited the earth, he didn’t want to jump too far forward this time and miss out on the dawn of their evolution. Once that conversation had taken place, and once I saw where Caesar’s leadership would be this time, I was relieved.
Prior to meeting with Matt Reeves, did you have your own ideas of where the story should go this time?
Well, I had talked to Rupert Wyatt, who directed the first one and was on-board with this second one for awhile before it became impossible to work into his schedule. We’d begun to discuss where things might go, but, in fact, Matt did take it in a different direction, where we’re not going too far into the future and we’re able to look at the birth of this new Caesar and his new society.
At this point, do you have ownership over Caesar, where you’re able to control what he does and the direction he’s heading?
When Matt actually came on, it accelerated very fast. The time was very short and he had to get into prep straight away, so he spent a lot of time with Mark Bomback, the writer, and then I came in and voiced my opinions. But literally every day on set, actually, was a slow examination and exploration. Matt is such a brilliant actor’s director that you’re inevitably involved in picking the script apart and shaping it, looking at Caesar’s evolution and emotional journey.
Getting the balance right between anthropomorphizing him and keeping him ape-like enough, and then, of course, the use of human language later on—there are character moments, like when Caesar grabs the gun and points it at the guys, that was a moment of improvisation, where I thought that told the story better than what was written. Matt is very astutely aware. He was constantly informed by what myself and all the other actors were giving him. He let the writing be fluid in that way.
The ape dialogue was obviously very well-crafted on the page, but that wasn’t necessarily how it ended up coming out of our mouths or how it was signed. We had to find ways to translate it and sell it ourselves as apes. The lines of dialogue were more ideas of what thoughts should be fed, rather than giving us the exact words that we’d speak, as it were.
Being that in Rise Caesar was younger and figuring everything out himself, did you have a similar approach to the material in that film, where you were figuring it all out along with Caesar? In Dawn, Caesar’s much more in control the whole time, so it’d make sense for you to be in control as well.
The relationship with Rupert wasn’t much different than the relationship I had with Matt, actually. Rupert was also terrific with actors. When I read the Rise script, it was a brilliant trajectory for a character; it was a really well-crafted journey, although it was more emblematic, in a way. I covered so much more ground, going from a young ape into a revolutionary leader.
But, for instance, there’s a scene in Rise that’s really a coming-of-age for Caesar. It’s where he suddenly realizes that he’s a pet. He’s traveled in the back of the car for all his childhood and then suddenly, after the confrontation with the dog, he doesn’t want to sit in the back of the car anymore—he’s grown up. He’s an equal to them, and he wants to sit in the front of the car. That was an improvisation that Rupert allowed to flourish and continue and it made its way into the movie.
He and Matt are just both brilliant listeners and brilliant collaborators. For an actor, it makes for a really amazing shoot.
For Dawn, you and the other ape actors took part in an “Ape Camp,” where you spent time together, got comfortable with one another as apes, and established the various character dynamics. How long of a process was that?
It was a reasonable length of time—I think it was three weeks altogether. That also incorporated Terry Notary, our ape coach, teaching all the other actors who’d never been apes before how to move using arm extensions and use vocalizations for whichever species they were, whether it’s gorilla or chimp or orangutan. And then we had this, like you say, “Ape Camp” where put the script down, actually, and Matt sat and observed us. We went into character and let things happen. It was really amazing; it was all about the group dynamics and the hierarchy, how conflict was death with, how the sharing of food was. It was everything that these apes would deal with on a daily basis, living together with Caesar as leader.
It was an extraordinary time. During that time, we established methods of communication, using ape vocalizations and sign language that Cesar had taught them, a combination of gestures and sounds, their own street-slang version of sign language, I suppose. And then the beginnings of human language, particularly for Caesar and how he would use human words in different contexts. So it was a really exciting creative period of time just before shooting, and entirely necessary. You can’t just turn up on set and do this stuff; you have to know each other intimately before you do it.
I really like how when they speak in human language, it’s shortened sentences and primitively abbreviated thoughts. Towards the end, Caesar’s dialogue becomes more fully evolved, but there’s a lot of truncated sentences. Does that come from a trial-by-fire process of experimentation between you and your fellow ape actors, where you’re workshopping the dialogue with one another?
That was all, as you say, trial by fire. [Laughs.] Matt was observing what was instinctively feeling right and what was too overblown or too articulate or too fancy. He was very conscious of what was linguistically overreaching. That was very much a part of the process. What we discovered was, when you’re using human words, like Toby Kebbell’s character, Koba, which are fueled with an emotional anger, those are a lot easier. It feels more natural to have those be these short, stabbing words; those felt a lot easier to control.
For me, the big challenge was the latter part of the movie, where Caesar does become more reflective and philosophical. Making that leap into that intellectual argument part of it was tricky. I think it’s earned, because you spent so much time with the apes leading up to that part of the movie. In rehearsals, though, the question was whether it would work or break the reality.
Caesar says a great line near the end of the film: “Apes always seek strongest branch.” It’s such a clever line, since it makes literal sense for apes but it’s also philosophical and spot-on for where the apes are at that point in the story. If you were to read the script and see that line, you might think, how the hell is an ape going to say this?
It must've been tricky for you and Matt to make sure that line lands and doesn’t come across as goofy.
That’s absolutely right. On set, and this is to Matt’s credit, to find moments like that, you can’t just do a couple of takes, get it, and move on. You have to take the time to rehearse that on set. We did numerous takes. That was the thing, too—the blocking of the scenes always came from what he and the actors wanted to do, which is unlike most modern filmmaking of this scale, where you’re pre-planning the entire thing and you know exactly what you’re going to do in every moment. It was all organic for us; it felt like an independent movie, in a way. It had that energy.
When you’ve got 250 crew members standing over your shoulder waiting for you to tell them what to do, to have the confidence to hold that off and focus on what will be the most important thing, the drama, takes some doing. That was Matt’s brilliance, really—he wouldn’t be bullied by anyone saying, “OK, guys, we need to start shooting this.” He really let moments like that come out very organically.
The dynamic between Caesar and Koba is incredibly handled by Matt and executed by you and Toby Kebbell. How was the process for you and Toby to figure each other out and establish that dynamic? It must be especially difficult when it’s time to perform their big fight near the end of the film, which is brutal and no-holds-barred but required the two of you to nail it while wearing the performance-capture suits.
Toby’s just such a brilliant actor. He was so on it, and he worked really hard. His performance is so grounded. He had moments of doubt, as we all did, but we totally trusted each other. We knew we could do anything with each other, without even saying much to each other. It was just apparent. We knew the realm that Koba and Caesar operated in, and Toby was very clear about Koba not being anything like a villain ape—he’s completely justified. So, in a sense, we decided that even though Caesar freed Koba from the labs, Caesar is aware that Koba’s worldview is influenced by how he was experimented on and mistreated in the lab. He was tortured, basically, so he’s aware that Koba’s worldview has a particular vehemence towards human beings, but, nevertheless, he’s fought through that.
All of that stuff was really worked out by Matt, Toby, and myself, and then all the explosive moments of physicality, we totally trusted each other that we wouldn’t hurt each other. We totally went at each other, too. The scene in the power plant where I launch into him, I really knocked him to pieces. [Laughs.] He was padded up, but you can only do that with an actor you fully trust, for sure.
You have so much experience with performance-capture acting and its CGI technology, but with Dawn, do you feel that performance-capture has reached a new peak? Because I, for one, certainly do.
I absolutely do think it takes it to another level, particularly the facial capturing that WETA Digital has done. They’ve taken the work that we’ve done as actors on the set and understood the underlying emotion in our performances, and put them onto the apes’ faces. It’s just off-the-chain, really. The work they do in post-production is remarkable. But, really, the center of all of this is the desire to make it feel real and never nod or wink at the audience. That goes through to the way [cinematographer] Michael Seresin shot the movie to how Matt directed it. We wanted it to feel real. We’re not trying to overwhelm people and make them think the effects are spectacular. It’s underplaying all of that, to make it feel emotionally powerful and truthful.
The thing that makes Caesar so special is that, yes, you’re looking at him and he’s an ape, but everything he’s going through is part of the human experience. He could be a human and the character would still be as special as he is as an ape.
I always approach Caesar as a human in an ape’s skin, really. Even reading it on the page, the fact that he’s an ape is incidental. You could’ve read the script and seen this amazing journey of a young boy growing up into a revolutionary leader. But, of course, that’s the brilliance of the franchise and of Planet of the Apes: We see so much of the human experience through the eyes of our closest cousins. We’re 97% genetically the same. And yet it gives us that mirror back upon ourselves.
I actually really believe this is a movie for our times. In the same way that the ’68 film was talking about civil rights, we’re now looking at a fractured world. This film is very much about empathy, prejudice, and the necessity to be able to listen and not jump to knee-jerk reactions when there’s a potential conflict escalating.
And it’s always there with Caesar. I really love how the film opens and closes on Caesar’s eyes. When it opens, you see the war-paint on his face, and he looks primal, but when the film closes back on his eyes, that primal look is gone and he looks almost human again. He’s reclaimed his humanity.
That’s absolutely right. The emotional center of the film is seen through Caesar’s eyes, and it’s Caesar’s journey. We see Caesar trying to be the leader but making a fatal flaw and somehow trying to believe that his ape kind is going to screw up the earth a little less than the humans have done. That’s the starting point, of course, but there's an element of hope in the movie. There’s a moment where the relationship with Malcolm can stop the conflict form escalating to the point of war. It’s that reconnection with Malcolm as a version of the James Franco character that, by the end of the film, makes him less certain that he wants a planet entirely ruled by apes. With the threat of war looming, he realizes how destructive it’s going to be, and it’s past the point of no return. So, at that point, there’s, as you say, a humanity in his eyes.
It’s remarkable that we’re able to talk about such things while discussing a big summer movie with tons of special effects and grandeur. That’s what makes this Apes franchise so special and important, really—it’s an emotionally charged and character-driven antidote to all of the loud, flashy, but empty Hollywood blockbusters.
Wow, that’s so cool. That was always the intention. Matt was the man to take the job to this level. It’s easy to talk about this movie because I’m deeply proud of its ambitions, and, like you say, it’s an intelligent yet entertaining movie. That’s what this franchise has always been about.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who still thinks Serkis should be a two-time Oscar nominee, for King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He tweets here.