'Planet of the Apes' Star Andy Serkis on How the Actors All Went to 'Ape Camp' (Q&A)

Andy Serkis is returning in his lead role of Caesar in Fox’s critically acclaimed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves. Tracking suggests the movie, which opens Friday, could take in as much as $60 million or more in North America.

Serkis' performance is already getting plenty of attention. "There is no question that Andy Serkis gives the most expressive, soulful, deeply felt performance of a non-human character the big screen has ever offered," The Hollywood Reporter's film critic Todd McCarthy wrote in his review of the film.

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The multitalented actor and director also has a full schedule ahead of him. He's ramping up to helm Warner Bros.' adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book; he's taking on a role in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars film; and — further out — he will direct a retelling of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Also Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies opens in December, bringing to a conclusion Serkis’ 14-year journey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. During the course of Jackson's six Tolkien films, Serkis found a career-changing role in front of the camera as Gollum and also developed his skills behind the camera as second unit director on The Hobbit trilogy.

Serkis talked with THR about attending an "ape camp" with his fellow actors, how he's planning to film the animal characters in Jungle Book and what he feels like to be about to say good-bye to Middle Earth.

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In this sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, your character Caesar is 10 years older, responsible for his Ape community and has a family. How did you approach the character?

The utopia that he has created is running very successfully until the arrival of the humans, who the apes believed had all but disappeared after the pandemic. For me, the challenge was to create a strong but empathetic lead, who could see both sides and was not judgmental or prejudiced. He is neither pro- or anti- human — having been brought up by humans, he does carry those memories.

[Matt Reeves and I] agreed that we didn’t want there to be any jingoistic pro-ape rant at the end. Caesar is still conflicted. It’s not about who wins or loses. Nobody wins and nobody loses. It’s about family and the future and survival. We felt it was important to have a balanced humans-and-apes story, and Caesar was this conduit between the two, and without prejudice either way.

We know where (the story) ends up — the 1968 version where the apes have inherited the earth. That could take place in the next movie or in another three movies’ time. What's so glorious about about making these films is it’s all about character. We can accelerate and move forward a thousand years or only one year, and we can continue to examine their evolution.

This time you worked with numerous cast members who also played apes who were brought to the screen with performance capture. What was that like?

We are now in a community of apes. Many are strongly defined and beautifully acted with great performances including Karin Konoval, who plays Maurice; Toby Kebbell, who plays Koba; Nick Thurston, who plays Caesar's son; and Terry Notary who plays Rocket.

One of the joys of the process was working with Matt and the others in our ‘apes camp’ leading up to principal photography. We had this huge task of creating a linguistic spectrum and a way of communicating. The rehearsal phase was thrilling working with my fellow actors like Judy Greer, who plays Cornelia. We were doing these long, involved improvisations where we were working on hierarchy and character, some using sign language, some using ape vocalizations, [figuring out] how we would arrive at human language. The rehearsal process was crucial and carried on during principal photography. Before every single take we’d all build up so that when the cameras were rolling we knew we were all absolutely in character. It was fantastic to have that level of communication.

In contrast with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a large amount of performance capture was handled on location, largely around New Orleans and Vancouver. Tell us about filming and the performance capture process.

This time 95 percent was filmed on location. It adds so much to the reality — that’s what Matt wanted. He also wanted the natural light, [director of photography] Michael Seresin’s brilliant lighting.

[On-location performance capture was possible because] the technology is so robust now, and [VFX house] Weta has evolved such a solid pipeline and hardware for working on set. It really adds to the performance. A volume [or performance capture stage] can be a sterile environment where you have to imagine the geography. To have rough timber at your feet [on location] really makes you feel and therefore communicate in a more truthful way.

It was freezing cold in Vancouver where we were in wet rainforests, and then we were in blistering heat in New Orleans. [In Vancouver] we had heat pads stuck wherever we could inside our mocap suits. Fortunately we were wearing so much electronics in our backpack for the head-mounted camera and live markers; the byproduct of wearing all that was it did keep you a little warmer. In New Orleans, you would just drink and drink and drink water and it would never seem to stay in your body for more than two seconds.

[With performance capture] the role of the actor is much more like a live action situation. You are on set, working with the actors, and you are fully acting. The director directs the scenes and [the editors] use the performances of the actors. [The animators] expertise goes into honoring the performance that was created on set. That is not to be underestimated. There are also physical alterations (actions that a human can’t do) or a digital doubles for moments, as you do in a live action situation [that are created by the VFX team].

At what stage are you in with The Jungle Book?

We are conducting really significant tests and looking at the relation between the live action and CG characters. We’ve been shooting at Leavesden [studio in the U.K.] and putting together a proof concept. There are a lot of different methodologies of performance capture. We’re creating lots of different characters — snakes, wolves, panthers, bears. The performances are authored by actors, but of course we’ll use, to a greater degree this time, key frame animation [with the animators creating the characters by hand and without performance capture information]. The Imaginarium [my London-based performance capture studio] will be involved as a company.

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Since Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was a collection of stories, could this become a franchise?

There is the possibility of that, absolutely.

You recently served as a consultant on Godzilla. Would you describe your involvement?

Godzilla was a very different project for us. Godzilla had completed principal photography when we got a call from VFX supervisor Jim Rygiel [who won VFX Oscars for the three Lord of the Rings films] and he asked us to consult on the creatures in terms of their backstory and motivation. It was exciting. We were back and forth on Skype with [director] Gareth Edwards and the VFX team. We had a virtual set at the Imaginarium and explored primarily a number of shots in the big fight sequence.

And what can you say about Star Wars?

It would be dangerous to say anything. I’m thrilled, and to get to work with J.J., I think he is an extraordinary director. I’m very much looking forward to collaborating with him. He’s the perfect director for this film.

The final film in The Hobbit trilogy will be released in December. How does it feel to see this winding down?

It will be very emotional. It’s been such a huge part of my life and the whole team’s life for such a long time. To think that this generation’s voyage into Middle Earth will be coming to an end is quite a sad thing. I’m sure Peter Jackson and the whole team will be sad to say goodbye to it, and at the same time, it is opening up doors to huge, great things.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com