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Andy Serkis gives ‘Kong’ a human side

Actor also brought Gollum to life in Jackson's ‘Lord of the Rings’
/ Source: The Associated Press

In computer-generated bodies not his own, Andy Serkis has starred in two of the most humongously budgeted films of the decade.

Serkis, who stands 5 feet, 8 inches, plays the role of Kong in Peter Jackson’s $200 million-plus “King Kong.” As he did for the “precious”-hungry Gollum in Jackson’s $300 million-plus “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Serkis’ human performance has again been transformed by computer graphics into a fantastical creature.

As with Gollum/Smeagol, each movement of the actor’s was meticulously captured and enlarged into the computer-generated image that is the hulking, roaring Kong. Even Serkis’ yawns and frowns were adapted to the facial structure of the gorilla’s.

Serkis, 41, first drew on months of research in zoos and in Rwanda to learn the expressions and movements of gorillas. During the production, he wore a black suit to suggest the form of a gorilla — which inspired co-star Naomi Watts to label him: “a ballet dancer on steroids.”

When Kong is thrashing dinosaurs and during other action sequences, he’s more normally animated. But the crux of “King Kong” has always been the love story between Ann Darrow (Watts) and the giant ape — and for that, Serkis was key in fleshing out the relationship.

Serkis, who has also acted more conventionally in “24 Hour Party People” and “13 Going on 30” — as well as in “King Kong” as Lumpy the Cook — recently told The Associated Press, it’s still “just acting.”

AP: You’ve frequently acted more traditionally and are interested in directing, but does it feel as though this digitally transcribed acting is a specialty of yours?

Serkis: Not necessarily. It’s been an amazing journey, but in acting terms, it’s not a different approach to the way I would act a conventional character. ... Gollum and Kong are slightly more physical, but normally my route into a character tends to be from a physical standpoint, even for conventional characters. I don’t really think of it in any other way, and I never did, really.

AP: Do you hope others come to see it that way? There were many that thought the Academy should have considered your performance as Gollum eligible for a supporting actor nomination.

Serkis: For me, it feels like it will become where it isn’t a rarefied form of acting, where it’s just acting. Instead of wearing a costume and makeup before the fact, your appearance and clothes are made up afterward.

AP: What was this high-tech gorilla suit that you wore for “King Kong”?

Serkis: There were two stages to the performance of Kong. One was on set with Naomi where we created scenes together and for that I wore a gorilla muscle suit. It was all the underlying muscles without the hair on top. To create Kong’s presence on set, we used different things to get into the same head space. I wore gorilla dentures; I was (connected) to a sound system, which we ended up calling “the Kongolizer.” It dropped my voice by about three octaves in real time and then it went through these huge speakers on set — so Naomi could react to roars and grunts and gorilla vocalizations that I learned from studying gorillas in Rwanda.

AP: What did you take away from that research?

Serkis: Two main things: how incredibly social they are as beings ... which led me to understand Kong’s loneliness more. ... The other thing was, I realized how individual they are. Studying gorillas is like studying human beings, in a way.

AP: Aside from the motion capture, were your facial expressions transferred as well?

Serkis: Absolutely. ... The main difference between Gollum and Kong was that with Gollum, my performance was done on 35-millimeter and the animators copied my facial expressions. But with this, we used facial motion capture, which was wearing 132 dots all over my face. The animators had to do work on the lower mouth area because the muzzle of a gorilla is slightly more immobile than a human mouth. But in terms of the expression and the transferring of emotion through facial features, all of the acting is transferred, particularly through the eyes, onto this (computer-generated) puppet.

AP: The heart of “King Kong” is a love story, so I gather a big part of the reason for all of this effort was to humanize that emotion, rather than computerize it.

Serkis: We were trying to find out any way to obliterate the technical obstructions and just focus in on each other to be able to create the moment-to-moment emotional changes. The scenes were created on set with Naomi and the real actor connection was made so that she wasn’t having to fake emotions. I was playing the character of Kong — she wasn’t having to make decisions about the character because I was there.