We admire Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as legends-in-waiting, committing performances to film that might be referenced by future generations alongside Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn. We praise the lengthy careers of Steve Martin and Bill Murray, wondering if their work will live on like the Marx Brothers or Peter Sellers. However, the most significant contemporary cinematic figure of our time might be launching a career even more monumental, but we're too busy eating popcorn and enjoying the ride to fully appreciate it.
It's OK, says Andy Serkis, because until recently, he was equally unaware.
"People keep saying, 'Well, do you realize you're part of an era?' " the veteran character actor said, acknowledging those who've begun appointing him as the Charlie Chaplin of computer-generated acting. "You just don't really think about that while you're doing it."
Indeed, Serkis was merely accepting another job in his 15-year career (much of it supporting and spent in British television) when the opportunity arose to breathe life into bipolar "Lord of the Rings" menace Gollum. When series director Peter Jackson approached his collaborator for another go-around on his epic remake of "King Kong," a trend began to appear. Now, as "Kong" stomps and smashes its way onto a two-disc DVD this month, the timing has never been better to pause, slo-mo and closely inspect Serkis' impressive work combining man and monster.
"When I started the job, I thought, 'Why does Pete want me to do this?' Because I've been through the whole motion-capture experience with Gollum, but there are a lot of other people out there who can imitate apes and are good at doing gorilla movements." Serkis said. "What I realized was that this wasn't about imitating gorilla movement at all; it was about creating a real personality for this character without humanizing him. One thing I didn't want to do was to anthropomorphize him. ... As I started to research gorillas, I began to understand that they're all totally individual and idiosyncratic, and they have their own personalities."
And so, Serkis put on his motion-capture suit and went to work, jumping and screaming and beating his chest while providing a crucial template for Jackson; the visual artists who would render Kong with their computers; and sightline-dependent co-stars Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody. The result was another virtual character leaps and bounds above would-be cinematic competitors like Jar-Jar Binks or the Hulk. Serkis insists that Gollum and Kong's successes are all in the tiny details, as is so much of Jackson's work.
"Every single frame has got something going on in the background; in many ways, it's an embarrassment of riches," Serkis said when pressed for the best scene to slo-mo. "I guess some of the New York scenes, especially in the third act when Kong is back. Some of that rampage stuff, with the people running down the street and all the shop signs and all the neon that just goes on for miles. Those big aerial shots in New York that completely faithfully re-create New York at the time. That's pretty special stuff."
"It's true of Pete's films — they do bear repeated watching, and with every scene you can kind of peel back the corners of the screen and see stuff going on behind it or around the corner," Serkis said. "It's good fare for sitting and watching on a decent telly."
Those in possession of a decent telly, and a home-theater system to go with it, should devour the hours of bonus features much like Kong would a giant banana. "Pete, he does a good DVD," Serkis laughed, perhaps remembering the bleary-eyed "LOTR" geeks still attempting to watch all of their extras. "[The 'Kong' disc] has the crashing of New York in 1933 and how it was digitally made and how it contextualizes the film. Then the other one is about Skull Island. It takes you on this journey where it is treated as a real place and it makes you feel like you're going somewhere. ... And then, of course, there's all the post-production diaries, and that's great stuff."
While you're poring over all those riches from one of last year's most successful blockbusters, however, don't overlook the performance of another memorable (if slightly less subtle) creature. "Lumpy's kind of a reluctant hero," Serkis laughed while discussing his second "Kong" appearance, as a surly, scene-stealing chef. "He doesn't want to get involved with the rescue mission particularly. But he gets dragged along and has a particularly nasty ending."
For a brief period, Jackson considered a Kong-stomping that would allow Serkis to kill himself; the idea didn't stick, but that didn't stop the duo from fulfilling their ironic fantasies. "Pete did at one point have it in mind because he was being the perverse kind of person that wants to have Kong kill Lumpy," the star said. "There is one moment in the film where Lumpy is firing up at Kong, and he's looking down having seen Lumpy — you'll be able to catch it on DVD. But I think it's rather ironic that Pete gave me this onscreen role, and then finally decided to end the character's days by swallowing him up in CG."
You live by the sword, you die by the sword — and amid another successful film with Jackson and increasing pressure for a CG actor Oscar category, Andy Serkis is living quite well. "Looking back, when I was Gollum, I suppose I did break the mold to a certain extent," Serkis reflected. "I'm proud, and very thrilled, to be a part of that. But what is exciting now is the future, and the fact that motion capture, I think, will be used in more films. It seems like a bit of a portal to lots of exciting roles."
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