"I do rather envy what Andy Serkis has done," Ian McKellen has said in this series of interviews. "He's made a bit of cinema history, hasn't he? With his creation of Gollum.... [T]hat is a rattling good part and really hard work done well."
High praise, considering the source, but unquestionably well-deserved. Working closely with director Peter Jackson, his partner, Fran Walsh and their team of animators, Andy Serkis has brought one of English literature's most intriguing, most "unfilmable" characters to vibrant life. Last year, we gathered comments from the Lord of the Rings cast and crew on the creation of Gollum, probably both the trilogy's greatest technical achievement and, if you read between the lines of McKellen's comments, its finest performance as well. This year, we catch up with Serkis again for his thoughts on what is now a completed portrait, "pre-Ring Smeagol and post-Ring Gollum."
Did you ever have any idea that your part in this movie would become such a major project?
Well, it's all down to Peter, really, his vision and the fact that he's such a collaborative director. That's what's really allowed me to put so much of myself into the character. I owe it to him, really. When I originally heard about the role, it was much more, I thought, a job of putting a voice on an animated character. There was no way I could do that, though; I could never really play Gollum entirely in that way. I'm not a voice actor, I'm an actor, so I have to go through all the psychological processes of who this character was, to get inside his head. That meant playing him completely, entirely, vocally and psychologically.
Pete saw that and, to his credit, he changed his mind about how things were to be done. He allowed me to play the role on the set and then said we'd be using motion capture more and more. Then he allowed me to play Smeagol before he becomes corrupted by the Ring, so the face was redesigned for Gollum, and therefore, it became much more about getting my performance to be exactly what it was he wanted to see on screen. It evolved over a long period of time.
And then, at the end of all that, he went a long way to explaining to the fans exactly how it all worked, on the DVDs, in interviews and so on. It's been thrilling. It's been an amazing year. Mostly, of course, we're thrilled with the fact that people are responding to Gollum as a character - not as a CG character, but as a character in his own right.
And that's your voice, undoctored.
Are you inundated now with, say, McDonald's calling up and saying, "Would you..."?
Oh, no! I would never do that.
"Could you sell burgers for us?"
No, no, no! [laughs]
Now, I have done my fair share of answering machine messages for people. For friends, you know, they're always coming up to me and asking for them. I mean, it's quite weird. I didn't expect to get recognized at all on the street. But people come running up to me all the time, saying, "Hey, my sister's on the phone, can you speak to her as Gollum?"
The eyes are a dead giveaway, though. Do you do it?
Yeah, I do. Because I can either go, [deep voice] "Look, sorry, I'm a very serious actor. I couldn't possibly..." So, you know. Plus, in a way, it's interesting. Because the voice is a way of connecting the actor to the role. When I do the voice, I have to kind of embody him slightly. So they see the way the expressions work and the eyes and, like you say, because Gollum's face moves exactly in the same way as mine - which is why Peter shot my performance on 35mm film and then the animators worked on that performance - they do make that connection. So I'm surprised that people do recognize me. If I lock eyes with someone in the street, it is the eyes that give me away, really.
How can you possibly go out for a drink with friends? I mean, a couple of beers go down, they're going to make you do it.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah. People do kind of make you into a party piece, and I don't mind it at the moment, that's fine. But I guess if, in ten years' time... I think I'm going to have to set a deadline, after which I will lock the voice away.
So this time, the very first scene is your face, which is a terrific surprise for the audience. How did that change your sense of the journey you'd prepared for?
In many ways, it wasn't different. That's origin of the journey for the character. That, in a way, is the point. There's no difference in the acting or in the way I approached pre-Ring Smeagol and post-Ring Gollum. It's all one journey. What I'm really pleased about - because that scene was originally going to be in The Two Towers, you know. It was written and we shot it during principle photography and it was going to be in The Two Towers. There's a scene in The Two Towers where Frodo says, "You used to be a hobbit once." And he says, "Your name's Smeagol," and [Gollum] looks up and he remembers. But Pete thought it would be much more effective to let the audience live with Gollum for a while and not be quite sure of his origins and keep it much more of a revelation for this film. And I think that works really well. Crucially, it shows a person before he becomes spoilt by this event in his life.
Is it true that you and Sean Astin tussled a little?
Screenwriter Philippa Boyens on a Line Reading by Andy Serkis
Antonia Byatt said recently that she found reading Tolkien relaxing because it's an environment without sex.
Philippa Boyens: [whispering] That's true!
Was it hard to work with an environment that was so asexual - even though it does have some homoerotic undertones?
I don't think it does.
Oh, come on.
No. I don't believe there is any homosexual tension in there.
Yes, there is.
No, no, no. I don't. I think there's a genuine love between men that is not homosexual, actually. We wouldn't have been frightened off if there were homosexual intonations there, but the actual truth is that heterosexual men can love each other. And that's ok, too. I think that's very important. But I do think there's some pretty dark sexuality going on under it all. I think Shelob is a great example of that. [laughs] She's the most powerful female force in the whole film, and ultimately, it's this dark, furry creature in this dark tunnel, which in and of itself is almost...
Almost like a fear of women, isn't it?
It is. That's why we deliberately have Gollum say to Smeagol, "First, we lead them to her," and he says [imitating Gollum]: "And we go up, up, up the stairs and then... into... the tunnel!" And it's the way Andy says... "The tunnel!" It's like the rudest thing he could possibly think of! And that was very deliberate because we did find Shelob very much this sort of projection of Tolkien's... I don't know, problem, maybe.
In The Two Towers, there's a scene where they're about to go forward into the Black Gates and I jump on their backs; Gollum pulls them back. And I caught hold of Sean's wig by mistake one day and pulled it off. His whole hairpiece came off and we got into a bit of a scuffle about that because... though it was a total mistake, I think the characters did rub off on you. Obviously. But yeah, we've made up since then.
All the actors have said that the atmosphere on the set was very unique because of both the length of the shoot and the way Peter Jackson managed things.
Absolutely. Pete has said publicly that when he cast this film he was also looking for people who would get on as well as being good actors. I mean, there are lots of good actors who could have played our roles. Apart from the fact that this is well cast and everybody is perfect for their role, he was consciously casting a family of people who would get on in extreme circumstances over a long period of time. And it's paid off. He wanted to work with people he knew he'd enjoy working with. But he's a very nurturing director and a very collaborative director. That sense of family was very much filtered down from him; he's a family man himself. It really did feel like we were all part of this extended family. What it is, really, is that he's a human being, a very compassionate human being, and that's filtered into the work.
And you've got kids as well?
Yeah. I've got two, Ruby and Sonny.
I wonder... At some stage, they've got to ask what you do. What do you say? "I'm Gollum"?
Oh, they were there down in New Zealand and they saw me going through it every day. They were on set and saw me running around with two rabbits in my mouth and dropping one in Frodo's lap. They've seen me in prosthetic make-up going through that transformation sequence from Smeagol to Gollum. Ruby was two then and she remembers it. She came onto the set and I was terrified that she'd freak out, but she just looked at me and went, "Silly Daddy."
It's going to be a helluva story, though, for them to tell their kids.
Yeah. And you know, I come home, and I've done other work since then, and it's like, "Who are you today, Daddy?" What's funny, though, is when they see, like, Gollum on the side of buses, they go, "There's Dad!" And everyone around us is wondering what strange children they are.
By their reaction, you'd think he's ugly or something.
Well, there really is a sweet side to him. Smeagol at least. I think what happened with the sculpture of the face is that he looks like a child, a cross between an old man and a child. He looks like my young son, Sonny, and my dad when he's Gollum. Sorry, Dad. [laughs] But they did really capture the gene.
Is it true that Fran Walsh had many of the ideas for Gollum?
Fran was very, very important in the development of the character. The way that Fran was writing and the way that I was thinking about the character were very synchronous. She also directed some of the scenes; she directed the flashback sequence. With Peter as well, of course, and she was there on the set for the transformation scenes. She was involved in directing some motion capture. And between us, we then worked with the animators. Because once we'd shot everything, motion captured everything, we had these big meetings with the animators and we went through the whole script to make sure that everyone knew exactly, beat to beat, moment to moment, just what the subtext of the character was, what the dynamics of the scenes were.
How do you see your future career? You have a special quality as an actor, particularly for this sort of work. In short: Will you be King Kong?
[laughs] We'll see. Peter has expressed a desire to work with all the cast again in future projects, so you know, who knows. But some people ask, "Will you be happy to get back to proper acting?" Or "normal acting?" But I'm sorry, as far as I'm concerned, this is proper acting. The actual process of acting is no different.
But yes, I'm very interested in this as a niche, as a sort of avenue of acting and in carrying this on because it's only going to increase. There will be more characters that are made in this way. At the end of the day, though, I treat it as any acting role. It's all about the script and the character and whether it's a good investment into the story. I'd never do it just for the sake of doing it again unless it was a really, really brilliantly written character like Gollum.
Being two characters in one, did you take into account recent research into schizophrenia or other actors who've tackled it? Ralph Fiennes in Spider maybe?
No, it was really more to do with basing it on the pathology of an addict.
Yeah, a junkie. And how that effects him physically. And also, he's not really clinically schizophrenic as such. It's more like he has dominant and subserviant parts of his personality that burst forth at various points. I mean, I don't think I'm schizophrenic, but I have conversations with myself every day. You know what I mean? I think it's making that as human as possible so that people don't take one look and go, "Oh, he's schizophrenic. That's not like me." It's trying to find ways of connecting with the audience as much as possible so that they don't judge him.
So I didn't observe schizophrenics, but I do have a lot of friends who have addictive personalities or who are addicts, recovering addicts or recovering alcoholics, and I know them well. I know their struggle. And what they go through. They're the touchstone people.
What's your next project?
At the moment, I'm filming in Romania [for Samantha's Child], a remake of Rosemary's Baby.
Well, not a remake. It's like an updated version and it very closely follows that story. Directed by a young British director by the name of Simon Fellows. Heather Graham is in it and James Purefoy. It's set in an fertility clinic and around this community and this couple can't have children and they desperately want to, so they go there and you realize that things aren't quite right there. I play a priest who is trying to persuade her not to have these children because he believes that they are the spawn of the Devil. And he goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent her having them.
So you're a good person.
Ah. Are you getting a lot of offers in fantasy and horror movies?
Not specifically. Some, but not any more than others.
How about comedy?
I've got a film coming out which with Jennifer Garner which is called 13 Going on 30. That comes out during the May holidays. That's a comic role. The film's like a female version of Big with Tom Hanks. I play this very highly strung fashion magazine editor who's totally stressed out all the time and he's just obsessed with the idea that this company is trying steal all his ideas for each month's issue. He gets trumped every time. He's kind of a paranoid character, but he's quite funny.