ESQ: You actually painted before the whole acting thing? Do you still paint?
ANDY SERKIS: I do. Not frequently but I suppose when I’m storyboarding, I’d draw them when I direct. Occasionally when I get the time, I do pick up my oil paintbrushes and paint but it’s very rarely now.
ESQ: Are you good enough that you can stage your own exhibition?
ANDY SERKIS: If I go back to it for a little while, sure. I’m a little rusty at the moment but I go through phases of really wanting to return to it, but you have to spend time getting into it.
ESQ: Given your experience with motion capture technologies, are you a techy sort of person?
ANDY SERKIS: Ah, yeah. I’m fascinated by tech yeah. I’m interested in technology and how humans choose to use it. For instance, I own and drive a Tesla.
ANDY SERKIS: Yeah, I’m interested in saving energy and creating sustainable energy at home. But I’m also interested
in technology from a creative point of view. For example: I’m keen on next-generation storytelling and using tech like Magic Leap [a start-up that produces head-mounted virtual retinal displays]. I don’t know if you’ve heard but they’ve recently released a developer kit for mixed reality and we’re experimenting with that in terms of using performance capture and entertainment and how to bring those two worlds together.
ESQ: What about other performance capture tech like Deepfake [a technique to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto source images or videos]? Are you familiar with that?
ANDY SERKIS: Yeah.
ESQ: Do you think something like that could be troublesome?
ANDY SERKIS: Yeah, I think so. Like any technology it can be used for good or bad, can’t it? One person can use technology to help the medical industry, then [inversely] someone could use facial capture technology to implicate someone in a crime that they haven’t committed or to play someone into a situation that they weren’t present at. Of course, with all the artificial intelligence, robotic exploration that’s going on, all technology can be used for positive or negative.
ESQ: Speaking of which, when you adapted The Jungle Book, did you take into account Kipling’s baggage of being an imperialist?
ANDY SERKIS: You can’t make The Jungle Book now without looking at the historical, cultural roots of Rudyard Kipling, the time when he was writing it and who he was as a person. Because Kipling was both viewed as someone who was the new voice for the working classes but he was also viewed as potentially borderline racist and, later in his life, an imperialist. Again, this is a schism in his journey as a writer and as a human being.
ESQ: How so?
ANDY SERKIS: Kipling was raised in India; his first language was Hindi. He was then sent to a boarding school in England where he was brutalised and had a very unhappy childhood… all of these incidents inform the book and is more faithful to the tone of it as well. There are different characters and we focus on various aspects of the book that I wanted to bring out. That was inherent in the script when I first read it and, in a mild form, deals with this ‘otherness’, the class system, colonialism—in terms of the jungle being taken over by man—I don’t think any other version has gone anywhere near dealing with those topics. It underpins the cultural specificity of our version. Not in an overtly political way, but it’s there. It’s in the DNA of the film.
ESQ: The characters you play are usually people who live outside of societal norms.
ANDY SERKIS: Yeah. I realise there is a theme that runs through a lot of my work, which is examining the notion of being an outsider. From Gollum [The Lord of the Rings] to Caesar [Rise of the Planet of the Apes], there are aspects of those characters that are on the margins of society in a way—when Caesar was brought up he believed himself to be a human being, and then realised he was actually an ape. In the same way Mowgli is brought up to believe that he’s a wolf, and then later realises that he’s not.
ESQ: Yeah, this ‘otherness’ you’ve mentioned… do you identify with the movie, Mowgli?
ANDY SERKIS: I suppose it goes back to my growing up and feeling that my father was from one part of the world and my mother was from another. My father was Iraqi so I spent some time growing in Baghdad, but my mother was English. I think if anyone comes from a mixed parentage you wonder where you fit in in a way. That has always been something that as an actor I’ve always reached for roles, especially using [motion capture] technology which allows you to become something else. I find it perhaps easier to say something about the human condition the further away you move away from it.
ESQ: You played Baloo in Mowgli. Why?
ANDY SERKIS: Well, we had already cast all the other animals and then it was just Baloo that was left. Okay we’ve gotta find Baloo and we were searching and thinking about lots of different people who could potentially play him. We approached a couple of them and some on my team turned to me and said: ‘Andy what are we doing? You’re not going to be in it, that’s crazy. You gotta be in it’. It quickly changed to, ‘why don’t you play him?’.
So, I had a think and I realised that if I was going to do it, I wanted to take Baloo into a completely different direction. I wanted to play him as more of a drill sergeant because in The Jungle Book, Baloo’s very tough and he’s very hard on Mowgli. With Mowgli, Baloo pushes him hard in order to survive. Baloo’s job is to teach the wolf cubs to survive and Mowgli is part of the wolf pack, kind of. Because Mowgli can’t run as fast as the other wolves, Baloo, like a sergeant major, treats him with tough love.
ESQ: Given how things are today, do you think there is still hope?
ANDY SERKIS: [laughs] Yes, and I think the key thing is that we reignite our ability to be empathetic. Our current climate is a struggle because, in a way, we’re being manipulated to think about the differences rather than what binds us.
That kind of tribalism is very much in the news. Us versus Them. Building walls, not bridges. I think storytelling is a great way of not only being entertaining but also alerting ourselves to us finding visibility to be empathetic again.
ESQ: You mention that you feel that it’s unfair to have the responsibility of being the guy to spearhead motion capture performance.
ANDY SERKIS: Look, I love the technology and I’m very evangelical about it as I see its potential. I have become the de facto spokesperson for it… but I don’t see myself as a special actor in any way. I think, I’ve been lucky enough to play these extraordinary roles and I’ve chosen to take them because, y’know, I’m not afraid of disappearing into a character. It’s a double-edged sword really—I don’t feel that I deserve to be singled out as anything special because I’m just doing what any normal actor would do: to play a character. I’m just lucky enough to be on a ride which has enabled me to come into contact with this technology that’s enabled me to play said characters.
ESQ: How far long down your acting career do you think people will forget that you played Sméagol or Gollum?
ANDY SERKIS: [laughs] That’s a really good question because it is 20 years later and everyday, people come up
to me and talk to me about Gollum. Who knows? Gollum will probably live with me for the rest of my life. That’s part of the deal and I have to accept it.
ESQ: Is there still pressure with the association with Gollum?
ANDY SERKIS: There’s no pressure. It’s just… I mean, people are so endeared to that character that they felt such a connection. It’s interesting because people come up to me and talk to me [about it].
But, again, it’s about the work, the character, an appreciation of the characters like Caesar and the other characters, but predominantly Gollum. So look, I’m proud of the work that we did on that and I realise that the books occupy such an important place in the world and a large population of the world have read those books or seen those movies. I feel lucky to be part of it really.
I did have an interviewer once ask me what I wanted to be written on my tombstone, and I probably said something like, ‘I’m not the guy who just played Gollum’ or something. The next day, a lot of people were asking me, ‘did you not like playing Gollum?’ I’m, like, ‘no no, I love the fact that I played Gollum but I prefer not to be only known for that’.
Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is now out on Netflix.