Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
This is one of those things where both Quint and I find ourselves seething at the way timing and location work out. When New Line called and asked us if we wanted to talk to Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum, while he is here in Los Angeles, we both said, “Sure!” I don’t like stepping on Quint’s toes since I always enjoy his interviews, but we all felt it would be important to get some face-to-face time with this actor, since that’s exactly what is missing when watching his work in LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS. Then reality came crashing down on me and I realized how impossible my schedule was. I was crushed, since I wanted to talk to him about not only LOTR, but his experty funny and caustic turn in last year’s 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. Trying to not sound intensely jealous, I called up Mr. Beaks, who was busy downloading Tatu videos. I can’t describe the sounds I heard when he answered the phone, but he quickly composed himself and said he’d be glad to meet Serkis, and after New Line approved him, I gave him all the information about when and where.
By now, I hope you’ve found the WAV file on the front page, and that hearing Gollum and Smeagol argue about the merits of the site has got you in the mood for the excellent article Beaks just turned in...
So, I had this dream last night...
I’m at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles, CA on February 11th for the announcing of the 75th Academy Award nominations. A phalanx of press is massed in the center of the room, looking on as Jodie Foster and Kevin Spacey tick off the list of the five Best Actors in a Supporting Role. The first three names are unveiled with little surprise or fanfare – near-perennial nominees Chris Cooper and Ed Harris, followed by the obligatory, what-if-this-is-it nod for Paul Newman – but as we’re down to the last two, I find myself growing a bit anxious. You see, since mid-December I’ve been strongly of the opinion that any Best Supporting Actor category excluding the brilliant, groundbreaking work of Andy Serkis as Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS is criminally incomplete. But, as the group of five is rounded out with Dennis Quaid and Christopher Walken, I drop my head in deep disappointment, wondering aloud how they could fail to acknowledge this watershed moment in filmed performance.
Hearing my lament, a reporter turns to me with this typically misguided consolation: “WETA was nominated in all of the major technical awards.”
“Of course, they were,” I reply, “but what about the guy who gave the performance we’ve all been talking about?”
This is where the reporter really pisses me off, shooting back with this gem: “But Gollum is a computer generated character. Don’t tell me you were expecting Andy Serkis to be nominated for a mere vocal performance.”
The rest is hazy, but I do believe the dream ended before I went all Gimli on the fool.
* * * *
“When I started the press junket, nobody knew there was an actor involved. I was getting questions like, ‘Oh, so did you ever go down to New Zealand?’ I was, like, ‘Um, yeah, for four years.’”
It’s a beautiful, warm, late-January afternoon in Beverly Hills. I’m sitting across from Andy Serkis in his room at the Four Seasons, and, amazingly, I’m not dreaming. We’ve been chatting for a good fifteen minutes by now, covering topics like his youth in Ruislip, West London, his life-altering experience at Lancaster (“a real red-brick, Sixties university”) where he discovered his love of acting after landing a plum role in Berry Keefe’s GOTCHA, and the nearly two decades of work that have led up to this fortuitous moment in his life, where he should be receiving the warmest accolades of his career for what will end up being four solid years of an immersive, highly technical application of his craft as Gollum. But, amazingly, he’s still having to convince people he did much of anything at all.
Andy continues to relate the junket horror stories: “’So, you did actually do the voice? Didn’t’ they just do that on the computer?” Andy laughs a little, but it betrays a great many months of hard work convincing journalists of his actual involvement in a process which would’ve been impossible without him. “I’ve had to really go step-by-step. New Line’s been supportive of that; Peter’s been very supportive of that. But people still find the process hard to understand.”
This hasn’t been for a lack of effort on Andy’s part (or New Line’s, who have offered up an extremely illuminating feature on their LORD OF THE RINGS website). He’s been engaged in a full-court media press of interviews and appearances in Los Angeles over the last two weeks, pushing hard for something that should be a given: a genuine recognition of his work. Perhaps the greatest hurdle facing Andy in this respect is that he isn’t a familiar face, thereby blunting the impact of realizing how Gollum is, essentially, a grotesque distorting of the actor’s own physiognomy. The similarity is remarkable in person, and I asked Andy whether or not he’s seeing himself onscreen.
“Very much so. All of the actor choices build up to make… who Gollum really is. That obviously informed the performance, and became the heart and soul of what the animators then (used).” By imbuing the character with such human feeling – a feeling once present in Gollum before the ring tragically corrupted and transformed him – the film reaches a much discussed high point during the anguished monologue in which Smeagol triumphantly banishes Gollum from his psyche. “That scene in particular... well, Gollum’s face, the whole physiognomy, was redesigned in between FELLOWSHIP and TTT, so that it would be much closer to mine. Peter wanted it modeled much, much more on my expression. So Bay (animator Bay Raitt) spent about a year to a year-and-a-half redesigning Gollum based exactly on my facial muscles. They painted my face with dots and the dots were assigned to the dots on the Gollum puppet.” And while the resemblance to Andy is uncanny, he was struck by a different revelation. “When I first saw the Gollum puppet, I said to Bay, ‘This is incredible because Smeagol looks like my two-and-a-half year-old son, and Gollum looks like my dad’. He really, really caught the gene, y’know?”
Impressive as the conflicted inner-monologue is, his on-set interplay with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin was equally crucial. Andy raves about this experience. “That was the great thing, you know. Where Peter was really clever was in saying, ‘Okay, what I want is an actor on set to make all of the actor choices, to be in the moment and have that reciprocal energy with Elijah and Sean, so that the scenes are played for real. And, from there, use that as the core of the character.’” Combined with the later motion capture work, this gave the filmmakers an unprecedented amount of leeway, and though they ended up using mostly motion capture footage, Andy is adamant that his involvement earlier in the process was a tremendous aid to the character’s verisimilitude; thus, sparing his co-stars from having to draw reciprocal energy from the dreaded tennis ball on a stick (which, coincidentally, I hear is behind on its SAG dues).
It should come as little surprise that this whole four year investment in portraying Gollum has turned Andy into a true believer in the CG process (he even expressed an interest in using the motion capture technology on one of his own short films). “I’ve been really evangelizing about CG acting. For me, there’s no difference. It’s liberating because you can play any number of different characters that are not dependant on what your own physicality is. You’re an actor. You can embody any character. I mean... you could never find an actor who looks like (Gollum). And neither would it have worked as well. Originally I thought maybe I could’ve done this with prosthetics, but, actually, there’s a greater resonance in me being CG. It’s like watching really good puppetry, you know, where there’s a magical quality and a greater truth. You get a greater human truth from watching something abstract. So, that’s why I wanted to humanize him as much as possible, so there was that tension between the human qualities and what he’s become.”
Most importantly (though, sadly, not to his benefit in their own award nominations) Andy recently visited the Hollywood headquarters of the Screen Actors Guild, which in many ways is ground zero for the resistance and outright animosity directed toward the proliferation of CG characters in film. Happily, the experience was anything but negative.
“It was great,” beamed Andy. “I felt very proud to be able to say, ‘Hey, look, this isn’t taking work away from us.’ In terms of actor hours... my god, you get to redo it three times.” As for assuring his fellow actors that this is a practical, and not at all unnecessary, application of technology, Andy offered, “Not to blow our own trumpets, it is a bit of a breakthrough role for that, in terms of demonstrating how it can be effective when used legitimately. I mean, to try and replicate completely you and I sitting here in a scene…. well, there wouldn’t be any point. You may as well have you and me sitting here. It would cost too much, for starters; you’d much rather have two people playing off of each other.” Andy summed up the positives of the process most succinctly by saying, “It’s not just a matter of capturing nuance; it’s *amplifying* nuance. That’s where it’s legitimate.”
As for any lingering skepticism, Andy addressed that fairly capably. “I asked them, ‘What would be your fears?’ And they said it’s this sense of being robbed and manipulated. My answer to that is, if you’re acting on stage, obviously, you’re not really manipulated, but if you’re acting on screen... every actor’s performance onscreen is manipulated to a degree, by lighting, direction, music, *editing*, pace and everything. The mood of the piece, and the way you fit into it... you don’t have control of that.”
* * * *
As CG characters become increasingly common in film, actors have finally been given a place at the table – where their contributions are not token but substantial and invaluable – and that should be cause for rejoice, not reticence. And though the character of Gollum, as performed by Andy Serkis and enhanced by WETA, is a pioneering effort, their work should be recognized equally by the Academy not for the uniqueness of the achievement, but for the brilliance of its execution. A nomination of one without the other would, frankly, be akin to a Best Picture nomination sans the recognition of its director. For the effectiveness of Gollum is absolutely reliant upon Andy Serkis’s versatility as a performer (watch TOPSY-TURVY and 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE back to back for further evidence of this), brought to life through his remarkable vocal talents and movement skills (most notably, those of rock climbing). His fingerprints are all over this interpretation of Tolkien’s Gollum, which is why I say, for the purposes of this film, he is, indeed, the *author* of the character. It would be a shame if the performance branch of the Academy is too overwhelmed by innovation to give Andy his due.
P.S. A special thanks to Mr. Serkis for his graciousness in granting this interview, and being a real mensch. Also, thanks to Wendy Rutherford for setting it all up, and to Revolution Studios for keeping Moriarty busy.
That’s right, Beaks. Rub it in. Twist the knife. If you hadn’t done such a good job, I’d toss you into Mt. Doom, ya bastage...