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"Flushed Away" Interview #1: Andy Serkis

I had the good fortune to head over to DreamWorks recently and speak to several of the key creative folks involved with the making of the DreamWorks/Aardman collaboration, Flushed Away, which premieres Nov. 3. In one of three interviews that we’ll premiere over the coming weeks, Andy Serkis, voice of the sinister yet ineffectual henchrat Spike, sat down with a roundtable of interviewers and had a grand old discussion about all sorts of artistic activity, including Flushed Away and going beyond.

Unlike the two interviews that will follow this one, this was not conducted by myself (and thusly, Toon Zone) alone, so the questions will not be attributed to any one person.

Q: You’ve had the experience about how you find the voice for a character. How much of Spike did you know? Did they show him to you?

Andy Serkis (AS): Well, this is the first time I’ve ever done a voice for an animated character – although people seemed to think when I was doing Gollum that I’d done a lot of voice work, but this is actually the very, very first time. They did show us, in the first sessions, clay maquettes of the characters, and that was really useful in getting a grip of what he was like. What was apparent, kind of from the off, was that he was sort of nasally and sharp, with his protruding teeth, and quite tense in the jaw. So that, coupled with the script and the fact that he’s kind of a neurotic man who wants to be bigger than he really is, took me off in a particular direction.

Q: Did you study rats at all?

AS: There wasn’t really the time, because I was in the middle of King Kong, so I was in the middle of studying gorillas. That was the challenge of the job, really, and it was something I hadn’t really thought about: in animation you do about three or four hours on your first day and then you don’t see the character again for six months, seven months, while the animators go off and start working on it. Then you come back for another session for three hours and then again, so it was a very new way of working for me. Luckily, on my very first session, I got the chance to work with Bill Nighy, so we worked out our characters and our voices in counterpoint.

Q: We so often hear in animation that you’re by yourself…

AS: Yeah, from then on in, it was, but just that first time.

Q: Is that more difficult, when you’re by yourself, not having someone to play off of?

AS: I’m rather quite used to that, since I did all the motion capture by myself on Lord of the Rings and Kong. Now I find it quite hard working with other actors at this point! (room laughs)

Q: You and Bill Nighy had this nice George and Lenny relationship going on. How much of that came from the script, and how much came from getting together that first time?

Whitey and SpikeAS: Bit of both, really. It was quite exciting seeing what Bill was coming up with. You just felt it instinctively, where it was going to sit, really. Having said that, though, I think I’m right in saying that Spike and Whitey were originally conceived in a particular way and remained pretty true over the length of the period [of production].

Q: So there wasn’t much change or evolution of the characters the way some can change?

AS: No, I think they were pretty clear about who those two guys were. I mean, they’re classic British pantomime broker’s men.

Q: The Aardman sensibility calls back to these great British comedians. Do you worry that it might be too British, or is it kind of a pleasure to get into that?

AS: I don’t think everybody’s going to get the lingo and say, “Oh, that’s a classic British double act,” but if you’re on the inside of the industry, you know what genre of character they represent. As characterizations, they’re always different; it’s just how they relate to each other.

Q: Because it’s a family film, and you have kids, does it make you a hero at home, or do they even realize that this is you in this work?

AS: Certainly on my other work. Not so much this, since I’d just go off and do a bit of recording – they’ve seen the trailers now, so they know. But certainly on Kong and Lord of the Rings, they’d come down to where I was doing motion capture and watch me, and see Kong up on screen, so they’d see that I do that movement and the gorilla does that. So they do get it.

Q: So after having to wear all this equipment on Kong, was it refreshing to just go in with a T-shirt and do a voice?

AS: Yeah, it was! But I have to say that, watching the other guys next door, because you’re not controlling the whole character, what I felt when I was watching it yesterday was, “Hey, no, I’d run over there, not there!” There’s a sense of not being in control of your own limbs in this film, which is slightly odd.

Q: That’s an interesting aspect of voice acting, where you’re just turning over your performance to a whole group of people. Is there a frustration there, or is there a different kind of satisfaction that this character took this whole group of people to make?

AS: Oh, definitely. It’s so different from the kind of CG work that I’ve done. It’s animated; you’re not acting the role in the same way. I suppose I found it just different. The only thing I can liken it to is this puppet show I did once, years back. It was an opera, and I did some voices for a puppet show at the Barbican in London. I remember a technical rehearsal and one of the puppeteers was late, and I was sweating on the stage thinking, “Where is he?!” That was that sense of not being in control.

Q: Your performances have revived the debate about whether these roles should be Oscar-worthy. You’ve won awards for Supporting Actor in the last few years. What do you think about that? Should animation or CG voices be eligible?

AS: I think there’s a real distinction between animation and motion-capture roles. They’re vastly different things. You’re not creating the role in its entirety when you do a voice for animation. That does belong to a whole team of people. Some would say the same applies to motion-capture roles. I personally don’t believe that, and I think the more motion-capture is used in films, then the more it becomes part [of cinema] in a mainstream way. And it is and will be, especially with video games, the convergence of video games and film. It’s actually a really interesting time for actors. Robert Zemeckis has just made Beowulf, and Anthony Hopkins is in it, John Malkovich, Ray Winstone, all high-profile serious actors, creating characters where they’re creating the movement, they’re creating the personalities, and it’s the manifestations of those characters which are being handed over to the animators. That’s different than the animators driving the movement and the facial expressions and everything, so I think there’s a real distinction. I do believe in five or ten years time, actors will come out of drama schools and they’ll do theatre, they’ll do films, they’ll do television, and they’ll do video games, and it’ll be considered much more of a dramatic art.

I’ve never ever drawn a distinction between creating a CG character and creating a character in a conventional role. For me, it’s no difference. What it comes down to is enhancement, and how animators enhance that performance. Or other people, for that matter, because in a conventional film, music enhances an actor’s performance. The choice of shot, whether it’s slow-motion or it’s digitally altered in any way, shape, or form. There’s millions of ways an actor’s performance is enhanced. When the core of the performance is driven by the actor…rather, if the greater proportion of the character, the psychology of the character, the world of the character, is carried by an actor, then it’s an acting role.

Q: This has to be an interesting time for you, though, because after ten or twelve years of acting in front of the camera, you get famous for roles in which we don’t see your face, and now you’re coming back in front of the camera! I think we have the Andy Serkis Film Festival coming up; you’ve got five or six films coming out in theatres. Is it sort of like starting fresh?

AS: It’s true, actually, it does feel a bit like that. Or they look at the back catalogue in a fresh way and say, “Oooh, 24 Hour Party People.” Those roles, curiously, have given me a great pride farm, and still allow me to have an anonymity, because I’m not so linked into the roles that you can’t see me playing anything else.

Q: To return to Spike for a moment: for a character like Spike, who’s such a grand clown within the film, how do you as the actor manage to balance out the broad comedy and the high spirits with the element of truth?

Whitey and SpikeAS: That’s a good question. I always use touchstone characters, real people, as a sort of basis for the characters I play, and that really comes from working with directors like Mike Leigh who, as part of the process, has you root a character in a real person. He calls it a “touchstone character.” So, you always bring an element of real humanity or something truthful. For him, we all know someone like Spike – I know a few people like Spike – who just are desperate to prove themselves to be bigger than they are, and forward themselves at all times, and in Spike’s case, hurt themselves more than they do to anybody else. His own violence backfires on him all the time.

Q: So did you draw upon your own natural reserves of frustration?

AS: He’s an impatient character, and I have a certain amount of impatience. He likes to think he’s got everything under control, and I can plug into trying to get the kids all ready for school at the same time, and they all turn into custard all at the last minute just as you’re walking out the door. That’s like Spike; everything kind of just gets out of control.

Q: Speaking of control, you’re adding a hyphenate now, becoming actor-director Andy Serkis. What kind of leap was that like for you?

AS: Before I became an actor, I studied visual art, and then when I started getting into theatre I started designing sets. I was lucky enough to get into a college where they’ve got a great experimental theatre, so I’ve always wanted to take a more objective view of the story than just seeing it through one character’s perspective. I started making short films, and I directed a play. And even in Lord of the Rings and King Kong, there’s an element of motion-capture where you’ve got a third eye on your own performance and you’re choreographing yourself into a scene. So, yeah, it’s been pushing towards that for some time.

Q: Have you started on the film? It’s called Freezing Time, correct?

AS: There’s two projects which are going slower than I’d thought originally, but one is called Freezing Time. It’s about Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer who basically invented stop-motion photography and really was the forefather of cinema as we know it. He’s an amazing character, again, a sort of obsessive workaholic. He’s got a very twisted and interesting kind of life story.

Then there’s this other film, Addict, which is based on an autobiography by a man called Stephen Smith. That’s about this child who basically takes a wrong turn in life, and through committing a minor crime, is sentenced to a mental institution by his father who’s embarrassed about having him sent to a prison. During the process of that happening, he ends up being put on Dexedrine by one of the doctors and then is sexually abused, and it sends him off on this whole kind of downwards spiral. Amazing story, really; it takes place over 20 years, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. That’s something where I’ve been developing the script for the last year and a half.

Q: Are you going to act in these as well?

AS: No, no, just direct.

Q: We haven’t gotten a sense of what your role is going to be in The Prestige.

AS: It’s a cameo role, but it’s such a brilliant script and a great story. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Q: How about Mr. Grin in Stormbreaker, which Bill Nighy’s also in? Had you worked together on this first?

AS: Oh, yeah, that’s another one! Yeah, Bill was in that, too. That’s funny. We had started working on [Flushed Away] first.

Q: It’s amazing to see what’s basically a kids’ movie with one after another of these terrific actors stepping up to do small but important roles like Mr. Grin.

AS: They’re great kids’ books, for that age group, great and empowering stories. I think Alex Rider, the main character, is a really cool model. Mr. Grin was just, you know, another freak to stick in the gallery! (room laughs) I’d just come back from doing Kong, and it was a couple of days of work that I quite fancied.

Q: You’ve also got Heavenly Sword coming out, the video game. You were mentioning video games earlier as something to be recognized in the future as a significant art. Tell us a little bit about your involvement on that.

AS: That’s taken up quite a lot of this year. It’s been the backbone of my year, creatively. I got involved with the company called Ninja Theory, who are producing this game, and they approached me and said, “Look, there’s a real gap in video games between concept art or technology and the actual performance, and there’s a real appetite out there for games with performance.” I didn’t really know much about video games before, so I came to it purely from a dramatic perspective. I got involved in the story design and the character development, and then casting, and finally I put them in touch with WETA and we went back to New Zealand and rehearsed it and then we shot all the motion-capture. So I was directing all the performances for that game.

Q: Have you since become a gamer?

AS: I wouldn’t say I’m any good at games. At all, actually. I’m really not, but I’m beginning to understand the enjoyment and excitement of becoming engaged in games. But I just think we’re at the beginning of it. I think it’s worthwhile investing a lot of time – and I’m prepared to and want to – into games, because my kids are getting to the point where they’re going to start playing them. And there’s so many bad games out there, really atrocious – I mean, there’s some great ones, but I’d like to see some with great storytelling and great characters that you really care about. Whether it’s been achieved already, I don’t know, but certainly using facial motion capture [will help]. Playstation 3 is going to be awesome, really. I’m just seeing some of the animation come back now, and how it’s translating into performance, and it just looks great. You can get in with the scenes, you can choose your own camera angles, you can really move 3D around the whole thing.

Q: In hearing you describe that, is it becoming important for actors to study the technology, the motion capture and the movement?

AS: Absolutely. I think kids will come out of drama school and games will be part of the repertoire. In a sense, motion-capture is like black box theatre anyway. The technology is like trying on your costume for the first time as an actor. You have to get used to it and then you make it your own. In motion capture, you’ve got a hundred dots all over your face, so the first day you’re very aware of having dots all over your face, and then on the next day, you just get on with it. It’s a very pure form of acting. And then, they’ll get to the point where you don’t even have to have [the dots]. It’ll be done optically, and it’s just about what your take on the character is and how you physicalize the character.

Q: Disney just re-released The Little Mermaid to huge success, and they’ll do it again in another twenty years. Is that part of the allure of doing these animated films – that they’ll still be watching them fifty years from now?

AS: I never really think about that. I didn’t really consider that when I took this job, for instance. You choose it for so many other reasons: the script, the characters, the world of the film, or a company like Aardman. You can’t really think like that when you set out to make a project.

Q: But does it reflect on you that six generations down, your descendants might be showing it to their next generation and saying, “Here’s what your great-great-great grandfather did”?

Flushed AwayAS: (laughs) I suppose I became more aware of that with Lord of the Rings, because it went into the public consciousness so massively. People interviewing me mentioning that, “Well, you’re never going to do anything again that’s going to touch it and you’ll be remembered for that.” If that is, if that’s the case, then it’s not a bad legacy, really. It’s a nice thing to be remembered for.

Q: Is there a character that you haven’t played that you’d like to play someday in a future role?

AS: I really must think about this, because I’ve been asked this so many times, and I always can’t think of anything. We touched on it with Kong, because Pete Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens used The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a model, particularly Charles Laughton’s performance. But I’d love to play that part, because I think it’s a tremendous character. There’s a great book called Perfume by Patrick Süskind and there’s a fantastic character in there called [Jean-Baptiste] Grenouille. And I think it’s just been made into a film. (room laughs) I would love to play that part. Maybe in twenty years’ time, we can do the motion-capture version.

Q: You were mentioning the world of a film. You never know what kind of world you’re going to be releasing a film into, and I was wondering if on the James Threapleton film [Rendition] whether the reality of that came through, where you were playing the Interrogator and then go home and see what you were playing out on the news.

AS: I think in two roles I’ve played recently, and one is that, in Rendition, where there was a serious amount of responsibility about what we were doing, and also in Longford, where there’s a serious capability to cause political change. Because [the type of torture shown in Rendition] is happening as we speak, and it’s not known about. Accepting that role is taking on the stance of the film, waving the film’s banner, and you hope that your role will create big changes. That’s a powerful responsibility. And it was an improvised film, as well; it was entirely improvised. We did a lot of research in “enhanced information gathering,” otherwise known as torture, and actual techniques that are written down. It’s all about language, about how these torture techniques are worded so that they don’t sound like they are. So, yeah, I think you’re right. But I always thought that The Two Towers was opened at a time where it resonated hugely with what was going on in the world and had a political significance, and that’s a fantasy film.

Q: As somebody who’s created so many vocal characterizations and could be given, amongst many other labels, the title of a voice actor, do the voices in your head ever argue or interact amongst themselves?

AS: I’d like to say yes, but I can’t. (laughs) It was quite odd doing Kong and then doing a bit of Spike, going from a twenty-five-foot gorilla to a six-inch mouse. But no, I can’t think I’ve ever had a back-and-forth between Spike and Smeagol.

Q: Do you enjoy how, for instance, Robin Williams does a bit with the White House arguing back and forth as Smeagol and Gollum?

AS: I’ll tell you what I did, which I loved doing: I recorded some songs, [as if] Gollum sings songs from these shows, as a gift for a number of people when we finished Lord of the Rings. It’s a recording of things like Gollum singing “You’re The One That I Want” from Grease and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “My Way”. But those were just private gifts.

We the interviewers then spent the last few precious moments with Serkis laughing about the idea of Gollum singing these songs and how the LOTR fanbase would sell their kidneys to acquire these CDs, which I can assure you will not be publicly released anytime soon, if ever. It was quite excellent to get to talk to one of the busiest character actors around in recent years, and a pioneer of an acting format that will undoubtedly become more and more commonplace. I think that when you see Flushed Away, you’ll agree that no matter what else Andy Serkis is doing, in both real life and in performance, he is (in the best way) never ever boring.

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