Many have remarked that the most memorable performance in the “Lord of the Rings” films is given by a computer-generated character, Gollum. But let’s not forget the man behind the critter, British screen and stage actor Andy Serkis, seen in films like Mike Leigh’s “Topsy Turvy” and Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People.”
In an approach that was nothing short of groundbreaking, director Peter Jackson had Serkis perform his scenes on set in a specially wired motion-capture suit, and his movements and facial expressions became the basis for the animated Gollum. Serkis spoke with me about his four-year experience of working on the trilogy, and the irony of being one of its best-known but least-recognizable stars. And I made sure not to wear any rings to the interview — Serkis has a habit of slipping all-too-convincingly into character at any moment.
No matter how good the animation for Gollum is, it’s the voice that really sells it, and you got it just right. How did you go about developing the voice?
I tried some random creature voices, but they weren’t rooted in anything. So I started to think quite seriously about why Gollum sounds the way he sounds. What Gollum represents, really, is a manifestation of what the Ring does to an individual.
So rather than try to think of the Ring as an abstract symbol of power, I wanted to find something very strong and playable, so I came to this idea that Gollum, at the end of the day, is an addict. I wanted to humanize the character as much as possible, make him someone you could have pity for.
The crucial thing was about how that addiction would affect him physically, and the whole pathology associated with addiction: the lying, the withdrawal, his passive-aggressive side. I wanted him to be physically torn apart by this thing. And the voice really came about by thinking of involuntary reactions. He’s trapped in his throat, from this moment in time where he kills his cousin, so it’s like Tourette’s, an involuntary spasm.
And I noticed how Tolkien describes Gollum in various animalistic ways, and one of those is a cat. And we had three cats at the time, and I was watching one of them, Des, who very often coughed up fur balls, this whole thing where he’d have spasms throughout his entire body, and convulse, like [raspy, Gollum-voice], “Waaah, arrrh, bleeh, Gollum, Gollum.” That’s how the voice began.
Of course, when we developed the role over four years, the Gollum and Smeagol personalities started to really define themselves, and I had to make them different, obviously. So Gollum became much lower and guttural, because he’s more aggressive, in a way, more honest, it’s a gut response: “We wantsss it, we needsss it, we must have the precious!”
And Smeagol became much sweeter and innocent, pathetic and childlike; I was drawing from my children as a source, the way that young innocent people can also be very manipulative: “[whimper] Master’s my friend, my friend.” It would go between the two.
Did it take a lot of practice to do those two voices and have those long tions with yourself?
I think once we’d established it, it became quite easy. One generated the other. Whenever we shot those scenes, where Gollum and Smeagol would be having this back and forth, I’d do the whole thing, and it’s really the connecting breaths between the two that make him one person with two personalities. But I don’t think he’s clinically schizophrenic, I think he’s like me, able to turn on a six-pence. I talk to myself, want to throw my computer out the window, or get road rage . . . I think we all exist within a hair’s breath of doing very violent, dangerous things.
Kind of like Martin Hannett [the Joy Division/New Order producer/mad-genius whom Serkis played in “24 Hour Party People”]. What was it like working with Winterbottom coming off your marathon with Jackson? They must have very different styles.
Worlds apart. It was just after principal photography on “Lord,” which lasted for 15 months. I went back for the two consecutive post-production years, reshooting everything in the motion-capture studio; worked with the animators, and did the final vocal track. But in between there were odd times I could go off and do other things.
I went from this massive shoot, with such precision and complex technology on “Lord of the Rings,” to this loose, everyone kind of off-their-faces thing, wandering around in character, and the cameras, you didn’t know when they were on or off! [laughs] It was mad, but a great antidote.
Hannett was an amazing character to play, everyone adored him. But again, mood swings, addictive behavior — he was a huge consumer of all things chemical — and had that sort of potential for violence. He could scare the shit out of a lot of the bands.
What was Peter Jackson like on set? Was he very involved during the shoot, or did he do most of the work in rehearsal?
Everything was on set, really. He is a real maestro. There were seven units shooting simultaneously on various islands, so he’d sit there with a bank of monitors and satellite dishes on top, he’d have second-unit directors from all over New Zealand beaming shots in, and he’d say “Well, bring those 100 orcs in from the other side.” But he’d be working on the main plot, what he considered to be the main storyline scenes that he’d be directing in the flesh. He really let you run with the ball, that’s his greatest skill, to trust his actors.
There was a lot of on-the-hoof-stuff. Pete says it was a bit like shooting the biggest home movie in the world. In a sense, it’s true, it did have this intimacy. There was never a sense of being in this huge unwieldy thing.
I see you’ve been making your own short films lately.
Yeah, on DV. I love filming. Before I became an actor, I was more into the visual arts really. I think that really helped with playing Gollum, actually. When it came to having to deal with all the technology, with motion-capture suits, you have to keep a third eye on yourself while being in character. Literally, it’s like placing yourself back into a frame of the scenes we’d shot on location.
So you had to re-do all the location shots in motion-capture? Did that make you feel confined to playing it the same way?
No. There were two main techniques we used. They shot my performance on camera, then I’d step off camera, and Elijah and Sean would have to avoid where I’d been, but it had been encoded in their minds what the scene was about. Then the animators would have two avenues to work with: One was a technique called rotoscoping, which is painting frame-by-frame over all my movements. Most of the fight scenes, all the very close-up scenes were done like that. But for other scenes, they used the motion-capture studio stuff, where I could see the CG-Gollum, on-screen, moving in real-time as I crawled around.
How much input did you have with the actual animation? Was it based closely on your performance? I’m especially curious about the facial expressions . . .
There were certain scenes, with close-ups, where Pete just said, “I want you to follow Andy’s performance exactly.” WETA [New Zealand special-effects company] came up with this facial sculpture, with all the facial muscles working in exactly the same way [as mine]. They’d control the face with faders on a mixer, and copy every widening of the eyes, every raised eyebrow.
I think the reason that Gollum does work is that Pete had the wisdom to let the acting dictate everything. Pete never allowed the CG effects to dominate the true emotional power of a scene, and that’s why it works. I mean, look at “The Hulk.”
Were you glad that you finally got a scene in “The Return of the King” [as the pre-Gollum Smeagol] that got your real face up there, so you wouldn’t be the best-known unrecognized actor in the world!
Ha! To be honest, I still think people wouldn’t recognize me from how I looked in that! But then, I don’t like to be recognized; I like to subsume myself into characters. I mean, nobody’s recognized me from Martin Hannett in “24 Hour Party People.” That’s what excites me about acting, being able to get inside another person’s head and mind and body and be that other person. This is no different, it’s just that the costume here is digital.
OK, here’s the question that everybody wants to know the answer to, and if anybody has that answer, it’s you: Any chance that you’ll be making “The Hobbit” next?
If Pete was to do “The Hobbit” — and I think he’s keen on doing it, I’m just not sure what the situation is like with the rights — I’d love to do it. The Gollum chapter, “Riddles in The Dark,” is brilliant. I’d definitely play him again; he’s still very much under my skin.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.