The Actor Who Brings Human Tragedy to Non-Human Roles

Andy Serkis plays a person in the newly released Brighton Rock, but his most astonishing roles remain the beasts of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings, and King Kong

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20th Century Fox/New Line Cinema/Universal Pictures/ facebook.com/pages/Andy-Serkis

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In the weeks since Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit theaters, the entertainment press has engaged in a spirited conversation. It hasn't been centered on the topics you might expect: the strong box office performance of the Apes franchise's latest iteration or the sincerity of star James Franco's apparent quest to out Renaissance all Renaissance men. Instead, the Apes post-mortem has largely focused on one of the most unheralded, underrated actors around—the great Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, the ape who starts the simian revolt in the blockbuster. 

Media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to New York Magazine have wondered whether a best supporting actor Oscar nod might be in the cards for Serkis, as his motion-capture work lends heart and, yes, humanity to what would otherwise have been a straightforward FX part. 

There's even an "Oscar for Andy" Twitter and Facebook campaign.

While it seems unlikely that the fusty Academy would actually nominate someone for playing an ape, particularly given the digitized nature of the performance, the groundswell of support and speculation offers the perfect time to celebrate Serkis's remarkable career.

Of course, the West London-born actor, 47, doesn't just do motion capture. He had a successful career in TV and small movies before The Lord of the Rings and he can be seen playing human parts in the newly released Brighton Rock, an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, and in the black comedy Burke & Hare.

But Serkis's three performances in the digital realm—as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong in Peter Jackson's remake of the classic, and Caesar in Apes—give the fullest picture of his immense talents. They are among the three most challenging, elaborately conceived works of the past decade and proof that Serkis is among our finest actors, no matter what the Academy thinks.

It's hard enough to act in a big budget epic—when entire settings and characters are added in post-production—while playing a human. The scope of such a production, which can make the set feel more like a corporation, and the preponderance of flashy effects-heavy sequences threaten to further dilute any sort of character-driven focus.  

Consider, then, Serkis's performance as the indelible Gollum. As conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien and Jackson, the decrepit, split-personality hobbit, who has spent his life pursuing the One Ring, is a complex, tragic villain. 

Despite reportedly shooting each scene three times (including once without any co-stars), crawling around in a tight body suit outfitted with sensors, and being subjected to the whims of technology, Serkis masters every shade of those complications. Alternately pathetic, creepy and powerfully sad, his Gollum is imbued with tortured, desperate feeling. A weak-willed slave to the ring, he's less a malevolent persona than an empathetic figure struggle with debilitating addiction. 

King Kong is a tragic figure but in a different, grander way. He, in many respects, represents the most imposing challenge of all Serkis's motion-capture parts. Kong, after all, is not a former hobbit or an ape cared for by humans (as is Caesar), but a giant primitive figure whose idyll is interrupted by a team of filmmakers. Facing many of the same technological hurdles, Serkis masters the deliberate, powerful movements and variations in growls. 

But there's no King Kong without its central love story, and the moments of tender affection Serkis's Kong shares with Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow are what drive the film. Within the framework of playing an aggressive beast Serkis taps into deep, elemental romantic feeling. The actor communicates volumes about his character's passionate devotion to Wray in the ways he looks at her longingly, defiantly defends her from an attacking dinosaur and cradles her atop the Empire State Building with sadness in his eyes, as their world comes crashing down. 

Finally, Serkis provides the core of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Raised by Franco's Dr. Will Rodman, Caesar transitions from a scared young creature burdened by a severe identity crisis to a proud, resolute ape, who is sure of what he is and what he must do. A film populated by one-dimensional humans and sprinkled with several wordless scenes between the apes, Rise asks Serkis to sell audiences on the primates' point-of-view, to convey the range of experiences both happy and sad that could turn a kindhearted baby into a determined revolutionary.

As for whether he succeeded, the ample critical acclaim, $261 million (and counting) worldwide box office total and grassroots Oscar movement say it all.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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