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
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