Film stars live through recognition, yet Andy Serkis can pass through a film unseen. At the cinema, I watched both Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) unaware that Serkis was performing a major, and even indeed the central, role. Andy Serkis is a new kind of movie star, ubiquitous and invisible. Though he has many notable “live” on-screen roles to his credit, as, for example, Ian Brady in Longford (2006) and as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010), he is best known for roles where, in a sense, he doesn’t appear on-screen at all, talentedly present and strangely absent.
As a “performance capture” actor and as a voice in computer-animated films, he has played Gollum (also known as Smeagol) in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and the first part of The Hobbit (2012), as Kong, for Spielberg as Captain Haddock, as Supreme Leader Snoke in the rebooted Star Wars films (2015, 2017), and as Caesar in the latest Planet of the Apes trilogy. The immense variety of Serkis’s performances is extraordinary; not only has he evaded typecasting, with the help of the digital vision, as no actor could have hoped to have done before him, he has transcended the limits of his physical body.
In doing so, he subverts another key element in our idea of the film star: that is, that they should stand for a particular mode of individuality, an instance of personhood contained in one mortal frame. Instead he offers a chameleon identity, almost a romantic ideal of the actor (not the star), someone absorbed in and yet still expressing himself through a myriad kinds of otherness.
I first saw Serkis in 1993, playing The Fool as a drag queen in Max Stafford-Clark’s Royal Court production of King Lear. Over the years I’d forgotten who played Lear (it was the excellent Tom Wilkinson), but Serkis’s Fool has long stayed with me, ferocious and vulnerable as he was, going on, as I remember it, to hang himself at the play’s end. Serkis was amazing that night, standing, in his folly and aggression and compassion, for all kinds of humanness. The stage seemed his place; I never thought I’d next see him living through a puppet as a digital double of a time-decayed hobbit.
Inevitably in watching Serkis’s intensely felt performances, all mediated by technological intervention, questions of the continued presence, or absence, of the human arise. If Scarlett Johansson and Shu Qi represent the piecemeal arrival of the post-human on film, then Serkis might appear to advance that invasion several leagues.
Yet in many ways Serkis stands for the resilience of the presence of the human spirit on-screen, a living exemplar of our ineradicable interest in persons. For all the intervention of computers, as Gollum, as Kong, as Caesar, even especially as Supreme Leader Snoke, that desiccated, malevolent Bing Crosby simulacrum, he’s still human and his humanity, his personhood, informs all that he does.
It is striking how often, in talking of his work, Serkis refers to the honesty of a performance, the finding in acting of a character’s emotional truth. When we watch an actor, the very skill of their performance raises the question of how we distinguish a pretended emotion from a real one. If our robots and computers imitate feeling, then is that feeling “real” or not? The question of technology merges with the question of the existence of other minds—and when the digital other lives in a fiction film then that throws the question of the actor into the mix. The destabilizing possibilities of pretense draw these three problems together, drawn into one by the technological apparatus of film.
In all his motion-capture films, though his doing so is mediated by computer, Serkis finds the person in the “other.” Yet watching him and watching the other that is him, we cannot help but wonder how much of Serkis is there. In one sense the entire performance is, as it says, and as Kong and Caesar are, “captured,” taken from Serkis’s self; in another, it’s hard not to feel it’s all a conjuration, a version of the marionette theater.
As Serkis consistently shows, the possibility enshrined in motion-capture is dazzling.
Serkis’s motion-capture as Kong was supplemented, seamlessly enough it seems to me, by keyframe animation; who can tell which bits refer to Serkis, and which are filled-in? Serkis himself has suggested that he is the voice, the emotions, the movements of such characters, but that he cannot be their body. In The Lord of the Rings the Smeagol we see on-screen replicates Serkis’s performance, but is therefore something distanced from it, an artifice within an artwork.
In commentaries on his films, Peter Jackson has spoken of the actors morphing into a “computer puppet.” Making King Kong, all the actors had “digital doubles,” including Naomi Watts, of course, metamorphosing into modeled lifelike versions of themselves that could do on-screen what no human being could do, or could survive, in life. When watching the film we shift from watching traces of the actor themselves to scenes or moments where they are replaced by their own marionette.
There is notably an attempt among computer scientists and AI experts to show their digital machines and algorithm-spawners as “creative,” capable of writing novels, composing symphonies, painting pictures. Taryn Southern, a YouTube personality, has collaborated with computers who make music for her; it’s curious that the resulting melodies sound more human than she does.
There is an element of thrilled ambition in all this, but also of usurpation, and of a radical debunking of art as such—reduced to memes, discourse, generic properties, reproducible tropes and techniques. The critical notions that gave us “the death of the author” now happily seek out the death of the human presence in art.
Elsewhere, there have been other radical attempts to displace the human actor from film. Sayonara (2015), a film by Koji Fukada, has cast an android as the lead actor in a movie. Like many such “robots,” the android is gendered as a woman actor—of course, for the production of femininity is so often the point in such endeavors. Geminoid f has her own (its own?) IMDB webpage; here it declares, “Geminoid f is an actress.” In the film, based on a 2010 short play by Oriza Hirata, Geminoid f plays “Leona,” though in what sense she/it plays anyone is open to question.
The creation of the roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, Geminoid f is already a performance, a replication of a human being, framed in imitation. Ishiguro’s earlier robot was Geminoid hi-1, designed, either with candid narcissism or Warholian mischief, to be a robot double of himself; the name “Geminoid” likely draws on “Gemini,” the twins. If Geminoid hi-1 is an uncreating mirror to the creative self, then Geminoid f, his/its 20-something sister (based on the maker’s daughter) embodies a prevailing myth of modest, sexy beauty, plastic, facile and amenable. Ishiguro has stated that his aim is to understand what a human is. He has done so by fabricating “autonomous” puppets.
All this, to me, reaches a depth of emptiness that is at some distance from Jackson’s and Spielberg’s films and even more from Serkis’s inspiring motion-capture acting. The thought that it is all done by machine, and hence is purely unreal, is a beguiling but misguided one. The computer work that makes those digital doubles, those virtual people is truly a craft, the painstaking work of skilled and diligent artificers.
Moreover, as Serkis consistently shows, the possibility enshrined in motion-capture is dazzling. It offers us, for instance, a symbolic version of art’s attempt, and acting’s endeavor, to see the world from another’s perspective. This includes the possibility of a genuine transgenderism, where we might, on-screen, if not in truth, live through another body, albeit a virtual one. In this regard, in the recent Planet of the Apes films, it is particularly pertinent that Karin Konoval plays the male orang-utan Maurice, and does so in such a way that no one considers for a moment the gender of the human actor embodied in this sage and reflective character.
In playing Smeagol, Serkis expresses all the complexity of Tolkien’s portrait, showing the character to be in turns hideous and cute, malign and generous.
Serkis broke out as an obscured movie star playing Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films; indeed, he was, by quite some distance, the best thing in them. As a lifelong Tolkien fan, I was skeptical of any movie adaptation and, as it turned out, rightly so. For the most part, Jackson weirdly fritters away the suspense and menace, the homeliness and the nobility of Tolkien’s narrative, replacing these with an inflated and rushed unmeaning violence.
Tolkien’s novel creates places that are touchstones of beauty and goodness—Rivendell, Lorien, Tom Bombadil’s house, Fangorn forest, the Shire itself—using these sacred sites as examples of all that stands against the cruelty and destruction practiced by Saruman and Sauron. The movie reduces those shining places to kitsch; Jackson’s Rivendell in particular could come out of a painting by Roger Dean. The films give us a celebration of the natural in a technological package, and its oases are those brief instances where the personal finds its breathing space, where conversations happen, where kindness is given and taken.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films provide a cinematic sublime, while conveying little of the humane. Tolkien’s passion was for the resilience and courage of the humble, who are exalted. Jackson’s focus is instead on the vast. It is not Middle Earth that is the center of the film, it is not the individual, it is New Zealand, a real place. The landscapes of his films are undoubtedly beautiful, but the way they are shot minimizes the person. Ostensibly about “fellowship,” the nine, and friendship, the dominant unit on-screen is instead that of the horde.
In Tolkien’s books of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as befits someone who had been a frontline soldier, battles are seen from the point of view of the more or less bewildered participant; in Jackson’s films, they are spectacles of mass violence, seen from above, the personal element lost. Jackson willingly sacrifices realism of presentation and, with it, emotional depth and reality, for effect—for excess. The power of the image takes precedence over the human meaning of the film, and we must assume that for Jackson this power was the point.
Against that tumult, in moments of quiet, there is Serkis as Smeagol, interacting with Frodo and Sam, and in the process, without even trying to do so, blowing the actors who play them off the screen. In playing Smeagol, Serkis expresses all the complexity of Tolkien’s portrait, showing the character to be in turns hideous and cute, malign and generous. Bald as a baby, he’s extraordinarily aged, bulging-eyed, wide-mouthed, snaggle-toothed.
Smeagol is in two minds: he is both the vestige of himself, abject and eager to please, and the creature he had to become to survive his addiction, “Gollum,” vicious, wily, and insidious. On-screen Serkis is likewise split in two, there and not there. In the end-titles to The Return of the King, where each actor’s name appears beside a drawing of their character, Serkis is there drawn twice, once as “Gollum,” and once as himself.
Gollum is a degenerate being, an evolutionary atavism, someone who prefers the raw to the cooked. Evolution is central to King Kong and the Planet of the Apes films too, with Kong and Caesar being both the less than human and the superhuman, a person brought to life by technology. In King Kong, as “Lumpy,” the ship’s cook (his other role in the film), Serkis declares that on the island there lurks “a creature neither beast nor man.”
In this film humans and animals swap places; humans become prey; Adrien Brody plays a writer who sleeps and works in an animal’s cage. The movie even reproduces, and deepens, the colonialist racism, tinged by warped evolutionary theories, of the 1933 original, with its South Sea islanders being crazed and malign to the point of incomprehensibility. As always in Kong films, Kong himself seems relatively more human in comparison with these debased evolutionary throwbacks.
Like most of Jackson’s films, King Kong is scaled to the director’s taste for gigantism; even the centipedes are supersized. With its penchant for a brutal kitsch, here the beauty that killed the beast is cinema itself. Everything natural in the film is unnatural, bigger than life, bloated. The sunsets, symbolic of yearning beauty, look Photoshopped, “painted,” a stage-set sundown. This embellishment of nature focuses on two opposed locales: the weird supernatural presence of Skull Island; and that other island, the denatured, art deco epitome of modernity that is Manhattan.
Naomi Watts finds herself facing the defaced, re-faced face of Andy Serkis as Kong, as well as an ape who takes on the displaced qualities of the human.
Frequently Jackson’s King Kong takes on the nightmarish quality of the original too, and also draws on the way that it may sometimes rise to the dreamlike; there’s a “good” primitivism at work here too alongside the ignoble savage shtick. Kong himself embodies the force of nature, all that the artificial space of the theater cannot contain, even as film creates and frames it.
Cinema history permeates the film, playing up Jack Black’s role as a monomaniacal movie director, someone who places the image above a human life. In this way King Kong follows the trajectory of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), moving from screwball comedy to apocalypse; Naomi Watts takes the beleaguered Tippi Hedren role.
Like The Birds, too, the film encapsulates the plight of modern women, particularly the woman film star, condemned by male demands to be cute and “entertaining.” As Ann Darrow, Watts knocks out a breathless, life-saving vaudeville performance of pratfalls, juggling and comedy dancing. Left to be sacrificed to this mighty ogre of a gorilla, Watts finds herself facing the defaced, re-faced face of Andy Serkis as Kong, as well as an ape who takes on the displaced qualities of the human.
Though Serkis “humanizes” Kong, it is really Watts who is the emblem of the human here. She is made special first by being the only woman on board, and then by being the object of the great ape’s adoration, the only human being who can connect to the beast. Later she endures the worst fate of the musical heroine, returning to the anonymous ranks of the chorus line, taken away from the center of things and condemned to ordinariness.
Meanwhile across town, Jack Black as the theatrical impresario has a scene enacted on stage that reproduces the racist, S&M-tinged parody that the film itself already was. This second time around a chained blonde (the wrong blonde, it turns out) hangs before a chained Kong. Enraged that it’s some substitute extra, and not Naomi Watts, the beloved, the actual movie star, Kong bursts his chains and devastates the theater, and then the streets of Manhattan beyond.
He snatches up blondes one by one, checking to see if they happen to be the blonde, and when they are not, he tosses them aside, back to the street from whence they came. In these distorted and furious (and curious) ways, the film plays out some fantasy of loving for the man, of being loved for the woman—of being special, of being the star.
Through the technology of film, human beings express their interest in each other, in the innumerable manifestations of human possibility.
In the Planet of the Apes trilogy, through the mask, Serkis conveys something human, and something simian too. Regarding Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis has described Caesar as “a human trapped in an ape’s body”; for the second film, he found himself drawing out the ape within the character. Throughout he is not aping being a chimpanzee, he is playing the person. For all the fabulous rigmarole of the technology, he is just acting as actors have always acted.
Yet in these new techniques something has undoubtedly been lost. The Czech surrealist film-maker Jan Švankmajer has spoken of the centrality of touch to the experience of film. He understands, of course, that film is an audio-visual medium, but he is surely right to stress the tactile quality of films, and how central to our understanding and perception of the person is the fact of touch, the sharing of a grasp, the holding of another.
Through technology, we feel that a sense has been lost from our repertoire of five. We see Frodo and Sam wrestle with Gollum, and once they truly were wrestling with Serkis himself; but we sense the absence of heft in those touches, the fact that that face, that body, is weightlessly there. It is precisely in those moments when Kong touches Naomi Watts that the film has recourse to her digital double, or to props. He cannot hold on to her. As touch departs, some element of the human takes flight with it.
With Andy Serkis and with motion-capture acting as such, at times we may feel we are witnessing the return of “broad” acting, the near-mime of silent cinema revived. However, as with the best of silent cinema itself, in fact Serkis’s performances are nuanced and restrained in their potent expressiveness. It is the precision and subtlety of what he does that most amazes. With motion-capture, with digital doubles, we may feel that the human presence is emptying from the screen.
Yet whatever he does from now on, wherever film goes from here, Serkis reminds us that the central concerns of cinema remain intact. Through the technology of film, human beings express their interest in each other, in the innumerable manifestations of human possibility, all brought to life by the actor and, above all, the star. As they have for more than a hundred years of narrative cinema, over a hundred years of stardom, the actor still embodies one kind of uniqueness, being ineradicably their own person and yet letting us share, through the magic of films, a life in connection to other perspectives, to the endless vulnerability and fascination of the celluloid shadow of the human face.
Adapted with permission from Show People: A History of the Film Star by Michael Newton, published by Reaktion Books Ltd. Copyright (c) 2019 by Michael Newton. All rights reserved.