Born to be Wild – Being Caesar for the Third Time: A Conversation with Andy Serkis
War For The Planet Of The Apes continues the wildly successful series of films that began with 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and 2014’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. In the wake of the viral outbreak that devastated much of the human population, the simian community has grown more and more powerful. But simmering tensions between the two species has begun erupting into conflict, and the ramifications will be dreadful for everyone…
Andy Serkis has developed a reputation for fantastic acting work both using digital performance capture in films such as the Hobbit trilogy and Star Wars and without it in everything from Avengers: Age Of Ultron to Wild Bill and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. For the modern Planet Of The Apes franchise, he has originated and brought incredible depth and heart to the main character, Caesar.
After encountering humans for the first time in years in Dawn, War finds Caesar locked in a conflict with the survivors, a battle that he doesn’t want to fight, but must to protect the future of his ape brethren. When tragedy strikes, an embittered, war-weary Caesar embarks on a mission of revenge, one that will forever change his life. Andy talks about finding this latest stage of Caesar’s journey, welcoming a new cast member and working with director Matt Reeves…
What’s new for you? And what’s new for Caesar?
Having played him all the way through from an infant to this point is that it’s like a boyhood, or in my case, apehood. The family continues, the saga continues. And Caesar continues to evolve. The problems that he faces in this movie are of a huge magnitude, really. What has been extraordinary about all of these movies as they’ve progressed is this incredible balance between the humans and the apes story. Caesar obviously straddles both worlds in many ways, because he was brought up with humans. He thought of himself as a human until that point in the first film where he was cast out and thrown in with the apes. And so, this dance between respect for humanity but primarily trying to help his own kind meant that he had to discover the ape within himself in the first film. He is then all out to create a society, to create a community and a way forward for his ape kind, which we saw in the last film is now taken to greater lengths because of the bigger threats. And so, there’s much more jeopardy and he suffers much more personally in this. We see this is two years later on.
The ape community that was established and beginning to thrive in Dawn has been ravaged. Caesar has taken the life of an ape, Koba in the last film, which is something that he swore that he would never do, especially as part of his ape credo is, “ape shall not kill ape”. He finds himself now a commander, a leader that is starting again. There’s an exodus where the apes are beginning to move out of Muir Woods and he is about to leave that when this cataclysmic event happens that sends him off on a trajectory that he’s not expecting, which is much more about again losing, he loses himself, and his internal compass. This film is very much about struggling to retain the hold on his moral compass because the events that are so personal and painful to him that he goes on a path of destruction. Through the help of the characters that he meets along the way, he manages to pull out of that nose dive, really. The character journey in this one is an amazing one.
It always seems as though he has to suffer and he has to deal with things…
Yes. It’s this constant balance between family and what you would do to defend your family and your kind. Versus the bigger picture and keeping this balance between both species so that everyone can survive. He feels that pressure.
On his journey this time, he meets Steve’s (Zahn) new ape character. He’s a loner, living in an old ski lodge?
That’s right. What’s extraordinary about that is that what he represents is a character that is not of their tribe. We realize that the effects of the virus we now know are much further ranging and that’s a shock to the apes of Muir Woods.
And does Caesar see something of almost a kindred spirit in Steve’s character?
Yes, he’s seen terrible destruction and he’s been to a very dark places. There’s a coming together. Caesar views him as a sort of an oddball that he comes across until this common ground is felt between them, which then does unite them. There’s this kind of moment where Caesar looks at him in a completely different light and he realizes that he’s been through what are the same sorts of tragedy that Caesar’s been through.
Steve is the new person in the performance capture gear. How has he been coming in?
It’s like water off a duck’s back to him! He’s just such a brilliant actor first, which is all that’s required. It’s nothing to do with anything apart from understanding your character and playing it and he’s terrific physical anyway. And he’s a great comedian. He’s perfectly suited for this role. I mean, he’s brought such a lot to it. It’s great working with him. He’s a theater actor, and there is that sense of kind of really vibing off the situation, with Matt’s excellent direction.
We’ve seen Steve play dramatic before. But this seems to be a different level from him. Would you agree?
Absolutely. What it requires from you as an actor is a big suspension of disbelief, but it’s also it’s very nuanced. I think as people become kind of savvy about what performance capture is they realize it isn’t just about pantomiming. It’s not just about huge physical performances.
In terms of getting that, has the technology changed much from Dawn?
The process is much more streamlined. We come in in the mornings, we go and we get our gear on, which is very much streamlined. The facial cameras, they’re evolved. But in essence it’s the big leap was, I suppose, from Rise when we started to being able to shoot on location. That was significant. And it’s just it’s more robust since then, but easier to move cameras around.
And you all keep setting yourself new challenges…
The beginning of Dawn was pretty challenging because we were in very, very wet conditions the first few days. Actually, for quite some, and then we were in New Orleans which was boiling hot. And this one is cold!
Is the scale bigger this time?
When you think about it, Rise was quite an intimate piece. It was in a domestic situation and then a slightly bigger family in the atrium with all of the other apes. Then Dawn grew, and built on that to a larger community. And now we’re in this situation where it’s huge landscape and epic.
And shot in 65mm?
It looks incredible in 65mm. It really does. I saw some camera tests and it’s gonna look phenomenal actually. Matt’s palette, and James Chinlund’s incredible designs and Mike Seresin of course as cinematographer. It’s just the combination of those three…
Is it nice being with Matt as director again?
He knows the story like the back of his hand. He writes with Mark Bomback and he knows them. Not only that, he’s quite a good actor himself in the sense that when he writes, he writes from the inside. When it comes to shoot as well, it’s very subtle in the direction that he gives and he creates space around the actors, which on films of this scale, you don’t always get. I’m so excited to be working with him again. I love his company and love his energy and he really is the real deal. He totally understands the metaphor of these movies in turn and he’s passionate about them. He’s smart as anything.
It sounds like he has a lot more rehearsal time than some other projects do. I mean, you have the time to really go in and you can keep shooting and finding things?
The joy of performance capture is that you can go back and you can hone it. And so, once you’ve got the plates and we shot all the environments, we inevitably have periods where we can go in. I mean, that seems to be the way now in performance capture. You can go in reiterating and revisiting moments, beats, shots, character, everything.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES IS AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL NOW AND ON BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM 27TH NOVEMBER