Andy Serkis: Meet the ring master

He plays one of the best-known characters in The Lord of the Rings, but you've never seen his face. Ryan Gilbey meets an invisible star
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I meet Andy Serkis, whose leather jacket and crown of moist black curls give him a rockabilly tinge, in a Soho café. Some way into our conversation we become aware of a couple loitering just beyond reach, with two children peeking out from behind them. "Go on," the woman is saying in a stage whisper, "I'm sure Gollum won't mind signing your book."

There is laughter, but the child isn't budging. Serkis is an old hand at this, though, and he has come prepared: he produces some glossy photographs of himself as Gollum, the leathery, slithering, 300ish-year-old hobbit that he plays in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which concludes this month with The Return of the King.

"I know it's cheesy to carry those pictures," he says to me as he scrawls a message. But he's wrong. It's sweet, perhaps because the unassuming Serkis is the last person you would expect to see signing photos for spooked and starstruck nippers.

Serkis gets stopped a lot these days, though his relationship with Gollum is the subject of much debate and speculation. You can hardly visit a film-related website without happening upon movie geeks arguing over what exactly Serkis is to Gollum, and vice versa. "He's the guy who mimes Gollum," runs one explanation that I found. "He doesn't 'mime' him," retorts a know-it-all, "he does the movements." Well, they're both wrong. The truth is that Serkis plays Gollum, plain and simple. He developed the character's personality and physicality, as well as his hissing, strangulated voice. He was on set with his fellow actors for every shot in which he appears, the better to invest his scenes with palpable energy.

And when the director Peter Jackson decided to plump for a sophisticated form of computer generated imagery, called "motion capture", Serkis then had to play his scenes all over again, on his own, in a blue bodysuit peppered with dots, each one corresponding to a different joint. Whenever he moved before the camera, whenever he even breathed, the computer-generated Gollum, itself modelled specifically on Serkis's body and physiognomy, would then move correspondingly. Think of Serkis as a puppeteer operating a million strings on a marionette that, in turn, resembles a monstrous likeness of himself.

The 39-year-old actor has been called upon to quantify his contribution to The Lord of the Rings so frequently that it might be wiser if he produced a brief explanatory cassette to broadcast on those occasions when he gets cornered with the same old questions. With this in mind, he has written a book about the experience of playing Gollum, but those pesky TV reporters want everything in 10-second soundbites. Serkis patiently goes through the ins and outs of the technical process with me, perhaps rehearsing for the month-long press tour on which he will embark the following morning. "It'll be like going on the road!" he grins, resembling some disreputable lead guitarist, and possibly overestimating the level of excitement a man can have whilst being asked the same question in nine languages different tongues: "How do you feel about not actually being seen on screen?"

Even Serkis experienced some initial uncertainty on this point. "I was concerned about how much of my work would appear in the films." His agent had told him that the job involved providing the voice for an animated character, and that it would amount to no more than three weeks' work. In the end, Gollum took a four-year bite out of Serkis's life. "When I met Peter, he told me he wanted it to be the most sophisticated marriage of performance and CGI that had ever been achieved. After two minutes of listening to him, I knew I wanted to do it."

When Serkis arrived on set in New Zealand, he was greeted with quizzical looks and responses along the lines of "Who's this guy?" and "I thought Gollum was going to be CGI." When he tells me this, I want to place a reassuring arm around him, as one might comfort a child excluded from tag. This feeling resurfaces each time he speaks of someone else who said "Who the hell's Andy Serkis?" or when we discuss the Academy's decision that his performance was ineligible for Oscar consideration.

Anyone who could not wrench their gaze from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will appreciate the richness of Serkis's work, and the unfairness of the Academy's decree. "Peter was very dogmatic about the fact that he wanted the animators to copy my performance exactly," he says, "right down to the twitches in my facial muscles." The animators may have conjured Gollum's cadaverous complexion and elongated feet. But it is Serkis, with his grabbing gestures and tormented neediness, who makes us ache for this pitiful creature. When you look in Gollum's distended eyes, you may see everyone who has ever pleaded with you for something you've felt unable to surrender.

"Peter and I agreed early on that Gollum was an addict," says Serkis. "It was important for me to root him in reality, to treat him as human, because he looks so extreme. I thought it was a good idea to use the ring as a metaphor for addiction. I decided he should crawl everywhere, because I wanted him to be seen as someone who would do anything to get his fix. He's suffering cold turkey."

The doubters, and the Academy grouches, might be surprised to learn that Gollum is precisely the kind of part that first drew Serkis to acting. At Lancaster University, (where he chose Theatre Studies as his second option), he was cast in the lead role in Barry Keefe's play Gotcha, about a disgruntled student who holds hostage the teachers who have made his life hell, and it would be no exaggeration to say that he experienced an epiphany on stage.

"I didn't know what was happening to me," he says with the bewilderment of someone reflecting on alien abduction. "I felt this huge release in my ability to connect with the role. It was so powerful. I thought: I'll have some more of that."

And he did, working largely in theatre in the late 1980s. When Margaret Thatcher began her final term as prime minister, Serkis was performing in Leeds. "I was heartbroken, absolutely devastated that she'd got in again," he recalls. It may sound like an odd reaction now, but from the depths of his disillusionment Serkis dashed off a letter to Mike Leigh. "I told him I had respected him for a long time, and that he was one of the few directors with anything to say about Britain." When Leigh cast him as a frazzled city trader in Career Girls in 1996, Serkis discovered that the director had kept his letter all those years. "I was gobsmacked. He remembered me."

Serkis is a strapping fellow, and no one could think he was in need of help across the road or a shoulder to cry on. But his most valuable asset is the fragility that he brings to characters who might otherwise be mere brutes. His twitchy stooge in both the stage and film versions of Mojo, his terrifying Bill Sikes in Alan Bleasdale's grungy TV adaptation of Oliver Twist - you feel that each of these louts would need only an hour of expert counselling to reduce them to sobbing wrecks. Indeed, it was Serkis's vulnerability that hit me when I first met him on the set of Mojo six years ago. He hadn't yet watched Career Girls, which had yet to be released; nervous about how much of his performance remained, he was quizzing a colleague who had seen a cut.

"That was a hard lesson to learn," says Serkis now. "It can be tough realising that you've put in that amount of energy for one scene. But it's about the life experience you have. You don't go into a Mike Leigh film and come out the same person." That's putting it mildly. Serkis worked and partied with a bunch of futures traders in the name of research. Eventually they offered him a permanent job. "It wasn't that I was good at it. I think they just liked having me around."

I tell him that I heard stories about wild nights at the Dorchester with those "co-workers", and he looks sheepish. "Oh yeah," he laughs. "All very messy."

He acted once more for Leigh in Topsy-Turvy, and learned the violin for a scene that never even made it to the screen. These days, he might not take so readily to such a role. "I'd love to do something with Mike again," he says, "but it's secretive work, and it wouldn't be fair to shield my wife and children from that. With Gollum I've been away a lot, but that isn't the same as emotional secrecy."

Serkis has some big projects lined up, all currently shrouded in their own secrecy, but working on The Lord of the Rings has been so overwhelming that I wonder how he will cope with life back in the real world. "I don't think it'll ever feel like it's over," he muses. "I'm sure there'll be reunions galore."

Of course, he will still be autographing photos of Gollum well into his dotage. He dashes off a couple for my children, which are probably being paraded in "Show and Tell" class at this very moment. Then he signs one for the photographer, and another for the photographer's nephew.

As he scribbles his name for the fifth time in an hour, Serkis admits to being awfully excited about seeing The Return of the King. "You haven't read the book? Well, I won't tell you what happens then." His eyes twinkle magically. "But you do get to see my face this time."

'The Return of the King' is released on 17 December

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