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The Saturday Interview

Andy Serkis on his ‘shocking’ new play, AI and cancellation: ‘I defy anyone not to tap their foot to Michael Jackson. Your body won’t let you cancel him’

The actor and director goes to the pub to tell Patrick Smith why he thinks ‘Ulster American’ might start a riot, how his ‘Animal Farm’ will land in a Britain that has abandoned democratic principles and why America faces another catastrophe if Trump takes power

Saturday 09 December 2023 06:30 GMT
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‘Regardless of your colour of your skin, regardless of how tall you are or short you are or what sex you are, regardless of how you identify, you should have the ability to play anything’
‘Regardless of your colour of your skin, regardless of how tall you are or short you are or what sex you are, regardless of how you identify, you should have the ability to play anything’ (Jerry Schmitz)

Towards the end of my conversation with Andy Serkis, a young man sidles over to our table and apologises for interrupting, but he simply had to say hello. He is a huge fan of Serkis. The actor who starred as the bug-eyed hobbit Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Caesar the chimpanzee in the Planet of the Apes reboot is warm, self-effacing, gracious. “There are days where this doesn’t happen at all,” he later admits, in his rich, natural growl – “and then there are days where it is, you know, a lot.” It can get a little hairy if he’s on the Tube, he continues. All those people doing the Gollum voice or expecting him to do it. That can “cause a bit of a traffic jam”, but he’d still rather take public transport to get around – when he’s not on his bike, that is. At 59, he’s lean, fit-looking, and sort of startlingly real, when you’re used to seeing him as beings that exist only on screen or in the mind’s eye.

We’re in a Christmassy pub in west London. Serkis is wearing a thick navy-blue cardigan; tucked into it is a paisley silk scarf. Beneath a head of unruly grey hair, he pings between piquant facial expressions, eyebrows dancing above glacial blue eyes. His visage is a canvas of creases and crags, its most southern tip a pointed beard that he strokes routinely. He’s handsome. He’s also tremendous company: open, perspicacious, seemingly lacking in ego.

As we talk, Serkis is in the final days of rehearsing Ulster American. Written by David Ireland, this relentlessly scathing three-hander revolves around the escalating tensions between Leigh (Serkis), a milquetoast director with good intentions; Jay, a wildly egotistical Hollywood star (Woody Harrelson); and Ruth (Derry Girls’s “extraordinary and bold” Louisa Harland), a righteous dramatist whose violent play about Northern Ireland they are about to stage in the West End. By turns rowdy and brilliantly outrageous, Ireland’s text is a merciless satire on identity, gender relations and liberal hypocrisy.

Take the very first scene. From the moment Jay reflects on his right to use racist language, the play risks stepping over the line into bad taste. Not for nothing did its Edinburgh Fringe run in 2018 – positively reviewed though it was – prompt walkouts. “It shocked me in its boldness,” says Serkis, stirring the soup in front of him. “It’s risky stuff and it made me think back to plays that have caused riots in the past – hopefully this will happen here.”

Certainly, a discussion involving rape and a member of the royal family could cause an almighty brouhaha – or at least disgust those in the audience. “If you look at the language in this play,” says Serkis, “there’s some pretty despicable things that are said. But you’ll still have the urge to laugh. That is a good place to put an audience, because, as my character says, this is what we go to the theatre for. It is to be challenged, and provoked, and to be made to think.”

Be that as it may, the character of Jay – needy, bombastic, toxic – must surely feel a little close to the bone for anyone who’s worked on a Hollywood set. Serkis says he has encountered people like Jay, “both as a director and as an actor. You have to not let it affect the energy in the room,” he explains. How do you do that? “Well, you have to be a parent, and try to keep everybody calm. That’s it, really. Don’t rise to it.”

A second Trump presidency does defy belief, but we all know potentially what could happen. People are not paying attention. If you stop paying attention, you stop questioning

That’s not how things play out online, though. “You can be cancelled for anything now,” says Serkis, “literally anything, and what I really despise is trial by media. That’s ruined more people’s lives and should not be allowed. There should be a proper course of law, where charges are made, people go through the legal process, and it should not be allowed to proliferate. Because people’s lives can be devastated. Sometimes, because of what they’ve done, it requires that, but the fact of the matter is, once it’s happened, that’s it. There’s no going back."

But does Serkis think people are ever truly cancelled? I mention Woody Allen, who is still making films despite being accused of child sexual abuse, allegations he has strongly denied. “I think it can certainly damage their lives for a long time,” says Serkis. “I suppose, really, the thing is: can you still enjoy the art they’ve created?”

Well, can you? “I think, without going into specifics – I don’t want to get myself cancelled – but put it this way: when Michael Jackson’s music starts to come on, I defy anyone to not tap their foot to it,” he says. “And if your body won’t let you cancel it...” Serkis laughs. “But yeah, can art transcend the artist? I don’t know.”

Serkis was himself showered with opprobrium in 2018, when he weighed in on Scarlett Johansson’s decision first to star in then to step away from playing a transgender man in the proposed project Rug & Tug, after a backlash. Speaking to Variety, Serkis said that he “vehemently” disagreed with the criticism of her. “Actors should be able to play anything,” he told the publication. He stands by that today, despite the increasing demand for “lived experience”, where an actor is expected to be closely acquainted with a role in order to play it. “Regardless of the colour of your skin, regardless of how tall you are or short you are or what sex you are, regardless of how you identify,” he tells me, “you should have the ability to play anything.”

Serkis sits alongside Woody Harrelson in their new play, ‘Ulster American’ (Johan Persson)

It’s a subject Serkis clearly feels passionate about. Scroll through his credits and it’s easy to see why, the actor having spent a career inhabiting characters far removed from his personal experience. Yes, there are those marquee roles in King Kong, The Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars sequels. But there’s also a real depth and diversity to his output. Think of his boorish spiv in Mike Leigh’s 1997 film Career Girls, for which he spent four months at the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (he was offered a permanent job, £80,000 a year plus bonuses). Or his homeless drifter in April De Angelis’s Hush (1992) at the Royal Court, a role to which he was so committed, he spent nights sleeping out on the streets. Then there’s the cutting-edge production company he co-founded in 2012, The Imaginarium, the UK’s first studio for performance capture, which records the body movement, voice and facial expressions of an actor to create a digital character.

While Serkis is all for equal representation, he sees this kind of technological wizardry as a way of liberating an actor – albeit wearing a hi-tech special-effects suit – to play absolutely anything or anyone. “So many great, great films” from the past would never have been made, he says, if actors were forbidden from telling stories unless they’re from the same religion or culture as their character. “I shouldn’t have played Ian Dury [in the 2010 film Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll], because I don’t have polio.” He’s not from Middle Earth either, he notes.

Filmmaking’s future will inevitably involve AI, as the battle against unlimited rights for its use – in the Sag-Aftra strike – proved earlier this year. Serkis believes AI has incredible potential but depends on “who owns it, who runs it, who’s in control”. He remains committed to performance capture, which, he insists, would have preserved Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-winning turn in The Whale but without “10 hours of make-up”. The technology, he says, also hands us an opportunity to replicate the actual physical presence of real historical figures – for instance, by gathering “every single piece of imagery that has ever been drawn or constructed” about the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, it would be possible to “create a digital entity that can then be played by an actor. I’d love to do that. What an opportunity for any actor.”

Serkis’s Gollum (centre) alongside Elijah Wood and Sean Astin in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (Shutterstock)

At this point, something unexpected happens. Out of the corner of my eye, while Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” purrs away in the background, I spy a man in sliders and beige socks that are decorated with cannabis-leaf patterns. He approaches Serkis, and suddenly in front of me is Woody Harrelson. Wrapping an arm around Serkis, he turns to me and says something very complimentary about his fellow actor. He then leaves.

The pair met in 2016 while making War for the Planet of the Apes. “We had some long, extended scenes, and Woody’s character actually had a seven-page monologue scene where Caesar and the Colonel were confronting each other,” Serkis recalls. He went on to direct Harrelson in 2021’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage as well as the forthcoming adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, due out next year. Ulster American is their fourth project together; it was Harrelson’s idea to do it. “He sent it to me and said, ‘You probably won’t want to do it, but this is quite a play.’”

So what’s Harrelson like? Is he really this stoner philosopher shambling around, joint on the go, dispensing twinkling jewels of Woody wisdom? “He is a Dude-type person in the best possible way,” says Serkis, smiling kindly. “He is absolutely up-front at all times, and in the moment, and present, and shamelessly truthful.”

Harrelson and Serkis in rehearsals for ‘Ulster American’ (Johan Persson)

Harrelson may be a paradigm of honesty, but the same can’t be said for our government, says Serkis. “Basic democratic principles just seem to have been completely kiboshed in the last, let’s say, seven years.” That takes us back to the Brexit referendum in 2016, of course. Since then, he continues, “the agreement on what is just common decent human interaction has almost fallen apart. There are just no rules any more. I thought 2003 was a bad year, you know, me being from an unlucky heritage.”

Serkis is referring to the outbreak of the Iraq war, and his own Iraqi heritage. Though brought up in the west London suburb of Ruislip, he would often spend the school holidays in Baghdad. His mother was a half-Iraqi teacher of disabled children, his father an Iraqi-Armenian gynaecologist who stayed in the Middle East, opened a free hospital, and was briefly imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime.

By his own, past admission, Serkis was an angry child, prone to tantrums. That rage stayed with him. After studying visual art at Lancaster University, he joined the Socialist Workers Party, where he seethed about the state of the nation: the racism, unemployment, Thatcherism. But he was also enamoured with theatre; soon he would turn professional.

It wasn’t an easy trajectory. For a long time, Serkis was a jobbing actor, popping up in British TV staples such as The Bill, Kavanagh QC and The Darling Buds of May. Then everything changed when Peter Jackson cast him in The Lord of the Rings, initially just in a voice part. The multi-Oscar-winning saga not only put Serkis on the map – his Gollum is a formidable exploration of physical performance – but also opened him up to the wonders of motion capture. This was the first time that global audiences were seeing Serkis’s knack for playing the morally ambiguous, those impressively pliant features helping him breathe humanity into even the most despicable of villains.

Serkis in one of his earliest roles, in Mike Leigh’s ‘Career Girls’ (Film4)

Of the three films, the second one, The Two Towers, is Serkis’s favourite, “not just because Gollum was in it the most”, he explains, "but because at the time it came out, it hit the zeitgeist with its Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Iraq war for me.” Famously, Tolkien despised allegory. “He would hate me for saying that, but I just felt that the timing of that film had real power.”

The success of The Lord of the Rings altered the cinematic playing field inexorably, giving rise to mega-budget franchises and vast, proliferating extensions of intellectual properties. Serkis has appeared in the biggest of them all, notably playing Supreme Leader Snoke in The Force Awakens, before being cast as prisoner Kino Loy in another Star Wars project, the Disney Plus spin-off Andor. Created by Oscar-nominated writer-director Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton and the Bourne franchise fame, the series is a gritty and sophisticated meditation on life under an oppressive regime. “I remember talking to Tony [Gilroy] and he said that he wanted to write about fascism,” says Serkis. “So what better place to do that than in the Star Wars universe.”

Fiona Shaw, who stars as Maarva Andor, described the series as “a great, scurrilous take on the Trumpian World”. I ask Serkis if, with Donald Trump once again the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination, next year’s US elections worry him. “Duh,” he says, laughing. “It does defy belief, but we all know potentially what could happen.” There’s no doubt, he continues, that we are on the brink of another catastrophe stateside. “I don’t think there’s any question. People are not paying attention. That is it, full stop. If you stop paying attention, you stop questioning. Animal Farm plays into that.”

Serkis directs Rohan Chand on the set of ‘Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle’ (Shutterstock)

Serkis’s take on George Orwell’s satirical 1947 novella will be his fourth film as director, following his Venom sequel, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle and his 2017 debut, Breathe, a biopic of disability rights pioneer Robin Cavendish. He’s said that his version of Orwell’s allegorical tale will not be “a recreation of totalitarianism”, and has been made as if the novelist were writing it now. “It’ll hopefully speak to a very, very wide audience,” Serkis tells me today. “Without holding back on the darker themes, we want the politics of it to be smuggled in under the guise of a family fairytale, you know, but the message is all there.”

In the meantime, there’s Ulster American, marking Serkis’s return to the stage after a 21-year hiatus. Has much changed since he’s been away? “As an artform that’s been there for thousands of years, probably not that much,” he says. “But obviously in terms of politics, sexual politics, identity and so on and so forth, masses have changed.” I ask him what he made of the actor Cathy Tyson recently saying that calling someone “woke” feels to her as bad as a racial slur now. “It is a right-wing tag, without question,” he says.

After the murder of George Floyd and the tearing down of the Edward Colston statue, Serkis co-founded an organisation called the Gallery of Living History with Margaret Casely-Hayford, the CEO of the Globe and chancellor of Coventry University, and Jonathan Cavendish, with whom he co-runs the Imaginarium. “We formed this charitable entity that is all about contested statues, what to do with them, but also more. It’s to do with underrepresented stories, and innovative and interesting ways of bringing them into existence. And suddenly you realise how impossible it is to get funding for something like that now, because of the ‘woke’ tag. It just doesn’t give you any oxygen to create something which could be really beneficial.”

Serkis with his wife Lorraine Ashbourne and their children (left to right) Sonny, Louis and Ruby in 2018 (Getty Images)

His lunch break is almost up, and the soup he’s been stirring constantly but unable to eat because of our back and forth is now almost certainly cold. We end on the subject of family. Serkis is married to Bridgerton star Lorraine Ashbourne, whom he met in 1990 when they were in a play together at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Their children Ruby, Sonny and Louis are all actors, too. He tells them to “always have a project regardless of whether you’re up for a job or not, always work on a script, a short film, make something that you are in control of, because being an actor when you’re starting off, you end up with long periods of unemployment. It’s about staying focused in the right way and actually enjoying life when you’re not acting – be inquisitive, go and travel, do whatever, you know – because it’s all basically life experience.”

As for who is best at giving acting tips… “Well, Lorraine is probably – she’s more direct, I think, and sort of practical and makes things happen. We both do self-tapes with them,” he adds. They are going away for Christmas as a family, because “we’ve been working flat out”. Let’s just hope no one asks him to do the Gollum voice.

‘Ulster American’ is at London's Riverside Studios. Tickets can be bought here

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