Andy Serkis Interview
We caught up with Andy Serkis while promoting the DVD release of The Jolly Boys Last Stand out 13th February 2006 - Spirit Level Film
When did you first hear about Jolly Boys?
Back in 1997 Chris Payne, the director, dropped the script through my letter box. He'd seen a play I'd done called Mojo at the Royal Court Theatre and he just dropped it, completely unsolicited, through my letter box. When someone drops a script through your letterbox it's very rare that you'll pick it up, but I did happen to read that one and it just made me really howl. I loved the characters and thought what was fresh and new about it was the fact that these were characters that you could totally relate to. They're not larger-than-life heroes or villains or whatever, they're people like us. And then, when I met Chris, and he started talking about doing it, it seemed very fresh and new the idea of making a feature film shot all on a digital video camera in a low-budget guerrilla style.
And that's such a popular thing now.
Yeah. You've got to remember, it was before the things we're used to now like The Office and that kind of observational comedy and before Dogme film became big. Obviously, low-budget films existed before but it was the fact that you could just really concentrate on performance and on low drama. It was about things that we can understand.
You say the script came through, but watching it the film feels completely natural.
It was scripted. A lot was improvised but the actual characters were written and the dialogue was written and the shape and structure of the story was there. Where Chris' skill comes in was that we got together and did a lot of improvisation and had conversations about it beforehand. It was a long time before we shot the film so we got to know each other and became mates. We had no inhibitions by the time it came to actually shooting. Quite honestly, it was a fantastic experience. We weren't limited by the constraints of big-budget filmmaking; it was all about creating things in the moment and having fun doing it. We had a blast doing it.
How long did it take to shoot?
I think it was about three and a half weeks. Everybody pitched in. My camper-van was the location vehicle and starred in the movie as my character's van. We all pitched in and it was just true guerrilla filmmakers. When you start making films with that amount of fluidity you start attracting good luck, I think. You're allowing spontaneous things to happen. And so much happened during that movie that you would never be able to do on a storyboarded and structured film shoot. I really enjoyed the freedom of that.
It must be so vastly different from something like Kink Kong or Lord of The Rings
Yes! *laughs* And that's what I love about acting; that you can be doing something like King Kong or Lord of the Rings and then you can be shooting something tiny. It's not about the money, it's about the intention and the script and story and the desire to tell the story. And the desire to touch people I suppose. And you'll either do that in a mass-appeal big-budget way or independent guerrilla way. Someone like Peter Jackson is so skilled at touching people in that metier and Chris has been able to do it with this film. I think it's a very effective and touching story, this film. The people who now watch The Office, I think, will really get this and really relate to it and find it equally as moving and painful and embarrassing and funny.
This film would be the biggest thing if it was just coming out now. This style has become so fashionable nowadays.
Absolutely. We made this in 1997 and I'm not boasting about it – well, I kind-of am – but I think people didn't get it then or people didn't think it was something that would be taken seriously. It is a language of filmmaking that I think people finally understand now. Which is why it's great that it's coming out now on DVD. We had a limited run in the cinema but, in fact, watching it in your living room is probably the perfect place for it.
Did you always know that it would work out? It was prior to Lord of The Rings but you weren't wanting for offers at the time and it was quite a risk to take, I'd have thought.
Well doing Lord of The Rings was a risk. I had no idea that they would be able to realise Gollum as a successful character. It had never been done before, that whole idea of working with motion capture. You take on projects because there's something about them that's exciting and risky and new and innovative and there was something about this that really appealed to me.
It was prior to Lord of The Rings and, yes, I'd worked with Mike Leigh on a few films and some good directors, but there was a freedom about this that really appealed to me. That the emphasis was going to be purely on the acting.
You're well known for building up a history for your characters – how much of that went into Spider?
Spider's very much based on my brother. We both went to the same school but he had this gang like the Jolly Boys. I very much drew from his experience and the way that he still continues – to a certain extent – to live his life, although he has grown up now. He lives with his close mates within a very small radius of one another. That was my hook into the character.
So you weren't a Jolly Boy yourself in your youth?
I never had that, no. I was a loner as a kid. My interests were in painting and climbing. I had some mates who went climbing and so on but the things that I did was what inspired what fired me up. It wasn't that I had no mates, I had loads of mates, but I think I got really involved in the things I was doing from an early age. I was pretty gregarious in that way.
The golf sequence, where Spider's really trying to grow up, is one of the funniest moments in the film. How much of that was spur-of-the-moment?
Chris had written all of that – going for the ball and throwing the club – but you're trying to make those comic moments feel natural and real and that was a big challenge. Plus there's the thing of trying to make it feel real, like it were a real wedding video. It wasn't the actor who played Des, Milo Twomey, walking around with a camera, we had a cameraman, but you had to make it feel like it was a home video. The camera positions were worked out and choreographed, it wasn't about swinging a camera around, but to make it look like it was. That was the skill.
Is there a certain freedom, though, in the simplicity of the way its shot?
I think, certainly, when you're shooting in that way you're not projecting the character in the same way as you are in 35mm. You're very aware of your place on the screen or how you are framed in 35mm. There are times when you know the camera's on you, but you get to respond in that way rather than act past in. Like the characters in The Office where they know they're being filmed so there's a public persona and those private, intimate moments. It's easier to ignore the camera apparatus and all the paraphernalia that goes with it when you're shooting with natural light for the most part. You're just playing the moments and behaving with the other characters.
Are there any fundamental differences in character creation between this and a big Hollywood production?
Not in terms of creating the character, no, it's exactly the same. Character creation is never different as an actor whether you're creating a character like Spider or Gollum or Kong or Lumpy or Martin Hannett in 24 Hour Party People. You do a lot of work on the back-history of the character and how that character relates to other people; friends and family tree. And how they relate to events that inspire or shape their lives. How it's caught is the difference, whether it's on the motion capture stage or in 35mm or on video cameras. Or whether you're on stage.
Is it closer to theatre to create a character like Spider?
Not really. It's probably least like theatre because you're not projecting anything. On stage you're aware of where you fit in to the environment and you have to project to the audience and physically relate to them. This, for the most part, is imagining nothing's there. If it's caught, it's caught and if it's not, it's not. It is like very natural conversation, you're never pointing the story. It's not narrative-driven in the same way theatre or film would usually be. Each job has its own different requirements and its own different feel depending entirely on the director you're working with and the platform you're working on. Part of an actor's skill is to slide into that world - not the world of the characters but the world in which the story is being told – and that's party technique and it's partly, I suppose, willingness to be able to make those transitions. I wouldn't want to be in a soap and be in one form of television for the rest of my life. What I love is to try this transformation, transforming between stage and film and television. And now I'm going to direct. Versatility for me is very important.
You've had the opportunity to work all over the world as an actor; do you think the British film industry is healthy?
I love working here and I love the British film industry, I just wish there was more of it. I wish we had the industry and the infrastructure and the wherewithal to make films on a regular basis. The sad thing about this country is it's just not there. There was a time when it was beginning to look like it might just take off and then a few duff films were made with lottery money and people got scared. It's a real shame but I think there's a real kind-of lack of pride about what we produce. We make some great films but they're just few and far between. If you go to LA and you go to Hollywood – and I'm not saying it's somewhere I'd like to live – what's great about it is the industry and the sense of industry. There are, at any one time, a great number of films being made and there's something exciting about that. It is our livelihood and it is a business, an entertainment business. I just wish we had a little bit more of that and really weren't afraid of that as a nation and as a filmmaking community.
Do you think that's down to the filmmaking community or audiences; that people just aren't going to see British films?
They're kind-of not educated to. I think it's France; they're incredibly loyal to French films and a certain number of screens have to have French movies in them. I think we need something like that. We should celebrate the talent we've got in this country, of which there's an enormous amount, you know. And Jolly Boys is a really good example. It did a week at the NFT and then it got buried, so I'm really excited about the fact that people are going to see it on DVD. I think it's got a real possibility of getting seen now.
Steve Coogan was saying, about A Cock And Bull Story, that he was having a hard time convincing people to go and see that because people heard "British Comedy Movie" and instantly turned off. We're renowned for our comedy, I thought, but not in films.
Yeah. People make these distinctions but a film, a story, if it affects you and it's a good film and a good script there's an audience for it. They'll find it but they can only find it if the support is there. I know what he means about pitching it. You just want to get people in the room and once they see it they'll get really buzzed up by it. If you got a random selection of people from different households and stuck them in a room with Jolly Boys I think they'd really enjoy it, but it's getting those people that's the trouble.
You're directing soon; how's that lining up?
Great. I don't want to shoot the bowl too early on really because I think there'll come a time when I really will want to talk about it but it's a fantastic story based on an autobiography called Addict by a guy called Stephen Smith. It's a very rich autobiography and he's one of life's survivors; he shouldn't be alive, but he is. It's very tragic story of a Dexedrine addict in the fifties, sixties and seventies who goes on this phenomenal emotional rollercoaster ride. It's been a very exciting project to get to where we've got to with it. He's had one of these incredible lives and what's been exciting about writing the script is defining our chart through all of these stories he has to tell for the two hours we have to tell the stories on film. We were going to shoot it early on in the year but we've decided to do some more work on the script so it's probably going to shoot towards the end of this year. He's writing it and I'm working with him on shaping the scenes and so on. I'm not acting in it, I'm just purely directing it. I wouldn't want to deny myself the pleasure, at this stage, of simply directing it by acting in it as well. This is how I'm choosing to tell the story, from a purely directorial standpoint.
And you've shot in Stormbreaker?
The Alex Rider stories by Anthony Horowitz, yeah. That was a cameo, really. I came back from Kong and it was a complete antidote from being on that project for a year. It was a few days with a fun character called Mr. Grim. I'm a henchman to Mickey Rourke; his kind-of sidekick. He can't speak because he's had a knife-throwing accident. And at the moment I'm just doing this Chris Nolan film, The Prestige. Things are quite exciting at the moment. I'm just about to do this show, The Longford Project, which is for TV over here with Jim Broadbent and Samatha Morton. It's about Lord Longford who was an MP who basically campaigned for the release of Myra Hindley during the seventies and eighties. It's a really interesting project.
And Flushed Away is still happening?
Flushed Away is going to be finished by the end of this year. It's an animated feature for Dreamworks. I'm with Bill Nighy and together we're these henchmen rats to Ian McKellen's villainous Toad. It's sort of this underworld thing! You get the posh rats, played by Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet. Well, actually, she's playing a street rat. He's playing the posh rat who falls down the toilet and ends up in the underworld. It's a fun character.
Another henchman role for you?
Yeah! *laughs* He's a kind-of jumped-up little rat named Spike who's too big for his boots really.
The ultimate future-film question, though; Are we going to see Son of Kong?
*laughs* I don't think so! That was a lovely April Fools joke but nothing more!
We've been trying to persuade Richard Taylor to release a little Son of Kong Weta Collectable...
*laughs* That'd be fantastic actually. It's a really good idea. I love the guys at Weta, they're just amazing.
Read our The Jolly Boy's Last Stand Review Here
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