Andy Serkis embarks on emotional journey in new Apes movie
War For The Planet Of The Apes star Andy Serkis on making his character Caesar a mythic creature
In War for the Planet of the Apes, the final instalment of the re-booted Apes sci-fi film trilogy, Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, majestic leader of the apes fighting the humans for survival of their species.
Only this time, the war is also for his soul.
In the first movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a scientific experiment goes wrong and creates a species of intelligent apes, as well as a simian flu that destroys humans.
In its 2014 sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, war is declared between the species as one of the apes goes rogue and tries to wreak vengeance on his human captors, while a small band of human survivors try to establish a colony of their own.
In War, which opens here tomorrow, we see the military and emotional last stand of Caesar in his quest to lead his species to a new home, pursued by humans led by the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson).
Caesar suffers an unimaginable personal loss and crosses a dark line in his psyche, and battles his impulses to seek revenge rather than retain his empathy and lead the apes towards a future of hope.
At our interview at the Soho Hotel in London, Serkis recalled sitting down with writer-director Matt Reeves as the latter described the as-yet-unwritten script for War.
"He told me the story, which was jaw-dropping, that he had in his head of Caesar's conflict, over nearly two hours.
"The references were Moses, the big kind of mythic Western stories, your Kurosawa. That kind of scale of storytelling is what Matt was after.
"You don't root for the apes or root for the humans. You are wondering how both are going to survive, and you care for both, and you hope that something positive will come out of this disastrous situation," said the 53-year-old English actor and father of three.
I adore playing this character. It's been one of the greatest acting challenges I've had.Andy Serkis on playing Caesar
According to Serkis, War is "very much about taking Caesar into this extreme place where we finished that journey and he becomes a legend".
He added: "We wanted to push it into the realm of the mythic. To make him an ape Moses, so that apes in the future would look back and say, 'Without him, we wouldn't be here.' That was the creative goal."
Caeser's emotional journey was "fuelled" by the death of Serkis' mother during the filming of War, against the stark snowy vistas of Alberta and British Columbia in Canada.
He said: "There's a brutality to this shoot and a great sense of darkness and foreboding. It was a really tough, tough shoot. We were shooting on locations in snow. It was a freezing cold Canadian winter.
"I'm quite glad to be out on the other side, but at the same time it all fuelled Caesar's journey. (What was) bottled in... came out in what you see (on screen)."
The motion-capture process that converts cast members - who wear "mo-cap" suits with sensors all over their bodies - into very photo-realistic apes has not changed much over the three films.
Behind it is New Zealand's Weta Digital, a pioneering Wellington-based CGI studio founded by The Lord of the Rings film-maker Peter Jackson.
Serkis said: "It's the same process. What has changed in the technology sphere is the artists who have been working on these films, and how they have become more and more attuned to the actors' performance. You can see the huge difference in the integrity and the fidelity of the performances that the actors are giving now in its latest form."
Serkis is considered the king of mo-cap, having also famously played digital characters like King Kong and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies.
"I adore playing this character," he said of Caesar. "It's been one of the greatest acting challenges I've had. It's been so varied and so emotional to actually play a character from infancy through to mature adulthood."
He added: "I would love to carry on. But if this was to be the end, I've got incredibly happy memories of a great piece of work."
But for Serkis, taking the real lead was US stunt coordinator and movement coach Terry Notary, who used to be a Cirque du Soleil performer.
"Not only is he training all the actors and doing the 'ape camp', he plays Rocket (Caesar's brother figure)," said Serkis. "We have a thousand apes in the movie, but we don't have a thousand actors that play them. A huge number of them is Terry.
"Suddenly he's playing this ape, and then he's playing that ape, he's talking to somebody about how to be an orang utan. He created all the Hobbits for The Hobbit movies. Orcs and elves in such detail. He finds physical language. Actors absolutely adore him. He is absolutely brilliant at what he does."