Andy Serkis interview: War For The Planet Of The Apes

Spoilers, as Andy Serkis chats to us about round off the Apes trilogy with War For The Planet Of The Apes...

Now that the Caesar trilogy of Planet Of The Apes movies has been completed, and War For The the Planet Of The Apes is about to join the others on Blu-ray, it’s going to be entirely possible, and extremely tempting, to sit down and watch the character’s entire journey in a single session. Well, I say ‘extremely tempting’ – I actually mean completely inevitable.

I met up with Serkis to discuss the release of War For The Planet Of The Apes, and thought we could use the session to track his performance of Caesar across an entire lifetime. I was also interested in some under-discussed potential and practices of performance capture. Here’s how our conversation went. Strictly speaking, there are spoilers ahead.

Now we’re at the end of a trilogy, let’s not so much give Caesar an autopsy but your performance of Caesar. I’m interested in the changes you made in playing him across the whole shape of a three-movie story.

I’m actually going through a grieving process at the moment. It’s just hit me that I won’t be playing him any more. For the last six years I’ve always knew that we were going forward, but now it’s over.

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Going back to the beginning, what I loved about the character at first was, having done a lot of research on apes before for King Kong, I knew that apes surrounded by human beings tend to be influenced a lot by human behaviour. A lot. I always approached Caesar in Rise as a chimpanzee who believed himself to be a human inside of a chimpanzee body. He was brought up by human beings with a lot of love and therefore had this ability to be empathetic towards them. His growing up was a fairly idyllic childhood, up to a point.

There’s two things. I based him on a real chimpanzee called Oliver who in the 1970s was known as the humanzee…

I’ve seen film of him.

So you know that the way he carried himself bipedally, the way he’d sit down, his facial expressions were all incredibly human. People really did think he was this progeny of ape and man. He was carted around as a sort of freak and then disregarded once it was realised he wasn’t the missing link. That character stood out as a good touchstone to me.

And I always thought of Caesar as a gifted child, with this enhanced intelligence drug rapidly coursing through his veins. He was this sort of potentially brilliant… in child terms he’d be like a gifted pianist who could play Mozart at the age of three or four.

Like Mozart, then, in fact.

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Or brilliant at algebra at a young age. Incredibly gifted, bright child. And then he realises, when he’s in his teenage years, an event happens where he’s defending his surrogate grandfather, if you like, and he feels rage for the first time. He’s sent into a sanctuary with other apes and it’s almost like he sees the colour of his own skin for the first time. The core of Caesar’s character is that he’s an outsider of both worlds. That’s what really spoke to me.

When he’s thrown in with apes he had to find himself, find his inner ape. It’s the very fact that he’s an outsider that enables him to bring together bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas, bring them together and galvanize them. He can be empathetic to all of them, he’s not tribal in that way. He leads them out of bondage, out of the sanctuary to freedom, while the virus is going crazy…

But how does all of that track in what you’re doing, how you’re playing him?

I start to take the journey from pure chimpanzee to how I begin to make him evolve, physically, emotionally, psychologically. At the beginning of Rise he’s very chimpanzee-like but there’s a sort of an epiphanic moment when Caesar is taken, half way through the movie, for a walk in the woods. They take him back to the car and he’d normally jump into the trunk but he gets there this time and sits in the passenger seat. He doesn’t want to be treated like a pet. That was a key moment for me. That was improvised…

Oh, that was improvised? Replacing what?

That was something I said to Rupert: “I really think he would, he should want to sit up front. He doesn’t want to be treated that way any more.”

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Either way, both of those choices would be dramatic on screen, both interesting. Yours, you feel, is more true to what Caesar would be experiencing at that time?

He has to feel the respect of being allowed to sit up front. He’d just seen a dog being yanked about on a chain. So moments like that are key. He’s beginning to realise he is other, he is different, an outsider.

The way he picks things up with his hands at the end of the movie is a lot more dexterous, more human like. And then there’s the way the he starts to watch, look, observe more, it feels more human-like. And then from then on, he begins to evolve physically, he becomes more upright.

In the second movie, in Dawn, having led the apes to freedom, he is the leader of a society. We had a big ape camp at the beginning of rehearsing for dawn, working out how the apes would communicate with one another. Caesar would have taught them sign language, they’d use ape vocalisations and Caesar was starting to use human language. Once he’s said his first few words in the first film this developed, but they’re only used with urgency and are very staccato. “Apes… do not… want war.” Very urgent expulsions. Proto-language.

So the rules of his early speech is that it’s very staccato but what else?

Driven out of an emotional need. There’s nothing conversational or philosophical or reflective. It’s like “I need you to understand.” I wore these mouth guards, like sports mouth guards, to stop me from forming words fully, so that he’s still searching for language, trying hard to form and construct sentences.

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By the end of that film, emotionally, in the scene where Caesar says to his son that he never realised how much like humans apes are, that’s more of a philosophical Caesar. Even in that movie he becomes more human in his expression.

In War he’s physically totally upright, he doesn’t quadruped, he’s carrying the weight of the conflict but still trying to be a peace broker until the events near the start of the movie that send him off on his journey, taking him into a part of Caesar we hadn’t seen before. As he became more human-like he’s feeling the most base, rawest, animal-like instincts of aggression.

What was still off the table at the end? What wouldn’t you allow into the performance of Caesar even at the end of his evolution?

Linguistically we always had to make sure it didn’t tip over the edge and become too casual. He had to speak faster and be more eloquent, in a more reflective and philosophical way, but Matt and I were always refining the script to ensure it didn’t sound too human-like. At times on the page it just fell off the tightrope and sounded like a guy having a conversation so we had to work hard on that.

The biggest challenge was in the moment where he has the potential to kill the colonel but decides not to. Through an understanding, a fascination they have with each other, they see they are similar in so many ways.

What did you do to convey that to us?

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The easy assuaging of grief that you get by killing versus an understanding, a complete understanding, the regaining of empathy… War┬áis about empathy, about Caesar having the ability to be empathetic then losing it and finally regaining it. Through meeting Bad Ape and Nova he slowly begins to find his empathy again.

I think it could be especially interesting to think of your comments here as revealing the voice in Caesar’s head. As you played him and considered these things, this is what the voice in his head was wrestling with.

Yeah, yeah.

I guess that one of the possibilities in performance capture is to say “Half of this line reading isn’t quite there, can we take half of the performance from another take?” Did you ever do that sort of editing?

You do that even in live action.

But you can do it without cutting the camera in performance capture. You can put together pieces of performance in a way that another film would have to do through a change to another camera position, or with a jump cut.

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Yeah, yeah. You do a motion edit as well as a picture edit.

Another level on which the performance can be constructed.

Not really. Matt’s such a brilliant director, such a collaborator, and the authorship of the performance still stays on set. It’s still what we shot on the day or bent out of shape. Most scenes are intact. Most you can watch side-by-side.

What Matt does with the performance is, say he’s shooting a scene with me and Woody Harrelson, he lives for months with my face in the edit, cutting the drama between me and Woody until seven or eight months down the line that he’ll get visual effects shots. That’s when he’ll put Caesar next to my performance and say “Andy is feeling rage and vulnerability and isn’t sure what he’s going to do, but I only see the rage in Caesar so let’s refine it.” Every single shot becomes closer through a process of iteration, sometimes a 120 versions of the same shot.

The live action shot is instrumental but there are iterations…

Look, performance capture is no different to any kind of acting. It’s not a special type of acting. The performance you see in the camera on the day is what you get but translated into the physiognomy of the character.

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Andy Serkis, thank you very much.

War For The Planet Of The Apes is available on digital HD now, and DVD, Blu-ray and Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray from Monday.