Exclusive Interview: Andy Serkis

King Kong's Mr Angry on breathing life into a 25-foot gorilla and being overlooked by Oscar...

What were the big differences between Gollum and Kong? Apart from walking on all fours…
Gollum’s a dialogue-based character so a lot of the psychology is understood from what he is saying. Kong is diametrically opposed. He’s not a manipulative character with an agenda. His true nature is very honest and open hearted. But, nevertheless, he’s got to have a character arc and finding that journey so that he wasn’t just a generic gorilla – so you want to spend time with him as an audience member – that was a huge challenge.

Unlike Gollum, most of Kong’s facial expressions actually came from motion capture on your face…
I had 132 markers attached to my face and it literally drives the facial muscles of the gorilla. This is the point where it helps that I've lived through those scenes with Naomi. I'm acting off of her close-ups in actual fact. A lot of the way gorillas work and the way Kong works is through the gaze and reading what they're feeling through their eyes. We were looking for a way to present him without spoon-feeding him to the audience because gorillas are very enigmatic creatures. Hopefully we've got the balance right and you can kind of read his emotions through Ann's eyes.

Your research with gorillas in Rwanda must have come in very handy…
Absolutely. The biggest challenge was knowing how much to anthropomorphise the character and how much to keep it pure gorilla. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens directed the motion capture while Peter was editing. We’d always do a spectrum of takes, verging from a more human response to a pure gorilla response. The motion capture studio became Kong central and Fran would work with an editor using what I was doing. But there wasn’t all this time to make alterations. We just had to keep going full steam ahead and trust that it was all going to work.

Did you have any frightening experiences with real-life gorillas while you were in Rwanda?
They kept you on your toes, because they were all around you. I didn’t actually know that they weren’t going to charge us, because one or two did charge us. But, on the whole, I felt fairly safe.

What do you do if one does charge?
Basically you just act very subservient. You don’t look them in the eye and keep very, very still. But they like to know you are there. You aren’t allowed to wear camouflage or anything. You’ve got to show who you are and that you are very sorry! (laughs)

You were on set as well being Kong for the other actors. Did you show up for every scene that Kong was in?
I think maybe there were one or two shots I wasn’t involved in, and that was when I was shooting something else. But it wasn’t that similar to acting with Sean Astin and Elijah Wood on Lord Of The Rings as I couldn’t get in and amongst the scene. I was always off camera. But we used music a lot, to bring some emotional charge to the scene.

What kind of music?
A variety of stuff. Some operatic. Kurt Weill we used for one scene. Crazy stuff really. Just trying to find some kind of emotional connection. The other thing we had that was very useful was a soundsystem which was close-miked to my chest and lungs and then projected out of these huge speakers. So you could always hear this chest cavity and Kong’s breathing. I had learnt all these gorilla vocalisations. There's at least 17 very defined vocals which make up a lexicon of gorilla-speak and I studied them all while I was researching the movie.

Any injures? It sounds physically rigorous…
I did get a pretty big gash in my leg from charging into a part of the set. If I’d had a serious injury, then… but you really had to go for it. You had to be uncompromising.

How was it working with Peter Jackson again?
He is an unbelievable man. He’s got umpteen projects on the go at any given second and he’s able to deal with it all and not be this megalomaniac, lunatic, fascist nutter. He’s a very clever, but honest man. He’s a real inspiration.

When you were doing Gollum, you said that you felt a sense of isolation from the rest of cast. Did you feel that with Kong?
Certainly with Naomi, it was so intense. There was nobody else there, it was just her and me. The thing with Gollum was that it hadn’t been done before, so it took time for Elijah, Sean and me to work out what we were doing with each other. Whereas with this, my value was preordained. Naomi knew that I would be some value to her, so I didn’t have to explain myself as I walked on set.

There was a lot of discussion about whether Gollum should have garnered you an acting nomination at the Oscars. Same with Kong…
It's a really difficult one because I keep varying my way of thinking about it. On the one hand it's just pure acting – there's no difference between playing a CG character or playing another character except that you don't have a costume or anything external to help you so it's more internalised. So from an actor’s point of view I don't see it as needing its own category. I suppose they have problems with it because there are lots of other people involved in the creation of a digital character. It’s a huge army of people who work on this one character. It's a tricky one. If you'd been down and seen me on the motion-capture stage for two months solid acting Kong, maybe it would be seen differently.

For more on Andy Serkis and King Kong, check out the January 2006 issue of Total Film, on sale 3 December.