Andy Serkis
Carlo Allegri, Reuters

Somewhere maybe halfway through The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman’s younger Bilbo Baggins is dropped in the depths and encounters a mercurial creature – half homicidal menacing; half gurgling infant – and a ring.

From some of the more fantastically fearsome of The Lord of the Rings returns the wasting, mysterious Gollum – he who lives tortured by a Sword of Damocles dilemma: keep the ring and its coveted power, or be rid of the tortuous trouble and responsibility – but things are a bit different this time around. And, so then they are for Andy Serkis, the actor behind the technology that paints Gollum on-screen.

“He’s 540 years old in this version, not 600,” the 48-year-old English actor jokes at a press conference in New York City. “So, he’s much hotter. So, he’ll have a huge fan base with the teenage girls.”

Here, the unanticipated story of Andy Serkis continues: actor, director, joker and unwitting advancer of arts and science.

“No, no,” he says, shrugging off his earlier assessment of Gollum as matinee idol. “Basically, what was great about Gollum this time around was, when we were working on The Lord of the Rings, there was no modus operandi in terms of the motion-capture kind of things. So, that was an ongoing sidetrack alongside the development of the character.

“What we established with The Lord of the Rings, and returning to the character 12 years later – that wasn’t an issue. We were just able to play our scene out, and motion-capture happens exactly at the same time… Now, the technology is on the room and on set at the same time. We played our scene out – and it was the first thing to be shot on the movie – as an entire chamber-theatre piece which lasted about 12 minutes. And Pete [director Peter Jackson] wanted to do that so that we could really investigate that scene and allow Martin to experiment with the character.”

At a different conference, Jackson explains in more detail.

“In The Lord of the Rings, Andy would perform Gollum on a motion-capture stage, sometimes six months, sometimes a year after the live action was shot,” the director says. “He would always be there on the set for Elijah [Wood, whose Frodo Baggins is back] and Sean. So, the cameras were rolling then for reacting to Gollum and playing the scene, but what Andy was doing wasn’t getting captured in any way. Much later, he’d go and recreate it. Elijah and Sean [Astin, whose Samwise Gamgee/Gardner is not] weren’t there anymore because it was in post-production, and he was all by himself having to re-create the energy of the first time around.

“But this time, on The Hobbit, the motion-capture was being captured while we were filming the photography. So, when Andy and Martin were working together, Martin was being filmed with the cameras [and] Andy was being captured by the motion-capture cameras and all of his performance that he did on that day is in the film. So, it was a much more organic process. The muscles on Gollum’s face are a lot more detailed and accurate this time around – which allows all the nuances that Andy does as an actor can be accurately one-to-one kind of captured and translated on to Gollum.”

That Gollum even arrived in The Lord of the Rings as a motion-capture character is testament to Serkis’s commitment to and virtuosity in the role.

“When we did it the first time, we didn’t even have the idea that we could motion-capture it,” notes Joe Letteri, back in the fold as senior visual-effects supervisor for The Hobbit. “Andy got brought in as a voice actor and then basically just took over the role of Gollum. But we thought at the time it was like a cartoon animation. You record the voice, and you go back and you key-frame animate. But we saw what Andy did as an actor, and we just thought: ‘How do we bring that energy to the screen?’

“So, we got the idea of trying to do it with motion-capture, which at the time was basically a science experiment. Until we did Gollum, no one knew that you got to use this successfully to create a character for film. Having done that and really refined the process over the years, the idea now was to take it out of being an experimental thing and make it part of the production.”

That means no more separation of live actors and Serkis, with Serkis facing the demanding job of re-creating Gollum so much later. The technology of The Hobbit – with its high-frame-rate cameras for previously unseen resolution, and an even more intense approach to the artistic process – is catching up with the brainstorming of Jackson and the initial ideas of Tolkien.

“Ten years ago, we had this idea that if we could just do it in the moment, that way, Peter, Andy and whoever – in this case, Martin – could all just be working together, and what you see on the screen is just purely the acting moment,” Letteri says. “We really just wanted to break down that barrier between virtual cinematography and live-action film-making. Because with films like this, it’s all about the fantasy. When you’re reading the book, you can imagine these images all that you want. But when you put it on the screen, we have a responsibility to create the image that is going to be as grand and big as anyone reading it could imagine, because that’s going to exist for all time in that fashion. It was just in every frame of the film, just trying to think about what we could do, so that when you’re watching it, you’re thinking ‘Yes, I’m in Middle Earth.’”

Even with these breakthroughs, Serkis still found himself questioning – at least initially, to some extent – to pull such a well-known literary and screen character off in this new decade.

“The only weird thing about getting back into Gollum was that – and we’ve all discussed it; Ian [McKellen, back as wizard Gandalf the Grey] and I have discussed this, going back to play our characters – these characters have been absorbed into the public consciousness to such a high degree, and there really was a sense of ‘Am I doing an impersonation of a character that I once played 12 years ago, 10 years ago, whatever?’” the actor notes. “So, that was the only sort of weird thing. ‘I feel like Gollum. I’m moving like Gollum. I’m sounding like Gollum. But, boy, I’ve heard thousands of impersonations. Is it really my version?’”

Obviously, Serkis in person is very much un-Gollum. In fact, with his husky London voice, his unfailing spark of wit and his jovial mannerisms, he does come across a lot like one of his beloved artistic inspirations growing up, the late pub-rocker-turned-Stiff-Records-sort-of-star Ian Dury. In 2009, during the gap between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Serkis got to live out a bit of a dream playing Dury in the biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. His lead performance in the fast-paced Mat Whitecross film landed him the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actor.

Now, with The Hobbit, Serkis is solidly on to directing. The intense 18-month shoot for the films down in New Zealand meant Jackson had to delegate work out to people he could trust. Serkis got the call to lead a second-unit crew.

“It was only two weeks before going down to reprise – no, four weeks before going down to reprise the role of Gollum, which was only supposed to be for two weeks – that Pete invited me to be a part of second unit,” Serkis recalls. “So, it went for me from being a two-week job to being a year and a half. I mean, I was utterly thrilled.

“Pete’s known that I’ve wanted to direct for quite a long time. Even going back as far as The Lord of the Rings, I’ve directed some short films and began to direct video-game projects and some theatre. Basically, Pete said ‘Look, I want you to come down and do this and we will have fun, and I want you to be bold and I want you to be there for the actors, really.’…”

Pleased, Serkis adds: “It wasn’t just going to be doing pickup shots of maps and tankards. It was going to be shooting and overseeing the performance level with all the aerial shots and battle sequences. The key thing – and this is really what Pete’s all about in these things – is that drama comes first. The emotional content of what everyone’s doing is the most important thing, regardless of the big canvas. I guess he just thought he wanted someone he trusted, who’d been through the Middle Earth experience before, who understood his sensibility, who knew how he supports performance with camera.

“I’ve always actually adored Peter’s way of shooting and keeping the camera moving, and the way he intensifies moments. So, he was an amazing mentor, amazing teacher, and was very generous. At the same time as directing The Hobbit, he was teaching me. And that really speaks to what an incredibly, hugely enabling person he is – the sort of compassionate person he is.”