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NEWS ARTICLE

Faces of Tribeca Film: Andy Serkis

sex & drugs & rock & roll star Andy Serkis talks about his love for Ian Dury, playing CG roles like Gollum, and his "life in lycra." See it at Tribeca Cinemas and across the country via Tribeca Film On Demand.


sex & drugs & rock & roll

 

Andy Serkis has been performing on the stage and in front of the camera for several decades, but you might not recognize him from some of his most famous performances. The classically trained actor has put in as much time transforming into creatures like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings or the title character in King Kong as he has doing "live-action" roles in films like The Prestige and, of course, sex & drugs & rock & roll. sex & drugs, which will be at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and was also acquired for US distribution by Tribeca Film, is about the seminal pop-punk rocker Ian Dury, a mercurial character to say the least. Serkis chatted with TribecaFilm.com from the UK a few days before the Festival about his passion for Dury, the future of digital filmmaking, and much more.

 

See
sex & drugs & rock & roll at Tribeca Cinemas May 5-11. Not in NYC? Watch it On Demand!



TribecaFilm.com: When did you first hear Ian Dury's music?

 

Andy Serkis:
I very first heard his music when I was about 14 years old. I heard "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," which was the hit single here in the UK, and I remember it very vividly. I was on a coach, a camping trip with school, and we all were crowded 'round the transistor radio listening to this extraordinary, unique sound that was blaring out, and that was my very first kind of introduction to it.

TribecaFilm.com: I read that you met Ian Dury in real life.

 

AS:
It was quite extraordinary. This was back in the '90s, and he was going to be writing the music for an adaptation of a Sue Townsend book which is called The Queen and I... so we were workshopping this production and Ian came up with Mickey Gallagher from the Blockheads, one of his band members, and it wasn't a great first meeting, actually. He'd had a lot to drink and he wasn't in good form, and he had this way of, he could really turn, you know... He could be really quite nasty if he didn't like the temperature or the feel of a room, if he wasn't quite happy with his surroundings or if something had wound him up, and he just happened to be in a particularly bad mood. It ended up, you know, he was kind of rude to a lot of people [laughs] and Mickey Gallagher finally—it's in one of the biographies—that night, that very night, he sort of dumped [Ian] on the pavement, because he had to carry Ian. He was used as a human prop, as all the band members were, and he left him on the pavement and the police were called... It got a bit out of hand.

 

TribecaFilm.com: That segues nicely into my next question—how did you physically prepare to play Ian Dury, especially given the effects of polio on his body?

 

AS:
I was really glad I'd had that experience of having met Ian because starting way back when we started to think about the writing of it, we were very clear that we didn't want to do a rose-tinted spectacle, [a] worship of the man. It was going to be a warts and all approach to the part... How would Ian tell his own story? That was really the basis of it. How would he present his own story? He'd be incredibly irreverent, he'd send himself up, he'd really take the mick out of himself, and he would hate it if it was very po'-faced and reverential. So the approach to how I played the role was actually part and process of the writing of the script with Paul as well... There were two phases, I suppose: the writing side of it, where we decided we wanted to draw on Ian's sense of humor and his knowledge of music hall and jazz and a lot of the things that are very strong kind of influences in my life and why I originally wanted to play him, because there are many crossovers between my artistic perception and I suppose my take on life is not dissimilar to Ian's in many ways.

 

TribecaFilm.com: How so?

 

AS:
Before I became an actor, I studied visual arts, and he he studied at Walthamstow Art College, and he wanted to be a painter, as did I, and he was very influenced by jazz, particularly Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and I play tenor saxophone. And in fact, I even played saxophone on the score for the movie... And also the core kind of story is the central relationship between father and son, and that's something that both Paul and myself really wanted to examine in this film, and the difficulty of being a creative person when you have family and how that works and how that falls down... This passion for life, this passion for art and work and creativity, but the casualties, I suppose, are the people that are around you and so those are all the things that we wanted to examine.

 

 

Ian suffered from polio from the age of 8 and it left the left side of his body very deformed, and he had quite a thin frame, so I spent quite a few months losing a lot of weight, and I lost a couple of stone. And then I worked very hard on the right-hand side of my body, because all of the band members and his family members who we talked to, they were incredibly forthcoming and helpful... and were part of the storytelling process, actually. Baxter, his son in real life, and Jemima, his daughter in real life, and Sophie, his widow, they all three of them input such a lot into the movie and gave such incredible insight into the character, very personal things as to his personality but also his physicality and how he moved around, how he used people as physical kind of props and everything, from how he arranged his office so things were easy for him to get at, to walking around and how he'd get in and out of a car, and even, you know, the nitty-gritty of lovemaking. It all came from people who were very close to him.

 

So I spent a lot of time kind of working on the right-hand side of my body... Sophie, his widow, described him as a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a maimed left arm and leg... When he was on stage, there was this man who was kind of prepared to die on stage every night and so I had those kinds of images that were really sticking with me, and he had this huge throbbing vein on the right side of his neck from hauling the left-hand side of his body around, so I really spent a lot of time working on the right-hand side of my body to kind of accommodate.

 

TribecaFilm.com: I interviewed Mat Whitecross and he said it was a pretty tough shoot. What was the defining moment for you on this shoot, whether hardest or strangest or most memorable...?

 

AS:
Mat's quite right; lots of things were against us. We had a very limited time, we had done all this preparation, there was a great sense of [community], and there was a great energy. Everyone who came onboard the project was there because they wanted to tell Ian Dury's story. He really did attract this huge following, and he was a real national treasure. People were fascinated by him, and all the crew who came to work on it and all the cast were there because he's such an incredibly kind of magnetic character. So that was all going really well, but the pressures of shooting what was a very ambitious script... It was never going to be an easy thing, so the scheduling and the putting-together of that was very difficult.

 

But personally, the very first scene I ever shot was the most uncharacteristic of Ian's part of the story, really, which was basically him crying over the coffin of his dead father, and that was the very, very first thing I shot, and you know, it was so unlike the rest of this kind of growling punk, this kind of man who's trying to control his life and be on top of everything, you know, kind of be different and unique and in charge and in control of his destiny, and then this very first scene was the absolute antithesis of all of this. That was a pretty difficult start, but then there are so many, really.

 

sex & drugs & rock & roll

 

The four days that we shot all of the live musical numbers, you know, the family came down, the Blockheads came down to watch, it was like doing a four-day live gig, and I emceed the whole thing, and that was an incredible experience... The energy that it took to do that was quite extraordinary and I thought, Ian used to go out on stage and do this every night. He toured for three years nonstop, practically, with the Blockheads around Europe, and I just thought, for a man who truly suffered from polio—you know, I was wearing a caliper all the time to help me keep in character and to keep me physically in character, [and] I just thought how on earth he had that kind of energy and drive is beyond me, from just purely experiencing four days of doing that stuff. But it was great because a lot of Blockhead fans and Ian Dury fans came to watch all the gig stuff and were part of the audience, and it was really exciting. A lot of stuff was improvised, and some really fun and interesting and quite moving stuff came out of that whole part of it.

 

TribecaFilm.com: It seems like you're attracted to these parts that transform you physically—if you look at something like Gollum, you also had to be there physically in the outfit and all that. What attracts you to physically intense acting?

 

AS:
It's funny 'cause yeah, I guess people think of it that way... I have a theater background, and whenever I've approached a role, the physicality's always been important to me as a way of—I'm very interested in how people carry their emotions physically and wear their emotions physically and how they carry their pain or tension... I love watching people's physicality and watching people's body language, and I study people a lot.

 

TribecaFilm.com: Most American filmgoers probably know you best as Gollum and, of course, think you were robbed of an Oscar nomination, but plenty of people who have seen sex & drugs are calling it a "career-defining role" for you. Do you have any plans to do future films that have you more front and center, physically recognizable, if you will?

 

AS:
I've done a lot of stuff [that] maybe I'm known for in Europe where I'm just normally seen onscreen as myself... but I've never drawn a distinction between acting a live-action character, if you'd like, and a CG character... I'm absolutely passionate about performance capture, and I love playing performance capture characters because it's an incredibly liberating way of working, and, whereas I think there has been in the past a perception of it being like, "Well, it's such a shame you don't actually get to see the actor," I think things are really changing, and very soon the emphasis on the technology's going to change... In fact, I'm coming out to LA to do a panel with the Academy to talk about acting in the digital age. I'm absolutely convinced in five, ten years time, there won't be a kind of distinction, there won't be a kind of prejudice, if you like, towards actors who play CG roles because it will be so much part of the toolbox and the toolkit and the palette of acting. The more actors that do it, the more it becomes the norm, and as I say, I think the emphasis on the technology will absolutely go away.

To answer your question, I suppose for me it's all about the character. It's all about the role and the script, and if it means it's manifested as a CG character, then fine, and if it's a live-action character, then fine. So in terms of the acting process, there's no difference. It's all about embodying the life and soul and physicality and being of a person, creature, whatever.

 


Andy Serkis
Photo by Bob Riha


TribecaFilm.com: That's interesting you say that, because of course you've also done acting for video games and such, and as someone who plays games and is tuned into that world, I've noticed that it's not really seen as slumming any more to do that.

 

AS:
I think it's changing drastically, and I love working on those kinds of projects... I mean, yes, I'm very happy to play more live-action characters, but one of the things I'm very interested in doing is expanding performance capture here in the UK, and at the moment I'm setting up a performance capture studio called The Imaginarium, which is like a digital hub for the young aspiring filmmakers who want to work in this realm. [The goal is] to make it kind of accessible and not just kind of a multimillion dollar film budget kind of thing... I think the price of it will make it much more affordable and much more egalitarian for young filmmakers, because I think that's part of the reason it's still a little bit seen as a little rarefied... I think with [the] real-time rendering software that's beginning to come into play now, which kind of originates from the video game world, it allows so much more experimentation from an acting point of view and for directors to work directly with actors and have a result very, very quickly and in a much cheaper way.

 

TribecaFilm.com: I hope you didn't take offense at what I said before. I think it came across wrong.

 

AS:
No, it's actually a very, very intelligent and—it's a debate that I am quite evangelical about it because I really fundamentally believe this thing, that I know the work I did on Gollum and on Kong and on Tintin and on all the characters I've played for the video games... Acting is acting, and how it's clothed is, at the end of the day, and how it's manifested is, you know, it's changing. And I'm all for the awareness of that growing, and I love to talk about it.

 

TribecaFilm.com: So you're primarily CG in Tintin?

 

AS:
Yeah, Tintin, all the characters are CG. It's an entirely CG world.

 

TribecaFilm.com: I bet you're ready to suit up again for Gollum for The Hobbit.

 

AS:
Yeah! When that comes, I'm really looking forward to it. I'm really looking forward to working with Guillermo del Toro, as well. He's an incredible director. And to work with the team again who brought the Lord of the Rings to life and obviously with Peter [Jackson] and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, they're putting together the script, so you know, at some point I'll probably get the call.

 

TribecaFilm.com: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, who would it be?

 

AS:
I actually love Paul Thomas Anderson's films so much, I just adore his films, so I'd love to spend an evening with him. That would be great. I think he's terrific, and Punch Drunk Love's one of my favorite films. I think it's a great movie. And Boogie Nights too. And Hitchcock I quite like.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What piece of media—art, books, music, TV, whatever—have you been recommending to friends lately?

 

AS:
Movie-wise, I loved Jane Campion's new film, Bright Star. I just think it's extraordinary, really, so I'm definitely recommending that.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What would your biopic be called?

 

AS:
It would be probably be called A Life in Lycra.

 

sex & drugs & rock & roll

 

TribecaFilm.com: It's really exciting that sex & drugs will be premiering at the Festival but that it's also part of Tribeca Film and will be On Demand and so on. Especially given how digitally minded you are, what are your hopes and expectations for this?

 

AS:
One of the most exciting things about making the film was that we—all the filmmakers, all the people involved in it—were evangelical for wanting Ian Dury's music to be appreciated again and to reach a new audience, and I know that he didn't have a presence particularly in the US, and that's part of the challenge, is to actually invigorate that, a new audience, or an audience for him in the US. But here in the UK, it was just like a whole new generation of people have started listening to his music again, and that's very thrilling, considering it's ten years since the anniversary of his death, so it's a really great time to reappraise his work... The way that the film was received here [in the UK] is obviously with a great deal of nostalgia and love for the character, but... I remember Mat actually coming back from Sundance and him saying, "Well, someone said to me, 'The film was amazing. So who actually wrote the music?'" And Mat said, "Well, Ian Dury." "No, no, no, not the character in the movie. Who actually wrote the music?" "No, no, it was Ian Dury who wrote the music." "Oh, he's a real guy?" So I'm hoping that out of all of this, sex & drugs & rock & roll, one, gets this incredible unique sound from the '70s and '80s out on the airwaves, and secondly, that it reaches this new audience.

 

In terms of [On Demand], I'm very excited. I think it's such a brilliant idea to let a festival kind of breathe and be, you know, to be received in the home in such a direct way. I think it's really clever... It's a brilliant way to see a film festival on demand, I think it's just great.

 

TribecaFilm.com: What makes your film a must-see at Tribeca?

 

AS:
I think it's incredibly honest and it's uncompromising. The music is, as I say, this unique British sound, but at the heart of it... it really says, as Ian Dury says, be magnificent. Life's short. Go out and grab it. It's actually quite a positive message within the film. Be magnificent. Go out and do it. Do it. Grab it. Grab life. And the central relationship, the complexity of family and whatever people do—I think the universal appeal of the film, really, is about whatever job people do, we all define ourselves by the careers that we have, and sometimes we don't manage the balance between that and family, but actually it isn't about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. It really is about family and creativity, and I think that's one of the universals.

 



See sex & drugs & rock & roll at Tribeca Cinemas May 5-11. Not in NYC? Watch it On Demand!

 

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