Andy Serkis on his Star Wars villain, how you too can play an ape

The world's most famous motion capture actor talks about his "deeply wounded" animated Star Wars bad guy, plus "Black Panther" and a new game based on the "Apes" films.

Brian Tong Editor / Video
Brian brings his high energy and edgy style to the CNET family, showcasing the latest and greatest in the tech world with substance to back up his style. Brian regularly appears on CBS, CNN, Headline News and local TV stations and radio networks while hosting several of CNET's popular franchises.
Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Brian Tong
Richard Trenholm
4 min read

From Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" to Caesar in "Planet of the Apes," he's done more than any actor to conjure unbelievably realistic animated characters in the movies. Now Andy Serkis brings his skills at motion capture performance to video games in a new title based on the "Apes" movies.

I caught up with the affable British actor to talk about the game and get some hints about his other big blockbuster projects, Marvel's " Black Panther " and his role as the galaxy's biggest bad guy in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

"Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier" is developed by The Imaginarium, the company Serkis co-founded to advance performance capture technology into the realms of games, virtual reality, mixed reality and even live theater. Also known as motion capture, the technique involves sticking reflective dots on actors dressed in plain bodysuits so their movements can be recorded as they interact with the film's sets and conventionally costumed actors. Visual effects teams then translate the movements and nuances onto their computer-generated character to create the living, breathing personality you see on screen.

Enlarge Image

You might not recognize this face, but Serkis has played Gollum, King Kong, Godzilla, Captain Haddock and the great ape Caesar.

Logan Moy/CNET

Performance capture made the simian stars of the "Apes" movies sympathetic and real, culminating in the third film "War for the Planet of the Apes" being told entirely from the apes' point of view. So "Last Frontier," influenced by story-focused games like the critically acclaimed "Heavy Rain," allows you to play as either human or ape. 

"We wanted to take the empathy that was the main theme of the three movies," Serkis explains, "and see if we could somehow parlay that into an immersive experience where it's not about defeating your opponent." An example of this is a multiplayer mode in which players must make collective decisions. 

"It really does ask the question of you: What sort of person am I?" Serkis says. "Am I someone who wants to destroy the unknown species or am I someone who seeks peace ultimately?"

In case "Lord of the Rings," "Planet of the Apes" and the Marvel universe wasn't enough, Serkis -- who's been nominated for a Golden Globe, a Primetime Emmy and two BAFTAs -- is now part of the Star Wars saga. He appears in CG-animated form as the serial's new chief bad guy, Supreme Leader Snoke, in "The Force Awakens" and next month's "The Last Jedi." Without giving too much away, Serkis describes Snoke as "a deeply wounded character" who feels "a lot of venom" toward the heroic rebels.

We actually get to see Serkis' real face in Marvel's "Black Panther," coming in February 2018. Stepping out of the performance capture suit for once, Serkis plays the villainous Ulysses Klaue, whom he describes as "a dark character, but also kind of left-field and mischievous and slightly crazy."

Interestingly, Serkis tries not to draw a distinction between acting in and out of a performance capture suit. "Genuinely, the process of acting is exactly the same," he says. "It's using your imagination, using your emotional muscle memory, part of yourself, your research, all of those things that you do as an actor to imagine that you have become someone else, regardless of what you're wearing."

Enlarge Image

The "Planet of the Apes" movies breathed astonishing life into their CG ape characters like Caesar, played by Serkis.

Twentieth Century Fox

There's no motion capture in Serkis' directorial debut, "Breathe," released last month, which tells the heartrending true-life story of disability activist Robin Cavendish, who was paralyzed at the age of 28. But he continues his association with the technology in his second film as director, a new CG-heavy version of "The Jungle Book: Origins" starring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch as the famous menagerie of animals. Serkis plays Baloo with newcomer Rohan Chand playing Mowgli. 

The film highlights one of the biggest challenges in the translation of an actor's performance into a CG persona. It's already hard enough to transform an actor's face into an ape's face even though the eyes, mouth and other bits are in roughly the same place. "But when you're retargeting all the muscles and the expressions onto the face of a panther or a tiger or wolf, that's really quite extraordinarily challenging," Serkis says. "I think we found a way of doing it … Benedict as Shere Khan has a lot of physicality. Christian as Bagheera is this very, very still but very penetrating kind of look, which is extraordinary. You really do see the actor's facial expressions in these animals."

Baloo looks very different to the skeletal Snoke or the 25-foot tall King Kong, yet Serkis has played them all thanks to performance capture, which allows actors to become any person or creature no matter what they look like.

"Suddenly, it doesn't matter what your shape as an actor is or how old you are or what the color of your skin is, you can now climb into any of these characters," he says. "That's been the most thrilling thing philosophically as an actor." 

Star Wars at 40: A look at the cultural phenomenon that's been thrilling fans since the first film in 1977.

Crowd ControlA crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.