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Sitting at the end of the row of talent at a press conference in New York last week, Andy Serkis looks pleased but also removed, like a proud father who wants to let his kids be the center of attention. Part of that's a function of his role in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He returns to play Gollum in the film's best scene, the "riddles in the dark" scene with Bilbo, but he's not a function of the larger narrative the way he was in Lord of the Rings, and says as far as he knows, Gollum won't appear in the next two Hobbit films. But Serkis also had the new role of second assistant director on all three Hobbit films, which means he really is like a father of the entire story-- and along with Peter Jackson, one of the key figures in helping bring Middle Earth back to life for a new trilogy.
"It was only four weeks before going down to reprise the role of Gollum that Pete asked me to be second unit, so it went from a two-week job to a year and a half," Serkis said at the press conference. When I spoke to him later I asked if there were mistakes he made as an actor stepping behind the camera-- like trying to over-direct the performances or making assumptions only an actor would-- he explained that his background making short films was plenty of preparation. Some actors need different levels of support than others, he told me, and as an actor it's easier to know that-- even when you're directing scenes that are full of CGI trolls, or shooting from a camera on a crane 50 feet above the action. Martin Freeman, speaking at the press conference, backed up Serkis's take by praising the sense of calm he brought to the set:
We weren't always aware of Andy's feelings, so we would go on to second unit, so we weren't always aware of how stressed you might be. [Speaking to Serkis] You did a good job of being diplomatic and making us feel good.
The iconic "riddles in the dark" scene, probably the most famous in The Hobbit and one of the best Tolkien ever wrote, was the first scene shot when production began, and Serkis admits it was a challenge to get back under Gollum's skin. "He's always been with me," he says of the character, who he's heard imitated by countless people and whose voice he'll do on command if you ask nicely. But he also worried about the cultural ubiquity of the character, and how Gollum may no longer belong entirely to him. "Am I just doing an impersonation of other peoples' impersonations?" he asked himself when he first stepped on set. After so many years of living in pop culture, could Gollum go back to being just inside one man?
Not that Serkis just had to do one character, either. Throughout our conversation he referred to Smeagol, and told me that Smeagol's presence in the scene-- that is, the side of Gollum that isn't vicious and bloodthirsty-- was something he and Jackson added that wasn't in the book. In the film version of the story it's Smeagol's idea to play the game of riddles, not Bilbo's-- as Serkis explains it, he's hungry for the hobbit meat, but he's also lonely. Serkis describes the scene with Bilbo as a "chamber theater piece," which he and Freeman shot in unbroken takes over the course of two weeks, each of them getting to know their characters as they went. It seems a shame that all that work to rediscover Gollum would be used on just one (admittedly spectacular) scene, but Serkis held firm when I pressed him on whether Gollum would return. He wouldn't make any promises, knowing full well they had just decided to expand the series into three films and things could change , but as of right now I wouldn't count on seeing him shoehorned back into the action.
As for Serkis, his duties behind the scenes on The Hobbit are done, and with his production company The Imaginarium is planning a motion-capture version of George Orwell's Animal Farm. He says they are in the early stages of testing the look of the film and how realistic the animals will be; though he's talked about shooting the film in the 48 frames-per-second look that The Hobbit used, he told me that they haven't settled on anything yet. He's also preparing to go back to work as Caesar on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which recently hired Matt Reeves to direct and is also in early stages of development.
With the Imaginarium it's clear that Serkis is committed to the future of motion capture, and though he downplayed just how big an impact new motion capture technology had on his performance as Gollum, he's looking forward to one particular step that will make it even better. In photos from behind the scenes of The Hobbit you can see him with the camera rig mounted on his head, capturing his facial expressions (technology that didn't even exist when he played Gollum in Lord of the Rings 10 years ago, when he had to re-enact all his facial expressions in a separate studio). But Serkis predicts in a matter of years that camera will be gone, that facial expressions will be minutely captured with no cumbersome headgear-- and that motion capture will keep moving forward as a fascinating playground for artists like Serkis to explore.
You can Serkis as Gollum and Smeagol in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey everywhere starting December 14.