As an actor, Andy Serkis has the unique distinction of playing two iconic characters – Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and the title character in the recent King Kong remake – without ever having shown his face. Of course, he briefly appeared in both those films as a human actor (the pre-Gollum character Smeagol in Rings, and ill-fated Lumpy the Cook in King Kong), and fans can check out his real face in the new film Inkheart, an adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s book about a family who can bring books to life by reading out loud. Serkis plays Capricorn, a villainous henchmen who has been freed from the storybook world and set loose in our own, opposite heroes Brendan Fraser, Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, and child actor Eliza Hope Bennett. Up next, Serkis will be appearing as Einstein in HBO’s Einstein and Eddington, as Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, and then once more as the character who made him a star in Guillermo del Toro’s The Hobbit. Babble spoke to Serkis, father of three young children, about juggling the demands of raising a family and playing a giant ape. – Gwynne Watkins
It seemed like you, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent were having an especially good time in this film.
We shot in Italy in Liguria, which is the most extraordinary place, and actually Cornelia Funke, the author – she wrote the book because of that environment. So to go and actually shoot it there was a real pleasure. This film has a European sensibility, and it also has a dark edge. So that village, which is a big character in the piece, was wonderful. It was an old, wrecked by an earthquake, ramshackle village. So we all hung out and ate a lot of Italian food and had a great time.
Inkheart is about the magic of reading. I imagine you do a mean bedtime story.
I like reading at bedtime. It’s probably the best acting I ever do. I’m reading The Phantom Tollbooth right now, which I absolutely love. I loved it as a kid, and I’m reading it to my children.
Any favorite character voices?
I do like Humbug. And the King of Dictionopolis. Those are my two best characters. [Laughs.]
There’s a computer-animated monster – The Shadow – at the end of Inkheart. What was it like to be in a film with a big CG character who wasn’t you?
It was great! It was brilliant! And actually he was a great actor who played The Shadow. And people didn’t even think it was an actor doing it, but he was on stilts, and then they used his movements for the shadow. And it’s chilling.
Have your kids realized yet that you’re King Kong?
They came and watched me be a twenty-five-foot ape. They came to the motion capture stage, and they could sit and watch on the screen King Kong romping around, and then see me romping around next to it. So they totally get the connection. In fact, they keep asking me, “Who played the dinosaurs?”
Your first child was still in an infant when you moved to New Zealand for three years to film Lord of the Rings. Has your wife forgiven you yet?
That was a really tough time. She was nine or ten months old, so it was a reasonable chunk of time. That was a really difficult time. Being away from someone — not just a little bit away, but like other side of the world. Completely, diametrically, on the other side of the world, twelve thousand miles away, and you can’t get back for the weekends, and it’s hard, really. But there were chances and times when they could come over, and my wife’s an actress so she obviously understands and doesn’t want me to step on her career too much as well, and since we’ve had more children she’s been willing to take more time out to do that. When we did King Kong we all moved out for a year and they went to school. I don’t know what we’re going to do in the future, as the kids get a little bit older.
Lately, you’ve been involved in creating video games. Does that interest come from your kids?
My children are beginning to play a lot of games. Games – there’s no heart in them. They’re not about anything that is lasting. We put so much into the writing of film scripts and plays, but not into games. And games are where the audience is going to be. In the next generation of kids, you’re going to see a lot of storytelling in games. And I think it’s important to invest in that. I absolutely think that gaming is a massive storytelling arena in the making and now the technology has arrived to do that. It’s a fascinating time.
You’re playing Einstein in an HBO film opposite David Tennant. Are you a Dr. Who fan?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course. My kids are.
I heard that playing Einstein had a profound effect on you as a father.
Yes, Einstein – he was terribly kind of torn up, really, later in his life, looking back on how he dealt with his family. Because really he was kind of schizophrenic in the sense that he was a complete and utter workaholic and spending massive amounts of time away from his family, but kind of desperately trying to get back into being supportive and there. He knows that he’s made huge mistakes and he ended up having an affair with his cousin and all the rest of it, so it got very complicated, but one of his big regrets is that he let his sons down, and the difficulty of being pure about what you are on this planet to do, in the short time that you’ve got, and being with your blood. There are a few ways that I can claim to understand Einstein. That is certainly one of them.
“I don’t want to ram any of my belief systems down my children’s throats.”As the father of a daughter, was it exciting for you to be in a film with a girl as the hero?
Ruby, my daughter, she’s read and absolutely loved the book, and I took her to see it and hoped she wouldn’t be disappointed with the film, but she loved it and really thought it was great. Unfortunately I ruined her image of what the viallian Capricorn could possibly be other than her own father, but what can you do? I do think it’s important to read the book before you see a film, actually.
You’ve been very outspoken about being a vegetarian and an atheist. Are those values that you’re passing onto your children?
Yeah. We are hypocrites. [Laughs.] Yes, I am an atheist. And I was a vegetarian until playing Gollum, at which time I started eating fish. Copious amounts of fish. Actually, while I was in New Zealand I completely ran out of energy, and needed protein quickly, so I started eating fish. And of course in New Zealand the fish is very great. I don’t eat meat. Lorraine, my wife, she’s the same as well. We tried to bring our children up vegetarian and it was fine until they start mixing with other kids and going back to the houses and having hot dogs. Rather than kind of going “You’re not going to eat hot dogs,” we said they can wait until they can make their mind up and let them decide where they want to go. It’s kind of pointless to push them at this point. I know that there are great parents who are very good and manage that side of it well, but that’s not the way it’s gone for us.
In terms of spirituality, I don’t want to ram any of my belief systems down my children’s throats. What we both say to them is “This is what some people believe, this is what other people believe,” and again, allow them to make their own decisions. Absolutism in anything is death. I hope to keep things as open for them as possible, so they question things and examine things for themselves.
You have a great death scene in this film – one of many in your career. How do your kids feel about watching you die over and over onscreen?
They must enjoy it, yeah. [Laughs.] Actually, I have to retract that. In King Kong, when I was playing Lumpy the Cook, there was a scene where Lumpy gets eaten by – it’s called a pit slug – but in essence it’s a seven-foot penis with teeth. My son, he must have been six when he saw it – has just been traumatized by seeing my head disappear into this thing. I remember seeing him one day standing in the bath, looking down and going: “Dad, this is like the pit slug.” I thought, he’s scarred, that’s it. He’s had it. It’s over. [Laughs.]