Andy Serkis' acting resume may make him a bonafide movie star, but that doesn't mean you would recognize him on the street. That's because the 50-year-old has risen to prominence playing non-human characters in some of the most notable films of the past 15 years: You've seen him as conflicted ring addict Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings," legendary gorilla Kong in "King Kong" and hyper-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar in the 2011 hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
In anticipation of the second installment of Caesar's story -- "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," out now -- Serkis joined host Ophira Eisenberg on Tuesday, July 8, for a live recording of NPR trivia show "Ask Me Another," at cozy Brooklyn venue The Bell House. Throughout a delightful evening with Eisenberg, house musician Jonathan Coulton, and puzzle guru Art Chung, we discovered some little known facts about the seasoned British actor:
1. Serkis will never be typecast.
The actor's early experiences with performance capture technology on "The Lord of the Rings" made him realize the potential of such an "amazing tool": "Philosophically, from an acting point of view, it enables you to play absolutely anything," Serkis said. "I went from playing Gollum to King Kong. Going from a three-and-a-half foot ring junkie to a 25-foot gorilla meant to me that the world of typecasting was over. There were these incredible opportunities and brilliantly written roles and I embraced it, really."
2. He studied apes in their natural habitats to prepare for his roles in "King Kong," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."
Serkis combined field research with extensive character work in preparation for his non-human roles. "I have spent a lot of time researching apes. In fact, for King Kong I went to Rwanda and watched apes and gorillas in the wild," the actor said. He then studied apes in zoos, and observed their operational differences: "Apes in captivity [reflect] humans' behavior a lot more in their rhythms," he said. For the upcoming "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," Serkis then added to that foundation a thorough analysis of chimpanzee Caesar's inner life: "You take all this research and then its all about character. It's about, 'Okay, who is Caesar and what's his journey?' He's a very conflicted, complex ape."
3. He based Gollum's voice in "Lord of the Rings" on his cat coughing up fur balls.
The actor found Gollum's voice by mixing the imagined effects of traumatic experience with involuntary animal reactions. "He's called Gollum because of the way he sounds, according to Tolkien," said Serkis. "So I had to find something that felt like it was some sort of choking," Serkis said. Because Gollum was a "ring addict" who strangled his cousin to get the object into his possession, Serkis reasoned that the character would carry "the memory of the guilt in his throat." But Serkis also wanted to add an instinctual element to the characterization, as though "a spasm [forced] Gollum's voice out." The actor based this aspect on his cat coughing up fur balls: "I had a cat called Dizz, after Dizzy Gillespie," the actor said. "And he came into the kitchen and he just started going [mimics the sound of a cat coughing up a fur ball]. And I thought: Well, that is real interesting."
4. He definitely will not play a resurrected Yoda in "Star Wars: Episode VII."
Though information surrounding J.J. Abrams' upcoming "Star Wars" installment is notoriously hush-hush, Eisenberg asked if there was any information Serkis could tease about the film. In response, Serkis silently closed his mouth and exited the stage. When he returned (to a still-laughing audience), he leaned into the microphone and said, "I'm not Yoda."
Asked what it was like to meet J.J. Abrams, the actor said "It was very emotional, it was very beautiful, and I'm sure we're going to have a magnificent time together."
5. If he had to join a "Serkis Circus," he would not want to be a clown.
"I think I'd like to be a lion tamer, actually," he said. "That that would provide the most audience entertainment if something went really badly."