Andy Serkis grew up with a crippling fear of death. He thought he had purged it after learning about Einstein’s theory of relativity for a 2008 television drama. But today, as he ponders his forthcoming move into directing, the chameleonic actor behind Gollum and King Kong is worried that time is running out.
“You just feel life speeding up,” he sighs. “It’s just that feeling that there’s so much to do and so little time to do it. So you go, ‘These are the projects that I really, really want to do. I’ve got to get these done.”
Possibly not coincidentally, the theme of time and how we use it also underlines his latest film, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
A passion project rooted in a conversation between Serkis and his actor/writer friend Paul Viragh in a Soho pub, the film, directed by Mat Whitecross, is a vibrantly scrappy and unvarnished take on the life of Ian Dury: the gravel-voiced childhood polio survivor who, backed by the Blockheads, achieved unlikely rock stardom with hits including Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick; Reasons To be Cheerful, Part 3; and the eponymous Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
“We were both big fans of the lyrics, and he was just such a striking, formative character in our lives at the time,” recalls Serkis, 45.
Indeed, Dury broke the mould. Here was a man in his 30s, with a withered arm and leg, who was boldly fronting bands at a time when the disabled kids that Serkis’s mother was teaching were being “shunned from society”. For an actor drawn to underdogs and outsiders, he was irresistible.
“I thought, ‘I look a bit like him, I could probably get my head around playing him. So what is the story? What do we really want to say with this film?”
The parallels between actor and character actually go beyond just looks. Like the musician, who died from cancer in 2000, aged 57, Serkis is an atheist and a jazz lover (he plays the tenor sax); he was also a visual artist, like Dury, before turning to acting (he still paints).
Key, though, and now central to the film, was his identification with Dury’s relationships with his father, and son Baxter.
The singer/songwriter grew up with his mother and sisters, and rarely saw his father. Serkis’s early years similarly included long periods of separation from his Iraqi father, who worked in the Middle East while the rest of the family lived in England.
“The dad was the fantasy character that Ian emulated on stage but didn’t really know. So that, and looking at Baxter’s relationship with Ian, was something that was very much, for Paul (the son of a Hungarian father) and myself, about this sort of imagining what your father is like. Imagining this man who is supposed to be your role model.”
Although Serkis spent summers in Iraq, “it was strange and confusing (at first) to have this man turn up out of the blue at Christmas and assume control,” he says. “It’s very displacing. And I’m still fathoming it out.”
It is tempting to see the film as part of this process. In it, Dury, brilliantly embodied by Serkis, is pulled in different directions by his artistic drive and his parental obligations to Baxter.
“That’s what I feel was probably happening with my father,” Serkis suggests. “He created something that he was passionate about, he built a hospital in Baghdad that was very much part of his life, and I’m sure – I would imagine – he would have wanted to spend more time with us.
“But that was his reason to be here, in a way. And that is what the film’s about: you’ve got a very limited amount of time on this planet; how do you divide it up? How do you manage it?”
To play the singer, Serkis lost two stone, worked out on one side of his body, and learned to sing like him. “Ian was hairless, so I also had to shave. The most painful experience is having your inner thigh ripped of hair,” he says, wincing at the memory. “And your chest. Jesus!”
He wore a calliper until it became second nature, and got “really bad groin strain”. Combining this level of dedication with fatherhood can sometimes be difficult, he admits.
“It’s that horrible thing of wanting to be present wherever you are, wanting to be in the moment, and so when you’re with your kids (he has three) you’re really with them and you’re not thinking about the role that you’re playing.
“ And I hate it, I absolutely despise myself, when it is their time, it’s precious time, and you know they’re growing up like that” – he snaps his fingers – “and you know you’re not going to have them for long, and yet you’re 12,000 miles away doing something that you’re there to do, and you’ve got to do.
“But then people do it every day doing different jobs. It’s not extra special because it’s artistic. But the thing is, you can’t switch it off.”
Recently, Serkis was in New Zealand wearing a Lycra performance capture suit to play Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s animated Tintin film. He will return there to bring Gollum back to life for Guillermo del Toro in The Hobbit.
“It’s going to be two films so I’m not sure what they have in store for me,” he says. “But I had a meeting with Guillermo and he showed me some of the conceptual art for it and it looks amazing.”
In 2003, the role took him to the Oscars along with the rest of the Lord of the Rings team.
He will never forget it: three days before the ceremony, Bush announced the invasion of Iraq. Serkis could not believe that while other people were pulling out, they were still going to the awards. Photographs from the time show him holding a No War for Oil sign.
“So that’s my only real proper Oscar experience, when America went into Iraq and Michael Moore stood up on stage saying, ‘Shame on you, Bush.’ Which I’m quite pleased about, really,” he smiles.
“There was only four of us – me, Lorraine my wife, Gael Garcia Bernal and his girlfriend – that stood up to applaud him. Everybody else was like, ‘You’ve got to be f******joking.’ Everybody else was booing him off the stage.”
His father, who’d been imprisoned by the Ba’athist regime, told him to stick to acting. Serkis, though, believes actors should be free to express their political views.
“It’s their job to,” he says, adding that he comes from a generation of actors that wanted to be more than just famous.
“I remember when first becoming an actor, the choices you made were so important about what you did. God, just to be able to do it and to get into theatre and be part of community theatre and all that, it had a purpose.
“You wanted to change society with it. It had real drive. Now,” he groans, “it’s almost been bypassed and it’s purely the 10% or the 5% of the top of the iceberg, which is the celebrity, that people aspire to. It’s extraordinary.”
No wonder a fearless character like Dury appealed to him. Rather than be part of the system, he rocked against it, sending out a message of self-empowerment and personal freedom.
“Dury said just stick to your own guns and have your own principles and your own ideas. It doesn’t matter. That’s what Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the song, is all about: the cake of liberty.”
Serkis will soon be seen as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This article first appeared in The Herald, 31/12/09