Lord Of The Rings actor Andy Serkis’s directorial debut Breathe is a touching true love story. He talks to Laura Harding.
Andy Serkis is the rare actor who has played a host of famous characters but whose face you might never have seen.
That’s because in The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes you don’t actually see it – instead you see Gollum, Supreme Leader Snoke and Caesar, the roles he so masterfully portrays using performance capture.
Serkis has been a pioneer in the field, even teaching other actors how to use their bodies so their movements can be captured before digital effects complete the picture and setting up a production company which specialises in projects that use the technology.
So it might come as a surprise that his directorial feature debut is a film that could not be further from those that made him famous.
Breathe tells the true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, a couple determined to live as normal a life as possible after Robin is paralysed by polio.
It tracks their meeting and romance, the early days of their marriage and then the devastation of the diagnosis and defiance of the doctors who said he could never leave hospital.
That deviation from what audiences might expect from him is something Serkis, 53, is embracing.
“I’m really pleased about it,” he says. “I am delighted. It would have been fairly safe really to start off with a big visual effects movie and something that had performance capture in.
“I think that is what people expected and some people might be disappointed about that but I’m really pleased because it’s all about storytelling at the end of the day and this happens to be a magnificent story, a beautiful story and obviously very personal, and I just think the performances in it are extraordinary, so I’m pleased this is the first one to come out.”
And personal it is. Robin and Diana are the parents of Jonathan Cavendish, Serkis’s producing partner and co-founder of their production company, The Imaginarium.
Telling the family story of such a close friend was obviously not without difficulty and he admits there were moments of nerves.
“If I really muck this up it could be a bit squeaky,” he jokes, “but we made it together. All the way along the line we were in concert with each other and it was a really happy experience.
“It was pressured because we had very little time to do it, we raised the money very quickly and once we had Andrew and Claire, we shot very quickly.
“We had seven weeks to do it, but the fact that everyone had come on board to make it because they loved the story, because they loved Bill Nicholson’s amazing script, it felt like it had a fair wind behind it, and all the actors were there because they had been moved by the power of this story.”
Garfield and Foy had never met before they were cast in the film, but Serkis said he had an innate sense their chemistry would work.
“I really had a feeling,” he reflects. “Andrew is a very sensitive individual, a very generous man and a great collaborator, a fantastic actor and you can’t help but fall in love with Claire for her straight-shooting.
“She’s completely what-you-see-is-what-you-get and has this extraordinary emotional eloquence about her and I just knew the way they can both subtly play scenes seemingly doing nothing but carrying so much emotion, I knew they would get on.”
Serkis said he was so inspired by the story that he was not even tempted to sneak in a cameo for himself. “I really was very happy to be completely behind the camera. I think I’ve discovered through The Jungle Book actually that I either like burying myself completely in a character and just living the world of the character or directing, I find it hard to do both. Jungle Book was a test of that.”
The Jungle Book he’s referring to is his next directorial project, a grand re-telling of the beloved story in which he returns to his motion capture roots to play Baloo, opposite a cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale.
“It’s a Mowgli-centric story and a very psychologically in-depth story about identity and my Baloo is a bit more of a tough, gnarly old sergeant-major who is helping Mowgli to survive through tough love, basically.” His version sounds a world away from Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book, which was a box office hit in 2016.
“At one point we were neck and neck (with release dates) We were almost coming out at the same time and that is partly why there has been a delay.
“Because we are using performance capture and all our actors are on set playing the characters, we wanted to take time to really refine the animation. But it also worked out that we had this hiatus period to be able to shoot Breathe, which was incredible, so it’s worked out well.”
So which lane would he rather stay in as a director – the human-driven love stories or the grand motion capture epics?
“It all depends on the script and the character, and at the Imaginarium we have been building a slate of films,” he says.
“Animal Farm is one that we have been developing for a while, which is obviously closer to a visual effects movie, but also there are smaller stories and more human stories that don’t require any visual effects too, and I love the fact that we can dance around all of those different types.”
Breathe (12A) is released in UK cinemas today.
Andy Serkis was born in 1964 in Middlesex.
He initially studied visual arts at Lancaster University, with theatre as a secondary subject.
After agreeing to act in a couple of student productions, he changed his major subject to acting. After graduating he quickly got roles in theatre including playing in Bouncers, the Fool in King Lear.
TV roles inlcude Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Greville in the Darling Buds of May and Einstein in Einstein and Eddington.
Film roles include Gollum in Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films.