Andy Serkis on supervillains, incel culture and the one role to rule them all

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Andy Serkis has long accepted he’ll never escape Gollum. He may have bowed out of a certain genre-defining trilogy clutching the precious One Ring and fizzling away in the lava lake of Mount Doom 20 years ago now (yes, really) but it remains a role that not only ushered in the Age of Performance Capture but still inspires daily recreation requests from fans on the street.

“That will be what I carry forever but that is no bad thing because it was such a great character to have worked on,” the 55-year-old reflects, two decades on from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. “If you’re going to be lumbered with a character that people will only recognise you for, I’m glad it’s that one!”

But, as gracious as Serkis is about the situation, it’s hard to believe there’s not at least a bit of frustration there – particularly given the meaty roles Serkis has sunk his teeth into since hanging up his mocap suit. In 2015 he joined the Marvel Universe as black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue before switching superhero teams to DC Comics in 2022 to take up the mantle of Alfred Pennyworth opposite Robert Pattison’s Batman. There have also been voice-over roles in the Star Wars and Planet of the Apes franchises. This year will see Serkis dig into his dark side once again as tech-billionaire-turned-serial-killer David Robey in Netflix’s much-awaited revival of the Idris Elba-led smash hit Luther.

So where does a relatively normal bloke from Ruislip Manor find inspiration for such roles? Raised on holidays touring the Middle East with his three older sisters – Serkis’ Armenian-Iraqi father built a hospital there while his Iraqi-English mother was busy teaching for the British Council – Serkis’ was a childhood of two halves.

“When I got back, during the week we’d have a very suburban lifestyle and at the weekends we’d go and eat Iraqi food at my nan’s who lived at Wembley!” he chuckles. “It was a kind of odd mixture. That was my normality so you accept it but part of me felt sort of like an outsider.”

He’s keen to explore his roots when it’s fully safe to do so but, for now, this psychological mooring as a kid has proved useful fodder for his latest big-screen assignment in Luther: The Fallen Sun. “He’s a deeply lonely human being who’s created an environment on the dark web which is in his mind a safe place – a haven community, and you could parallel it to incel behaviour,” says Serkis of David Robey, a cyber-tech maestro weaponising his detachment from society into something abominable.

“Being a moral relativist, he’s creating something which is for people who’ve been victimised or marginalised,” Serkis explains. “He is extorting, he is trolling – all of that kind of stuff and worse. Creating an environment where, in actual fact, you can see the worst horrors and he wants to create theatre around that.”

Having worked together briefly on Avengers: Age of Ultron, this role will bring Serkis into the orbit of Idris Elba’s “extraordinary” DCI John Luther – the main attraction of five harrowing series of the eponymous crime drama that aired between 2010 and 2019 on BBC One. “The scenes we had together were really great, they were challenging and not easy at all,” says Serkis. “[Idris] really puts himself on the line and we all did because it’s something that compelled you to do that.”

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Serkis with his wife, Lorraine, and children Ruby and Louis at the Avatar: The Way of Water premiere. Image: Fred Duval/Shutterstock.

Although he’s beavering away at five different directorial projects right now – one of which is a long-planned Animal Farm adaptation that’s been in production for the last 12 months (the rest he’s eager to avoid spilling any details on) – the pull of Luther creator Neil Cross made this one a no-brainer for the multi-hyphenate.

“It’s just the level of detail of the exploration into the dark side of humanity and the kind of almost mundanity of it,” says Serkis of Cross’ script. “You feel the horror… the horror is all around us and we either just glance it or you’re right in the middle of it, and that’s what’s so exciting.

“When I read the script I was pretty horrified over how dark it was and I questioned whether I wanted to do it. But, then again, the whole reason I became an actor was to explore and share a character with an audience; to try and ask a question.

“To me, it feels more like a film like Seven – those kind of psychological thrillers which really make you think, as well as just enjoy the thrill ride,” Serkis adds, before promising the likelihood of sequels.

Self-described as “quite outdoorsy” and a keen rock climber (he and wife Lorraine Ashbourne often trek around the Alps during the summer), this father-of-three’s lust for life is evident throughout our conversation. Despite infiltrating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Universe, Star Wars, The Planet of the Apes and even the animated microcosm of Springfield, he still has “so many passions and stories that I want to tell”.

Which is where The Imaginarium comes into play; a pioneering production company Serkis co-founded with Jonathan Cavendish in 2011 that specialises in the utilisation of performance-capture technology. The company has since worked on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and the upcoming Next Goal Wins, with plans to eventually move into musical territory.

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Serkis as David Robey in Luther: The Fallen Sun. Image: Netflix.

According to Serkis, that period spent skulking around Middle Earth as Frodo and Sam’s schizophrenic companion proved epiphanic. “Here was technology that allowed actors to travel anywhere and be anything. No matter who you were, or what the colour of your skin was, or what sex you were, or what height you were, whatever, as long as you can climb into the role you’ve now got a technology that will allow you to do that.

“At first it was hard for people to grasp what it was, but within 20 years that technology is at the forefront of filmmaking – as you’ve seen with Avatar – and actors are embracing it in a way that they perhaps wouldn’t have even five years ago,” Serkis notes triumphantly.

With just a few minutes left in our conversation, I ask Serkis about David Bowie, who portrayed the wizard-like engineer Nikola Tesla alongside Serkis in 2006’s The Prestige and who died almost exactly seven years before our meeting. Remembering an “unassuming” and “self-deprecating” bloke, he reveals that the Thin White Duke would often laugh at his attempts at a Serbian accent; “he kept saying ‘I sound like [Inspector] Clouseau!’

“He was just dead funny to be around. There were a lot of scenes with cats and we had a lot of not-very-real-looking stuffed cats around… so between us it was very, very hard to keep a straight face. But he was a giggle, he was a really lovely person.”

Luther: The Fallen Sun is in cinemas now and available to stream on Netflix from 10 March 2023.

Read more: Michael B. Jordan is fighting the good fight

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