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Serkis, Andy (1964-)


Main image of Serkis, Andy (1964-)

Despite playing the most memorable character in one of the biggest blockbusters in cinema history and following this with the title role in the same director's $200 million follow-up, Andy Serkis can still walk down the street largely unrecognised. Character actors are rarely strangers to the make-up box, but Serkis has gone much further in allowing his features to be unrecognisably altered by state-of-the-art computer graphics. It is a great tribute to his skill as both actor and physical performer that Gollum in the second and third instalments of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (Germany / New Zealand / US, 2001-3) and King Kong (US / Germany / New Zealand, 2005) are wholly convincing emotionally, for all the underlying technical wizardry.

Of Armenian descent on his father's side, Serkis was born in Ruislip, Middlesex, and originally planned to become a painter and graphic designer. While studying visual arts at Lancaster University, he became heavily involved with the theatre studies department as a designer but then the acting bug bit. He joined Lancaster's Dukes Playhouse in 1985 and spent the next decade performing with various touring companies, most notably Manchester's Royal Exchange.

He first appeared on television in a couple of 1989 episodes of the sitcom The New Statesman (ITV, 1987-92), with two regular leading characters, Sparky Plugg in the sitcom Morris Minor's Marvellous Motors (BBC) and Owen in the children's cycle courier drama Streetwise (ITV), following the same year. Neither of these made much impact, but his television career began in earnest when he played Tom, drug-addicted son of the murdered title character in the Geordie gangster drama Finney (ITV, 1994).

That same year he made his film debut, in a minor role in Prince of Jutland (France / UK / Denmark / Germany, 1994), Gabriel Axel's realistic retelling of the history behind the Hamlet legend. By the end of the decade he would have worked twice with Mike Leigh (playing an obnoxious yuppie in Career Girls, 1997, and the Savoy Theatre's harassed choreographer in Topsy-Turvy, 1999), recreated the role of Potts in Jez Butterworth's film version of his play Mojo (1997), and played significant supporting roles in the independent features Stella Does Tricks (d. Coky Giedroyc, 1996) and Among Giants (d. Sam Miller, 1998). On television, he received much praise for his Bill Sykes in the BBC's 1999 dramatisation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.

The 1999-2003 period was dominated by The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the rest of the cast, Serkis was also intensively involved in the digital post-production needed to bring Gollum to uncannily convincing life. However, he was able to make the occasional trip back home, delivering a wickedly funny cameo as Martin Hannett, the wayward producer of Joy Division's bleak industrial soundscapes in 24 Hour Party People (d. Michael Winterbottom, 2002) and a more substantial role as the bullying Private Quinn, part of a platoon of World War I soldiers menaced by supernatural forces in the imaginative low-budget horror Deathwatch (d. Michael J. Bassett, 2002). He also wrote and directed a short film, Snake (2001).

Since his breakthrough, and Jackson's affirmation of his versatility in King Kong, Serkis has appeared in more big-budget films, including three memorable appearances as assorted henchmen, minions and assistants. These include the villainous Mr Grin in Stormbreaker (d. Geoffrey Sax, 2006), Mr Alley, eccentric assistant to David Bowie's electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (d. Christopher Nolan, US / UK, 2006), and the vocal part of the rat Spike in Aardman's first computer-animated feature Flushed Away (d. David Bowers/Sam Fell, US / UK, 2006). He also headlined Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (d. Mat Whitecross, 2010), giving a barnstorming, defiantly warts-and-all impersonation of the late Ian Dury.

Serkis also produced some outstanding work for television, notably his chilling depiction of the fiercely intelligent, utterly amoral psychopath Ian Brady in Longford (Channel 4, tx. 26/10/2006). It secured him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor, despite being on screen for less time than many performances traditionally relegated to the Supporting Actor category. Though he was beaten by Jim Broadbent's virtuoso performance in the programme's title role, the nomination revealed how highly Serkis is regarded by his peers.

Michael Brooke

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