ANDY SERKIS on 'FLUSHED AWAY' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
October 11, 2006
In the animated family feature Flushed Away, a pet rat named Roddy (Hugh Jackman) living a privileged life in a posh London apartment is flushed into the city's sewers, where he meets the headstrong Rita (Kate Winslet) and gets caught up in her feud with The Toad (Ian McKellen), an underworld criminal with designs on annihilating the rodent population. The film's ensemble of voice talent also includes Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy as The Toad's henchmen, Spike and Whitey, and Jean Reno as The Toad's French cousin-in-crime, Le Frog.
Flushed Away represents Aardman Animations' foray into CG features. The studio that created such hits as Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit brings their distinctive style and brand of humor to the realm of computer animation, even using software that recreates the look of their traditional stop-motion claymation characters.
In this interview, Andy Serkis, who made a name for himself with acclaimed motion capture performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and as the titular primate in King Kong, talks about working on Flushed Away and developing his character Spike.
MEDIA: After playing Kong and Gollum, was it a nice change to use your voice for something other than a motion capture performance?
ANDY: [laughs] It was very different. It was quite odd, because yeah, usually I'm kind of used to working a long time on a character and being involved in it and see it progress day to day. But what I found about this was [that] you do three hours of recording at the beginning of when we started shooting, and then six months would go by--and I was still working on King Kong, actually--and then come back, do another three hours, go away for another six months, come back. I've never done a voiceover for animation before, so it was new to me.
While recording, do you get compelled to act out the motions to go along with the voice performance?
Yeah, you do, to get into character. There's no way you can stop it. You don't just stand there and read the script. Well, certainly, I can't do that. [laughs] But it is part of the energy. But also because Spike is a pretty energized character, too, so I was pretty much jumping about and running in place.
Did you get a good visual idea of the character before you started recording?
Yeah, they showed us concept art, and little sculptures as well--kind of proper claymation sculptures...They built all those maquettes pretty much like they would have done [for] the stop-motion style. And that's a really great way to get inside the character, to have that three dimensional thing to put on a turntable.
How did Spike's voice come about? Did they ask you for a specific type of voice, or did you give them a selection from which to choose?
Well, in my first session, I was really lucky because I got to work with Bill Nighy. And so when we both had our first day, we were able to sort of pitch our voices [complementary] to each other. Obviously, [Bill's character Whitey is] big and slow and kind of lumbering, and Spike has that kind of non-stop attack, and sort of highly energized neurosis. You know, you come up with it as the actor, and then the director will say, "Let's just try making him a bit more nasal" or "Let's try putting it to the back of the throat a bit more." But I had this idea of Spike being quite nasal, really, and kind of toothy, and he had a lot of tension in his mouth, because he kind of grinds his teeth and stuff.
Did you have any other opportunities to record with your co-stars?
That was it. It was the first and last [time]. And then you're on your own. But often, you'd have a reader in to read with you.
What kind of creative input did you have on the development of Spike's personality?
You'll do what's there on the script and stuff, and then when you start riffing, you start playing, and little bits and pieces come out that are incorporated...I think he became more and more of a mummy's boy, actually. He thought he was a big shot. He probably watched too many rat gangster movies. But actually, he goes home and his mum irons his socks and his underpants, and he can't really cope with the real world. [laughs] He likes to boss people around. But then, most people do who have low self-esteem, which I think he does.
You recorded Flushed Away while you were in New Zealand, yes?
Yeah. And in fact, [director] David Bowers came down while I was down there, because he wanted to see what was going on with King Kong. So I played Kong during the day and Spike at night. [laughs]
Were there a lot of pained noises in your performance because of all the abuse Spike takes?
Yeah. He always sets out to cause other people pain, but it always backfires on him. So I did a lot of grunts and falls and screams and shouts. [laughs]
Do you feel as attached to Spike as you did to Kong or Gollum?
I don't think that's possible, really, because I spent four years working on Gollum, and kind of a year and a bit working on Kong. And as I say, there are these little short bursts where you just do it for a few hours. So they're not really comparable in a way.
What attracted you to Flushed Away? Was it the reputation of Aardman?
Well, knowing that it was Aardman was a big draw, of course. And then the script. Because I thought it was a really great story with cool characters, and I just liked the feel of it. And I knew it was going to be sort of in the underworld, in the sewers, and I just thought it was a really great world to play in. But it nearly always is the script.
Did the London setting and British sensibility of the film attract you as well?
It wasn't anything that drew me to the film particularly, although it was nice to see it kind of manifested in the film. I liked the TV and the Tower Bridge made out of cans and bottles and bits and pieces. That was quite fun.
Do you see anything of yourself in Spike?
Probably, yeah. I suppose, in his impatience, really, and his temper, and then things backfiring on him. [laughs] Yeah, bits and pieces. Little bits and pieces.
We've seen you in so many roles where you drastically transform yourself. Do you love that whole process of completely becoming someone else?
Yeah, I think so. I think that's always what appealed to me about acting, is losing oneself in a character. And that's why I love motion capture, because you lose oneself in a character to the nth degree, to the point of total absorption, without being recognizable at all. And I love that. I really do love that. And this is what's great about [voicework] as well. You get all the joy of finding a character. When I grew up, I loved watching Lon Chaney, and I loved watching Charles Lawton, and people like that. I loved Ray Harryhausen's stuff as well. So I've always loved the magic of acting, of "God, is that the same guy who did...? That's amazing!" I really love that.
Do you start to question what your own identity really is?
I have no idea who I really am.
Well, you've certainly found the right line of work for that...
I'm so lucky, yeah, because otherwise, I'd probably be in prison. I don't know. [laughs]
You've been known to put a lot of time and research into your roles. Did you go all method for your live action performances in Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and The Prestige?
I did some knife throwing practice for Stormbreaker. [laughs] I mean, that was a kind of little cameo performance. But for The Prestige, I had to find out a lot about Tesla, really, and his world, and what was going on at the time politically with Edison and all that kind of stuff. So I sort of researched that quite heavily. But I don't have a set method of work. It's very much about what is required for the job. For this, there was not a lot of research going on. You know, I didn't get to go down into the sewers, which I would love to have done, with [directors Sam Fell and David Bowers]. They did a bit of a sewer trip, but I wasn't around for that.
When you first started on The Lord of the Rings, did you have any sense that you would eventually become a sort of "motion capture poster child"?
No, of course not. I had never done anything to do with CG sort of six years ago. Originally, the call from my agent was, "Andy, they're doing this film, Lord of the Rings, down in New Zealand, and they want someone for three weeks to do a voice for an animated CG character." That was the original call.
So you were originally just going to be the voice of Gollum, and not the physical performance?
That's right. And then the whole process kind of evolved.
Would you say Flushed Away is your most kid-friendly role to date?
I would think so, yeah. I did take them all to see King Kong, my kids. Because they were down in New Zealand with me, and they came to see the motion capture for Kong every Friday after school. That was their treat. And then we took about 30-40 kids from their school to see King Kong. They had a little special premiere for them, which was great. Peter [Jackson] was really cool. Most of them just kind of hid when the natives came on. [jokes] And my son has been traumatized by [my character] Lumpy the Cook being swallowed by a 6-foot penis. He'll probably be in therapy for the rest of his life...Apart from that, it all went well. [laughs]
Spike comments that he likes violence in his movie endings. As a viewer, what do you prefer?
[laughs] I like open-ended questions. That's what I like.