It's the eyes. In the flesh, Andy Serkis doesn't especially resemble his character from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (rated PG-13, out July 11). Walking fully upright and dressed in a black shirt and jeans with holes in both front pockets, he's looking pretty Homo sapiensnot at all like Caesar, the chimpanzee star of the rebooted Apes franchise.
Except, that is, for his eyes. Liquid and slightly red-rimmed, they wield considerable emotional depth, and if you look at them long enough you can catch fleeting but unmistakable glimpses of the simian revolutionary and peacetime leader he portrays in Dawn. When popped open in surprise or scrunched in thought, they occasionally transform into the bugged-out peepers of Gollum, that pitiful, covetous homunculus from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which helped put Serkis on the map. The performance, capped by his sibilant entreaties for his ''precioussssss,'' became instantly iconic. But despite this ubiquity, and the fact that the 50-year-old actor is the lead in another major tentpole series2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes grossed $482 million worldwidemost moviegoers would be hard-pressed to recognize Serkis if they met him.
Advances in CGI have led to a doubling down on spectacle, primarily in the form of spaceships, superheroes, and urban destruction. Early on, these technical leaps inspired a lot of hand-wringing in Hollywood that F/X would phase out serious acting. But Serkis and an army of postproduction animators have allayed much of that anxiety. Like a digital-era Lon Chaney, he obscures himself to reveal his characters. Now he's in the process of doing it in a galaxy far, far away: He'll be starring in (and providing performance-capture guidance for) J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII.
''I've got Tony Serkis here.'' We're at the entry gate at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where Serkis is about to drop by Conan. It will be his first time on the show's couch since his promotional tour for playing another ape, the title role in Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong. The actor doesn't even blink at the driver's flub, although his publicist gently corrects the man a few moments later.
Actors often talk about losing themselves in a role, but performance capture has allowed Serkis to take that old Stanislavski saw and make it literal. Hidden behind a facade of ones and zeros, he has maintained far more anonymity than his LOTR and Hobbit costars. But Serkis insists that being an actor suits him more than being a movie star. ''For me, acting is all about the creation of a character, and not being visible,'' he says. ''I do my best work, I think, when I'm gone.''
Even in his most transformative roles, though, you can find him if you know where to look. ''I can't see Caesar without seeing Andy,'' says Dawn director Matt Reeves. ''Andy does disappear, but there's still an essence that is purely him.'' Invisibility is an existential nightmare for most actors, who thrive on attention and validation, but Serkis claims it doesn't bother him. ''I can understand why some actors might not like it,'' he says. ''But I think once they'd had a go, they'd be smitten with it.''
As he's become the go-to performance-capture guy, Serkis has continued to play characters who share his face. When I mention I enjoyed his work as English new-wave oddity Ian Dury in the 2010 music biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, his eyes go wide. ''Oh, you saw it? Did you?'' he says, delighted. ''I was thinking nobody ever saw me in that.''
It's one of the great Hollywood ironies that Serkis' most visible roles are, by far, the ones in which he's the most hidden. When a Conan producer asks Serkis in the greenroom if he'd do an on-air impression of Caesar meeting Gollum, for the briefest of moments those expressive eyes flash exasperation. Then he says, ''Oh, all right, sure.''
Before he ever donned a ball-bedecked suit on a film set, Serkis was a veteran of the stage in his native England, landing the occasional role in a Mike Leigh film. Gollum changed all that. ''I really expected after Gollum was over that I'd go back to traditional acting, that it would be the one weird and wonderful anomaly,'' he says. ''It's just that the roles kept coming.''
In the early days, Serkis got plenty of pushback from those who didn't quite understand the process. ''It was a complete lack of understanding over where credit should be allotted,'' he says. ''It was all tennis balls on sticks, and the creativity and authorship of the role lay with the team of animators and visual-effects artists. So that has taken some time to change.'' (But an industry stigma remains; he has yet to receive an Oscar nod.)
In recent years, however, performance capture has become a permanent tool on Hollywood's utility belt. So in 2011, Serkis cofounded The Imaginarium, a London-based studio that consults on performance-capture projects such as May's Godzilla, Star Wars: Episode VII, and next May's Avengers: Age of Ultron. (Serkis has been helping Mark Ruffalo prepare to reprise his role as the Hulk.) Filmmakers like Reeves are grateful for Serkis' expertise. ''We'd be shooting and he'd be like, 'In this scene, if you want to see my face better, I'd switch the camera over to this side,''' says the Dawn director. ''Just all these little tricks and things that I didn't know.''
Given his wide-angle vision, directing seems like a natural next step for Serkis, who shot some second-unit material for Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. Serkis hopes to helm big-screen versions of Animal Farm and The Jungle Book, developing credible motion-capture quadrupeds for each. (He'd better hurry: Jon Favreau is in preproduction on another live-action spin on the Rudyard Kipling tale for Disney.) For Serkis, the challenge is to expand the boundaries of what this technology can do. ''You can transport an audience in lots of different ways,'' he says, ''not just playing apes or three-and-a-half-foot ring junkies.'' Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that.