Watch: Actor Andy Serkis on the making of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers actor Andy Serkis recalls auditioning for Peter Jackson, creating the sound of Gollum, and shooting the movie’s most chilling scene.
The Two Towers was the film that proved Fellowship wasn’t a fluke – that director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was going to be a landmark event, with each entry equal to the last. It showed that Jackson and his fellow writers had the skill to match their gargantuan ambition. A year after Fellowship stunned moviegoers, the world once again joined a large collection of characters on their journeys across Middle-earth – Gandalf the (now) White, Sam and Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest – but it was one character, with two natures, who would steal the show. Andy Serkis’s Gollum, only glimpsed in Fellowship, took center stage in The Two Towers, and Serkis’s performance, along with the technology that made it possible, would change cinema for decades to come. Here, the actor remembers auditioning for the role – one he thought at the time was only going to involve his voice.
“The way that the job had been explained to me was that they were making these films of The Lord of the Rings down in New Zealand and that they wanted a voice for a digital character. One of my first responses to my agent was, ‘Well, you know, I’m not really a voice actor. Can you just get me a decent audition for one of the proper roles?’ When I found out it was Gollum it was like, ‘Wow, gosh, that’s a really exciting character.’ I’d read The Hobbit when I was at school and I remembered [Gollum] hugely from that.”
“I’d never considered myself a voice actor, just a regular actor, and I had to kind of think my way into it. I started to work on this notion that he’s called Gollum because of the way he sounds – and what would make his voice sound like that? I started to think about constriction of the throat, and as I was doing that, I was actually fortunate enough to witness my cat throwing up a fur ball. It suddenly gave me this idea that the whole physicality of the role would be determined by this force within, which is kind of built out of guilt and torment – this involuntary physical action is what caused this sound coming out of his mouth. The cat throwing up a fur ball is actually what generated the idea for this involuntary spewing out of words.”
“[My audition] was at the American [International] Church in Tottenham Court Road in London, and I’d already done one audition on tape for Peter. I went inside, and down this long corridor there was this tiny little room. It was quite mysterious actually, and I remember sitting in that corridor waiting for my turn. Then I went down into the corridor, went into the room, and met Pete and Fran [Walsh]… They were saying to me, ‘You’ll be on set and you’ll be working with these guys, but finally you’ll be manifested as a CG character; we are looking at this new technology called motion capture. It’s in its early stages and we’re not quite sure how it’s going to work, and it’ll be a cross between that and some animation.’ I said, ‘Look, the only way I can do this character is by acting it out, by actually playing it. I’m not a voice actor as such. I’ve never done that.’ I started to crawl around and get into character and go through the coughing-up-fur-ball voice and sort of getting into the scene, and played the tortured nature of Gollum. Pete was giggling away, and I thought, ‘OK.’ I think they were just really tickled by what I was doing. Pete was sort of crawling around too with his camera and filming it from various different angles and all sorts of different ways of shooting it.”
“Gradually they asked me to play the former role of Smeagol, before he becomes Gollum. Once that had happened, they decided to redesign the whole of Gollum’s face just around my features. Then my performance was filmed on 35mm for every scene, and then the animators, using faders… would then match every single facial expression of mine. In fact, when I first saw the first fully re-sculpted version of Gollum, it absolutely, totally looked like my dad, which was kind of freaky and extraordinary and made sense really. Now I know what I’m going to look like when I’m … you know, 22 years older.”
The Two Towers packs its 179 minutes with a slew of memorable moments and sequences – chief among them the 40-minute-long climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep, still considered by many the greatest battle committed to film. Yet it’s the dialogue between Gollum and Smeagol, a tortured, moonlit exchange between both sides of the one soul, that lingers. The almost photo-realistic realization of the creature impresses, but it’s the writing, sharp editing, and Serkis’s performance that make it more than just a memorable evolution in film technology.
“The evolution of the character changed en route. Rather than it just being Gollum, we teased out the notion of Gollum as being this almost schizophrenic personality, and we pushed the voice in different directions. Working with Fran Walsh, and [co-writer] Philippa Boyens as well, we pushed the notion of Gollum being the more visceral, brutal kind of survivor character and Smeagol being the young, innocent sibling, if you like – abused sibling. I had to find for myself something tangible, something real, in the real world, so that the power of the Ring would resonate, and so for me it was really about addiction. Gollum is basically an addict or a Ring junkie. His physicality as such was very much based on someone suffering the terrible physical symptoms of a very strong addiction. It’s tearing the body apart and tearing the mind apart, and the decrepitude of his body and the tortured, twisted, emaciated look was the externalizing of what was going on inside his mind and soul. Then Philippa and Fran pushed the writing to really embolden those ideas, and that was exemplified with the scene in The Two Towers where Gollum literally talks to himself.”
“At that time we couldn’t do on-set, physical motion capture. That was something that’s actually happened since. For instance, in the Apes movies that I was involved in, we had direct capture on set with motion-capture cameras in the trees – on location, capturing everything in one take. At that point, in the early stages, especially in The Two Towers, I would have to go back onto a motion-capture stage and repeat [the scene] a third time [after shooting it first with the other actors, then again reading lines out of frame with the other actors shooting it]. I would have to then do my performance again on my own in a motion-capture stage. We shot [the scene of Gollum and Smeagol talking] on a location, so the tree that he used and the rocks that he was sort of hiding behind and going either side of in the first few shots, that was all built. That was a real set, and we shot all that on a location, doing that two-part process. We constructed the whole scene like that, with the fallen log and Gollum eventually jumping down and spinning around with all the leaves and all of that being kicked up. It was maybe a month later that we went back into the motion-capture stage and we were able to refine that.”
“There was rewriting. The thing is with Fran and Philippa and Pete, there’s always a sort of constant rewriting of the script and evolving the script, and with every take they’re looking for something new and something fresh in the moment. Also, from a writing point of view, once they’ve shot something, they like to be able to go back in, and with performance capture you have that ability. That is one of the joyful things about performance capture: the ability to completely improvise and try something different, and keep going and keep going and exploring, without the pressure of being on a live-action film set. You’re not going to run out of film, you don’t have to change lights, you don’t have to do anything. You can just concentrate on performance, which is an amazing thing.”
The Lord of the Rings trilogy would make almost $3 billion worldwide, and its conclusion, The Return of the King, would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (the two previous films were also nominated in the category, but neither won). The trilogy’s impact on film, and studio decision-making, was huge: the 2000s saw a number of fantasy titles get the green light, Jackson would later return to Middle-earth with The Hobbit films, and viewers of TV smash Game of Thrones say its makers owe much to what Jackson and his team put into cinemas every December between 2001 and 2003. For Serkis, The Lord of the Rings was life-changing; he would become the go-to actor for performance-capture roles, starring in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequels as Caesar, as King Kong in Jackson’s 2005 take on that classic story, and he would direct his own film, Mowgli, which would push technology to new places. With each step, the technology advanced and the wow-factor intensified – what remained constant was the strength of the Serkis performance driving it.
“The first epiphany moment for me, where I realized how much I loved performance capture, or motion capture as it was at the time, was being on the motion-capture stage and seeing in real time: If I lifted up my arm, Gollum would lift his. I could see a gray-shaded model of Gollum lifting up his arm, and that for me cemented this affair, really, with the technology, and the realization of what it could actually do. It allows an actor to actually play anything. It opened up so many possibilities for me over the last two decades.”
“I’ll never forget [when I first saw the character on the big screen]. It was at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York; it was at the world premiere of The Two Towers. The movie just was so potent and powerful, with the halls of Helm’s Deep. Politically where we were – it was just post-911 and there was this sense of doom, of just the world changing. The world seemed so fractured and dangerous and frightening, and seeing that film, it just felt so much like it was reflecting that in some way. It was a very potent experience; such an amazing experience seeing it with a live audience. I did have this extraordinary experience when [the scene with Gollum and Smeagol talking] came up. I could literally feel the audience leaning in and just, like, not quite sure what this was. They couldn’t quite work it out. Was this an actor? Was this a creature? Literally people were leaning forward in their seats – it was like real hairs-on-the-back of the neck stuff, actually.”
“That character for me defined a big, big turning point in my career, and opened up a huge world. You know, there isn’t a single day that goes past when someone doesn’t come up to me and talk to me about Gollum. I mean, it really is quite extraordinary. He’s a beloved character, because I think everyone feels something for him. They either feel something very strongly about him, towards him, or they kind of feel themselves to be like him in some way. I think that’s why people do respond to that character, that there is self-recognition in there – we’re not all heroes, we are flawed.”