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The importance of being Gollum

Andy Serkis tells of 'LotR' experience in book

By Todd Leopold

Underneath Gollum's computer-generated skin is a completely fleshed-out character, courtesy of Andy Serkis.

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Andy Serkis
Elijah Wood
Peter Jackson

(CNN) -- About three weeks' work.

That's what Andy Serkis' agent told the actor in 1999 when he was first offered the role of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films. "They want to see you for the voice for an animated character," he was told.

More than four years later, Serkis' work as Gollum was finally done. And he was far more than a "voice for an animated character."

Gollum, in fact, was a groundbreaking computer-generated character, equal parts Serkis' strangled, haunted voice, his classical acting and the latest computer technology.

The actor's full-bore performance has earned talk of an Oscar nomination and a loyal fan base known to mutter "My precioussss" in Serkis' distinctive gasp (inspired by a hairball-coughing cat).

Although it didn't turn out to be a three-week lark -- something Serkis knew from his first meeting with director Peter Jackson and Jackson's partner and "Lord of the Rings" co-writer Fran Walsh -- he thought it would be something special. With the encouragement of Walsh, he started keeping a journal.

Serkis has now chronicled his experience in a new book, "Gollum: How We Made Movie Magic" (Houghton Mifflin).

"I knew it would be a fascinating, unpredictable journey as an actor," he said in a phone interview from New York. "There had never been a CGI character like this before, and the way the technology would evolve with the character ... it was uncharted waters."


When the journey began, Serkis was an established British actor, having performed in a variety of UK television series and movies -- the best-known in America being Mike Leigh's film about the making of "The Mikado," "Topsy-Turvy."

But between the start of filming of "Rings" part one, "The Fellowship of the Ring," and the release of part three, "The Return of the King," Gollum turned out to be an almost all-consuming job. Principal photography took 18 months; motion capture was another year.

(Ever the actor, Serkis couldn't resist a couple roles during a break in filming, including a performance in "24 Hour Party People.")

Moreover, Serkis was often alone with his lines and his character during that period. Jackson had as many as seven units filming all over New Zealand, and Gollum had no contact with many characters.

Serkis at the New York premiere of "Return of the King."

Much of Serkis' shoot was spent solely with Sean Astin (Sam) and Elijah Wood (Frodo) -- if anybody. He spent much of that time wearing silly-looking bodysuits for the benefit of the technology -- a pale green one on set, a black one with several reflective dots for motion capture -- which made acting an even greater challenge.

And the actor didn't see his England-based family much until they followed him to New Zealand in late summer 2000.

But the solitary experience suited Serkis just fine -- most of the time.

"It was partly self-isolating, and I needed to feel that for the character," he says of a figure he describes as "a deeply lonely creature." To that end, the endless sessions with the tech people -- or by himself -- were beneficial, he adds.

And Serkis put himself through alienating experiences to add to the image: shaving off his hair at one point, or taking a solo canoe trip through the New Zealand wilderness.

On the other hand, the isolation could be frustrating -- particularly when it came to the kind of interaction an actor requires.

Because of all the pieces a Gollum scene required, Serkis never got to complete a scene on any particular day.

"As an actor you thrive on that," he notes. "[But] I'd give a performance on the set, and it would be two or three years before it was finished."

'They're as helpless as a child'

Nevertheless, Serkis struggled to make Gollum as human -- and humane -- as possible.

"He needed to hit the audience hard emotionally. People associate with him in strong ways," he says, adding that Gollum is comparable to any addict in thrall to his or her addiction.

'They're as helpless as a child'

"People like that cannot help themselves. You realize that the addiction is so strong, they're as helpless as a child."

Serkis also wanted to keep the audience off balance. Initially, Gollum appears to be the dark side of Smeagol, in the movie a wealthy hobbit scion who kills his cousin for the Ring and is consumed by the Ring's power.

But appearances can be deceiving, says Serkis -- as he saw in his own young children. They appear to be all innocence and light, but "then you realize how manipulative they are," he says, laughing.

With Gollum, Serkis has practically created a new style of acting -- one that is as intense as any conventional movie performance, but with the added overlay of CGI. Many critics don't know how to classify the performance, and neither does the Motion Picture Academy, which hands out the Oscars.

"If anything the debate is open now," he says. "I might have to satisfy myself with waking people up to the fact that this is acting. It might take some thinking outside the box."

But, he adds, he knows exactly what he did and all the challenges involved.

"I played Gollum," he says emphatically. "And I wouldn't have done it any other way."

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