We chat to Hollywood actor and former Lancaster University student Andy Serkis about his role in the new film War For The Planet of the Apes – which has been released at the same time as the 30th anniversary of him appearing in the debut Dukes Williamson Park outdoor promenade play.
Playing a young ape nearly killed him. Well, from a physical point of view, at least.
But that hasn’t stopped Andy Serkis blazing a trail in his role as Caesar, the leader of the genetically enhanced primates who have survived to remind humans how to be, well, human again.
Serkis, 53, returns for the third chapter of the rebooted sci-fi franchise, which began in 2011 with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and continued three years later with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.
Middlesex-born Andy has strong ties with Lancaster, having studied visual arts, theatre studies, theatre design and movement at the university and during his early acting days appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Williamson Park for the Dukes, for whom he is now an honorary patron.
In fact as the film star prepares for the release of the new movie, he found time to send a good luck video message to the Dukes ahead of the 30th anniversary production of Treasure Island in the park, which began on July 4.
“Congratulations for getting the show on and I hope that Treasure Island goes really well this summer,” he said.
“Good luck to all the crew and cast and the whole team.”
Andy said he couldn’t believe it was 30 years since he appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“I’ve got such amazing and fond memories of putting on that show and I long to come back and see another one,” he said.
While studying at Lancaster University he’d worked with the Dukes designers, helped paint sets and eventually appeared in student productions there around 1983.
Then after leaving university, he applied for a job at the Dukes, appearing in 14 plays overall.
The star played Florizel in A Winter’s Tale, was in The Dresser, Volpone, The Good Person of Szechwan, Pravda and a number of pantomimes including Red Riding Hood.
Serkis played Lysander in the first ever Dukes outdoor promenade production in the park.
At the time he lived in Bailrigg Farm farmhouse near Lancaster University and later rented a room in Hornby Castle and lived in a flat on Lune Street.
After leaving the Dukes in 1987 he started working for other regional theatres and did a production of Bouncers at Hull Truck Theatre Company which went up to the Edinburgh Festival and did a tour of Ireland, before moving on to the Bolton Octagon and the Sheffield Crucible.
Serkis then went to the Royal Exchange in Manchester and worked on Macbeth among other productions.
His career continued to go from strength to strength and he later found worldwide fame not only for traditional acting roles but also for his work in motion capture acting for computer-generated or animated characters.
Some of his most celebrated roles have included Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and also starred in King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and played the role of Ian Dury in Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
He will also play Supreme Leader Snoke in the next Star Wars film – The Last Jedi, due for a Christmas release.
Now in the latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes film franchise, the apes are still co-existing alongside the humans who’ve also survived the storm of Simian Flu.
Twelve years have passed since the virus, ALZ-113, changed the face of humanity and Caesar, his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) and their children - Blue Eyes (Max Lloyd-Jones) and Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) - are living in exile in the woods with the rest of the apes. Tranquillity is a short-lived luxury as one tragic event will trigger a showdown of epic proportions between the apes and humans.
For some stars, pinning their flags to the mast of one franchise for such a long time would be a burden, but not for Serkis.
“Look,” he says frankly, “it’s so rare that you get an opportunity as an actor to play a character all the way from birth through to late maturity, over the course of three movies. It’s a real luxury.”
But the actor has also found this storyline to be the most challenging of them all.
“In the respect that Caesar has been this empathetic leader who is trying to find peace between apes and humans and suddenly all of that is turned on its head when the events that happen at the beginning of the movie throw him wildly off course and he turns into this revengeful killer,” he said.
“This one has been hugely taxing - in a good way.”
For Serkis, switching back into ape mode is both the known and the unknown.
“It’s interesting because on the one hand I feel like I know it well - I do know Caesar very well, but as the films have progressed he is changing, evolving, from a chimpanzee that we see right at the beginning of Rise, through to an evolving ape who is also in charge of creating a society in Dawn, to this almost human-like character in War where he is beginning to speak more like a human,” he says.
And, of course, there’s the physicality of it all which sees the actors who play apes mimicking their body language and posture to the closest degree.
Through performance capture it’s all translated digitally on to the big screen.
The latest film featured a technological first for the franchise, when they used performance capture in adverse weather conditions.
Luckily for Serkis in this film, Caesar is now an adult, meaning less time spent hobbled over as a youthful ape.
“Yeah, that was the one good thing about this one,” he recalls.
“Actually, the most difficult part of Caesar’s life was portraying him when he was young, when he was literally a young chimpanzee, and that physically nearly killed me.
“But as he’s got older, he’s my age basically, he has become more upright. Still in this movie, you’ll see Caesar quadrupedal-ling fast to run away from things, but actually in essence he’s more upright, which is fine by me.”
War For The Planet Of The Apes is in cinemas now.
*Some photographs of Andy and other members of the cast and crew of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1987 are currently on display in The Dukes gallery.
They feature in the latest exhibition - 30 X 30 – which includes behind-the-scenes photographs from last year’s awardwinning walkabout production of The Hobbit and pictures taken during the preparations for Treasure Island, taken by Lancaster’s Darren Andrews.
The exhibition runs until August 13 and can be viewed during normal Dukes opening hours.
For tickets to see Treasure Island, which runs until August 12, ring 01524 598500, or visit www.dukes-lancaster.org .