The release of Peter Jackson's new film The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on 12th December may not appear to link to the climbing world, but Andy Serkis - the voice of the sly yet incredibly popular character of Gollum - is a keen climber and mountaineer, even managing a multipitch route in New Zealand during the hectic filming of Lord of the Rings...
Here we have an exclusive interview with Andy by Dominic Green.
Andy Serkis, the man behind the voice and character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, has carved out a unique place in the world of film. He has built a reputation as the world’s foremost performer in the highly specialised world of Digital Performance Capture, with roles such as King Kong, Captain Haddock in Tin Tin and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise. He has also won plaudits as a serious character actor, with roles such as his Golden Globe Award-winning portrayal of Moors murderer Ian Brady, and Bafta-nominated performance as the artist and musician Ian Dury, in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.
A characteristic of his performances is the physical range he expresses. It is not surprising that Andy turns out to be a keen climber. UKC first met with Andy during the press junket for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film which showcases both his technological specialism, and his unique physical performance ability. He was delighted to take time out of a hectic press junket for an opportunity to talk about one of his great passions. With Andy, you get a sense of genuine warmth and humility, and straight away his love of climbing is apparent. We caught up with him again just recently:
“It’s not something that I’ve really spoken about before, but when I was about eight, I read the book by John Hunt about the ascent of Everest, as I rode the Tube to school in Ruislip, and I remembered deciding there and then, that I was going to be a climber. Soon after, I was able to go on Saturdays to the Brunel Climbing Wall near where I lived. It was one of the first climbing walls, just bricks sticking out of the wall of a gymnasium! Then when I was thirteen, my teacher Marek Nalewajko and four or five of us keen pupils started a mountaineering club at my school, St Benedicts’s and we would go to Wales, the Lakes and the Peak District. From the age of 16, we went to Grindelwald, Stubai, the French Alps. The climax was a Royal Geographical Society schools expedition to Iceland when we mapped some of the Glacier and did some climbing too.”
Having scoped out various options for his B.A, Andy decided that the best option for him would be to attend Lancaster University based on its accessibility to the climbing in the Lake District. This was a pivotal decision for another reason: during his degree in Visual Art, Andy made an incidental, but important discovery: Acting. After graduating, Andy followed a career in theatre, and with the inevitable nomadic lifestyle of an actor, climbing had to take second place.
“I was working on a play at the Crucible in Sheffield in ’93, but I wasn’t able to hook up with climbing partners. Stanage was tantalisingly close. In Amongst Giants (1996), I played the one character who is afraid of heights! On that occasion the whole cast were taken on an intensive roped access training course prior to shooting, which was great fun.”
A particular high point for Andy came in the form of a solo ascent of the Matterhorn in 1996, after which fatherhood, and an increasingly demanding acting career took over. A few stolen opportunities to climb have, however, come his way. During filming in Vancouver on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Andy managed to squeeze in a few routes on the Chief, in nearby Squamish B.C., and more recently several days climbing in Grindelwald.
“I remember doing a big multi pitch route in New Zealand early on in the filming of Lord of the Rings, but family and work commitments were playing on my mind the whole time. Nowadays I take my kids to the wall every now and then and we get out to the hills. I had promised myself that this year, as I turned fifty, I’d take the family to the Himalayas to do some trekking, but…” (Andy gestures towards all the Planet of the Apes promotional paraphernalia dotted around the room) “… maybe not next year, but the year after!”
The enthusiasm hasn’t left him, though.
“I’d love to climb more in New Zealand. I was directing Second Unit on The Hobbit and we were flying over Mount Cook getting some Aerial footage. I’d love to go back and climb Mount Aspiring, but so far there’s never been enough time in the schedule.”
"Nowadays I enjoy just going down to the climbing wall with the family. Bouldering, routes, mountains - it doesn’t matter what the scale is, I love it all really."
Future projects are flying in the door, and he is currently directing a version of The Jungle Book. Animal Farm comes next, and there is a passion-project of his own in development, based around the early Victorian alpine-climbing pioneers, that he hopes to direct in the near future. When asked what his favourite climbing films are:
“Very few mountaineering films are truly successful, but Touching the Void was a powerful and moving piece, and I thought Nordwand was very good. But I love climbing movies, even some of the dodgy ones!”
When asked for particular highlights from his own climbing life, Andy struggles to pick out one individual experience.
“The Matterhorn is a standout moment for me, but I loved climbing the Grossglockner and the Acherkogel in Stubai. I love the Lakes, especially Borrowdale, and winter climbing on Great End. Nowadays I enjoy just going down to the climbing wall with the family. Bouldering, routes, mountains - it doesn’t matter what the scale is, I love it all really.”
Watch the trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies below:
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