20 Questions With…Andy Serkis

Andy Serkis, just opened in A Lie of the Mind, happily follows in the acting traditions of Harvey Keitel & the late Oliver Reed.

Sometimes likened to the late Oliver Reed in his youth, actor Andy Serkis has electrified audiences with his portrayals of tortured individuals who often harbour a taste for violence.

Like Reed, he has played Bill Sykes (in the 1999 television adaptation of Oliver Twist), while on stage he has been explosive as menacing characters such as Dogboy in April De Angelis’ Hush and Phil in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly.

He is currently starring as Jake – whose savage beating of his wife Beth, sends both characters fleeing back to their own troubled families for comfort and protection – in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, directed by Wilson Milam.

Date & place of birth
Born in London on 20 April 1964.

Now lives in…
Crouch End, north London.

Professional training
I did a degree at Lancaster University in Visual Arts that became Theatre Studies.

First big break
Privates on Parade, directed by Jonathan Petherbridge at the Duke’s Playhouse in Lancaster. I joined the local rep at the Duke’s Playhouse and did about 14 productions over a year and a half. That’s where I got my equity card and learnt my craft as an actor.

Career highlights
On stage, Hush (1993) and Mojo (1995), both at the Royal Court, and Hurlyburly (1997) at the Old Vic and the Queen’s Theatre in the West End.

On television, playing Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist (1999) and a Geordie gangster in Finney (1994), directed by David Hayman.

On film, Topsy Turvy (1999), directed by Mike Leigh, and still to come, The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which I provide the voice and physicality for Gollum.

Favourite stage production that you’ve worked on
The two I’ve most enjoyed were Hurlyburly and Mojo. Wilson Milam (who directed Hurlyburly) has great skill in bringing non-British theatre to life. With him, there is always more than one point of focus on stage at any one time. As an actor, that approach actually helps the focus rather than detracting from it. And Mojo, by Jez Butterworth, was just fantastically well written.

With Mojo, you recreated your stage role on film. How did the two versions compare?
You can’t really compare them, they were so totally different. I think it’s very difficult to bring stage writing to the screen. You listen to a play and you watch a film. Although the screen version brought our different strengths in the story, for me, the film of Mojo was not as successful as the play.

Favourite co-star
Matt Bardok (Mojo) and Rupert Graves (Hurlyburly), who’s a good friend. What I’ve learnt from my years of acting is that drama is created by tension between two people. That’s especially so on stage. Film is so much more fractured so it’s easy to lose that reciprocity between actors.

Favourite director
That’s so hard to name one. I have a list which, for stage, includes Wilson Milam, Max Stafford-Clark (King Lear at the Royal Court), Jonathan Petherbridge and Braham Murray (at Manchester’s Royal Exchange). There isn’t just one style that makes a director successful. I mean, you couldn’t get farther apart in approach than Wilson Milam and Max Stafford-Clark. You learn reams from so many different directors and different philosophies to acting; you draw from them all.

Favourite playwright
David Rabe (Hurlyburly), Ben Jonson, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard and Tony Marchant.

What role would you most like to play (if you haven’t already)?
Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire), Macbeth and Peer Gynt.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
They’ve just got to fund regional theatre and provide more support in areas where theatre is dwindling. I do believe that what we are doing has great relevance to the community. I’ve always thought of acting as being paid to go research something on behalf of society and then come back and show what you found out.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Jazz legends John Coltrane or Charlie Parker in the mid-1950s and 60s when the waves of this great musical revolution were being strongly felt.

Favourite book

  • Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  • Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietszche

  • The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

    Favourite after-show haunt
    Black’s or Century

    Favourite holiday destination
    Anywhere where there are mountains. My hobby is climbing.

    What do you like about the Internet?
    I think it’s a fantastic tool for writing and character work. I’ve found whole theses online for real-life characters I’ve played. It’s also great for researching holidays.

    If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have been?
    A painter.

    Why did you want to accept your role in A Lie of the Mind?
    It seemed a natural progression from playing Phil in Hurlyburly, my last stage role. There were resonances, not least because Harvey Keitel played both roles on stage – in the same order and with a similar gap of time off between. Unlike with Phil (who commits suicide), what happens to Jake is very unexpected. He is able to face his demons and find some kind of altruism in the end. I also wanted to work with Wilson again.

    There seems to be a recurrence of violent and abusive characters in your career. Why do you think that is?
    I have played a wide variety of roles, but it’s true that violence is a theme that seems to revisit me. I suppose I’ve got a rage that’s able to be tapped into. I’m not afraid to visit the dark side of my psyche and to allow it to come to the surface.

    A Lie of the Mind is, in many ways, very American. Do you think it could work transplanted to a British setting?
    Of course. It’s a mentality. It’s about dysfunctional families and we have plenty here, too.

    Have you enjoyed working on A Lie of the Mind?
    As an acting experience, it’s not really something you enjoy because the play is very elusive to perform. There’s not one member of the cast who can come off the stage at the end of a night and say “I’ve cracked it”. It’s like dancing on glass. The characters are so screwed up and hateful but really wanting to love each other at the same time. They do all need each other. I’ve never really felt this way about a part before, it’s a big challenge. The writing is very visceral – it needs a lot of attack.

    Anything else you’d like to add?
    Yes, please tell your readers to turn off their mobile phones in the theatres. One goes off every single night and it’s always at the worst possible moment in the scene.

    Andy Serkis was talking to Terri Paddock

    A Lie of the Mind, also starring Sinead Cusack and Catherine McCormack, continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 1 September 2001.