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Published on December 5th, 2012 | by simeon

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Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis Talk About The Hobbit: An Incredible Journey

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Byline: IAN SPELLING

c.2012 Ian Spelling

Distributed by: The New York Times Syndicate

“Since the end of `The Lord of the Rings,’ Gollum has never really, really left me,” says Andy Serkis, who played the bug-eyed, distrustful and ring-obsessed Gollum in Peter Jackson’s 2001-2003 trilogy. “Every day, in some way, shape or form, I’m confronted by him.”

It was only natural, then, that Serkis return for an encore engagement in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The first installment in the “Hobbit” trilogy, due for nationwide release on Dec. 14, reunites Serkis with Jackson, who directed him in “The Lord of the Rings” and also in “King Kong” (2005), and who produced “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011), for which Serkis voiced two characters. Jackson utilized motion-capture technology to record Serkis’ performances in those films. The process is now referred to as performance-capture technology, and it also was used to render Serkis’ remarkable portrayal of Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), which many thought should have been Oscar-nominated.

“I’d been gearing up to do `The Hobbit’ for some time,” Serkis says, speaking by telephone from his London home. “There were a lot of delays. Once it was actually green for go, it was very funny and exciting, because the first scene we shot back in New Zealand was a scene with Gollum and Bilbo, with me and Martin Freeman. Martin was just discovering Bilbo. I think Pete chose that scene because, for a start, he wanted a chamber-piece scene that everyone could lock into, that the crew _ and it was practically all the same crew from `Rings’ _ could settle back into, that I could settle back into, with the performance-capture technology.

“It was probably very good for Martin, I think, to do this kind of scene,” he continues, “rather than having to do one with the enormous ensemble cast of dwarves and a wizard. It was the two of us, and so he just had me to focus on.

“Martin and I knew each other,” Serkis adds. “We’re both from the same part of London. We’d circled each other for years. So it was a great place to start, this 12- or 13-minute scene that, as I say, was like a chamber piece.

“Over the course of two weeks we shot it time and time again, in its entirety, from beginning to end pretty much,” Serkis recalls. “Pete just let it go and we played and explored. Martin and I bounced off each other and tried lots of different things.”

As well as he knew Gollum, and as well as he remembered what he had done in the past, Serkis nevertheless hit a roadblock. That roadblock, the easygoing actor says, was Gollum’s voice. What once was precious, pardon the pun, was now all too familiar.

“Having seen and heard so many impersonations people had done of Gollum, having had so many people ask me to do voices for them, having heard it done on `Saturday Night Live’ and seen so many manner of spoofs … I genuinely felt like I was doing an impersonation of myself,” Serkis says. “It took awhile to get over that. I got over it once I plugged into Gollum’s emotional center for the scene that was required.”

When audiences first met Gollum in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), he already was a decrepit, craven figure. In “The Return of the King” (2003), a flashback sequence depicted how Smeagol (Serkis), a hobbit who lived by the Gladden River, became corrupted by the One Ring and fled society, eventually going utterly mad. In “An Unexpected Journey” he lurks in the Misty Mountains, where he has gone to dodge the elements and to be alone in the dark with the One Ring, which obsesses him.

“He’s been there for half the millennium, and not communicated with anything other than the fish he’s tried to kill or the goblins he’s tried to eat,” Serkis says. “So we meet him for this scene in which Bilbo turns up, and the scene revolves around the loss of the ring, the loss of the most important thing to him, the only thing he cares for, really.

“The other significant thing is that we see Bilbo spare Gollum’s life,” Serkis continues. “That’s a seminal moment. Bilbo, in his attempt to escape, could’ve killed him. He lets Gollum live and, by doing so, ensures the destruction of the One Ring. Had he not done that, the power of the ring would have continued.

“It’s really a great scene,” the actor says. “The whole thing ostensibly takes place around these riddles, this battle of riddles between Gollum and Bilbo. They’ve made this pact that, if Gollum wins, he eats Bilbo, and if Gollum loses, he leads Bilbo out of the cave, which he would stick to because there’s a strict code about riddling.”

How much moviegoers will see of Gollum in the next two “Hobbit” adventures, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again,” remains to be determined. However, in any case Serkis will make his presence felt in the subsequent chapters: In addition to playing Gollum, he served as the production’s second-unit director and, as such, was on hand for the entire shoot and filmed in 3D and at 48 frames per second.

“It was all an enormous shock,” Serkis says, laughing “Pete has a habit of offering me these incredible opportunities at short notice. Four weeks before principal photography was to start, as I was getting ready to play Gollum, I got an email from Pete and (co-producer Fran Walsh) saying, `We’d like you to direct the second unit.’

“Pete has known for many years that I’ve been leaning toward directing, and he thought, in his wise way, that this would be a great opportunity for me,” says Serkis, who now owns his own performance-capture company and is set to direct a film version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” “Pete told me to make some bold choices. He knew that I’d been through the Middle-earth experience, that I shared his sensibility and taste, and understood exactly where he was coming from.

“Also, because the movie was so large and the cast was so large, second unit shared a lot of the responsibility,” Serkis concludes. “It wasn’t little pickups here and there. We shot for 200 days, with main unit and second unit sharing cast. We shot battle sequences, aerials, drama and the whole kit and caboodle.

“It was a big, big operation _ and a tremendous learning experience.”

(Ian Spelling is a New York-based freelance writer.)


Byline: IAN SPELLING

c.2012 Ian Spelling

Distributed by: The New York Times Syndicate

Ian McKellen took nothing for granted.

Sure, every fan of “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003) hoped McKellen would return to his Oscar-nominated role as the wizard Gandalf in “The Hobbit,” and more than a few quite vociferously insisted that “The Hobbit” could or shouldn’t be done without McKellen.

However, as the years passed while “The Hobbit” sat in stasis, McKellen’s age, schedule and wanderlust became factors, and when Guillermo del Toro agreed to direct a two-film version of “The Hobbit,” he was under no obligation to cast the British actor as Gandalf.

Fortunately it all worked out. McKellen read the script for “The Hobbit” and loved it. Del Toro was planning to retain him, but ultimately departed the project, opening the door for “Rings” master Peter Jackson to settle back into the director’s chair. Now “The Hobbit” will be a trilogy, with the first part, “An Unexpected Journey,” set to open nationwide on Dec. 14 with McKellen back in Gandalf’s robe, beard and wizard’s hat.

“In any job there are always pros and cons,” McKellen says. “It’s fairly rarely a simple matter of, `No, I don’t want to do it’ or `Yes, I do.’ There are all sorts of things involved, particularly with a part I’ve done before. In one sense that’s a little bit off-putting, because I like to be doing something new all the time, and this was going to be 18 months on and off.

“However, this would be going back to a familiar situation,” he continues. “I’d always enjoyed, enormously, working with Peter, and I love being in New Zealand. The material is sensational. The fans of Middle-earth just assumed that it’d be the same Gandalf, but I was under no illusions that another couldn’t play Gandalf.”

None of which means that he liked the idea, though.

“It wouldn’t be quite the same,” McKellen concludes, “and, frankly, I don’t want anyone else playing Gandalf. So there we are.”

In “The Lord of the Rings,” Gandalf sent a hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), eastward on a great quest. In “The Hobbit,” which is a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” he sends Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), eastward on a very different quest. Speaking by telephone from his home in London, his voice as authoritative as ever, McKellen stresses that he’s up to new and fresh business in “The Hobbit.”

“`The Hobbit,’ as a novel, is quite different in tone from `Lord of the Rings,’” he says. “`The Hobbit’ is an adventure story written for kids, and Tolkien wrote it in the first person. It was very much him introducing young people to the whole idea of Middle-earth. `Lord of the Rings’ is something much deeper and all-embracing. The four hobbits are off to save the world, to save civilization, as if they’re going off to fight a great world war. The dwarves (in “The Hobbit”) aren’t doing that. The dwarves are going to try and rescue their homeland, it’s true, but they’re also after all the gold that the dragon has stolen from them.

“Gandalf’s role is to help the dwarves do that,” McKellen says, “but, more than in the book, we get a sense of why Gandalf is interested in helping the dwarves. He’s already got a sense of a Middle-earth that’s beginning to change, that there’s something going on, and he can’t quite define what. There’s danger in the air. In the book he keeps leaving the dwarves and saying, `I’ll be back when you need me,’ and in the film you find out where he goes.”

OK, where does he go?

“He discovers an overall view of how the dwarves’ quest fits in with these changes in Middle-earth, which eventually lead on to `The Lord of the Rings,’” McKellen replies. “So Gandalf is part of the adventure, but he’s also looking after other matters as well and meeting up with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), and dealing with strange goings-on all over the place.

“So, particularly in the first film, it’s very interesting”

McKellen reports that he slipped back into character pretty easily and quickly. It was, in many ways, simply a matter of putting on his Gandalf costume and makeup.

“I couldn’t put on the old costume,” McKellen says, “because that, the original, is now preserved. It’s some sort of antique that may not be touched and is being held until eventually it ends up in a museum, I think. But the costume I wear is very much Gandalf of old. I got some black boots, which I’m pleased about, and which Tolkien mentions. I wear a silver scarf, which we didn’t in the first films.

“I think I felt that Gandalf had never actually left me, oddly enough,” McKellen says. “It wasn’t difficult to get back into the voice and the character, and the script was so strong. Also I played Gandalf the White in two of the `Rings’ films, and this is back to Gandalf the Gray, which is the Gandalf I prefer. He’s the one who likes to spend an evening drinking and smoking and having fun with the hobbits. He’s a more humane sort of a character.

“Andy Serkis was frightened that he was doing an imitation of himself as Gollum,” McKellen adds, “and I felt that too, a little bit. It didn’t take long to get over that, though, and the dwarves were very helpful because, when I walked onto the set as Gandalf, a couple of them said, `Oh, I really feel I’m a part of Middle-earth now that I’ve met the old wizard.’”

Gandalf figures most prominently in “An Unexpected Journey” However, McKellen will return to New Zealand in May for five weeks to shoot additional scenes for the next two installments, “The Desolation of Smaug” and “There and Back Again,” to be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Right now, though, after years of “Hobbit” delays and near-misses, the actor is pleased that moviegoers worldwide will be able to starting seeing “Hobbit” movies.

“I suppose I’m ready,” he says, “and I keep bumping into other people who can’t wait, whether it’s at my corner shop or someone in the street or on the subway or at Comic-Con in San Diego. At Comic-Con there were people sleeping overnight in order to see our presentation the following day, and I went out to visit with them. So I know the fans are all there, as keen as ever.

“It’s so very rare to make movies that you know people are desperate for,” McKellen concludes, “and you don’t want to disappoint anyone. So I’m as ready as I can be.”

(Ian Spelling is a New York-based freelance writer.)


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