Enthusiastic genre fans thrust a new generation of stars into limelight

Freddy Krueger slashing his way through Elm Street, Gollum coveting his ring, Hellboy protecting mankind from all manner of demons, and the “Pan’s Labyrinth” Pale Man staring through the eyes in his palms: They’re among the most memorable movie characters of recent times, and yet, ironically, the actors who’ve portrayed them are virtually anonymous, except to the most rabid fans.

That’s because those actors — Robert Englund, Andy Serkis, Doug Jones and Ron Perlman, respectively — willingly submerge themselves in their characters, totally disappearing under layers of sophisticated prosthetics, often now augmented by complex combinations of digital effects, puppetry and electronics.

“The one place I get recognized is at comicbook geek-type conventions, where the fans have looked me up on Web sites and done their research,” laughs Jones, who happily admits to spending “the last 20 years under layers of makeup.” “At the local 7-Eleven, no one has a clue, and that’s nice, too.”

Englund, who first brought Freddy Krueger to terrifying life back in 1984, sees himself in a tradition that stretches all the way back to Hollywood’s Man of a Thousand Faces, Lon Chaney. “He was a huge influence on me as a kid,” Englund recalls. “He inspired me to take on Freddy and help push the envelope of what could be done.”

Jones isn’t so sure. “Creatures and makeup have been in movies since the very start,” the actor says. “What we have lost is the actor under all that makeup who’s famous for it.”

But Jones is part of a trend that’s reversing that perception. His work as the amphibious Abe Sapien character in “Hellboy” inspired director Guillermo del Toro to cast him as the titular faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” as well as the pic’s Pale Man. Jones also provided movement references for the Silver Surfer in Fox’s “Fantastic Four” sequel, although the character itself is being created digitally by WETA, director Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based f/x house.

“I was under the radar for 20 years, until ‘Hellboy,'” Jones says. “Now I’m suddenly getting a lot more attention, which is why the Lon Chaney/Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff comparisons are being made again — and that’s great to hear, as I’d love to have my name associated with them and their work.”

Working with motion-capture technology instead of makeup, British actor Serkis embodied Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the love-struck ape in “King Kong.” “I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when motion capture became such a big part of those two projects,” he notes, “because I see myself as a regular actor who just applied that craft to ‘virtual characterization.’ I don’t treat the acting any differently than a conventional role.”

But Serkis agrees that recent advances in CGI and related areas have made his job easier, “especially all the strides made with facial motion capture, even since we did ‘LOTR.'”

Serkis is such a fan of the technology’s possibilities that he recently directed all the motion capture performances for a new martial arts videogame, “Heavenly Sword,” at WETA.

“I think the craft of ‘cyber-acting’ is more widely accepted now. Look at ‘Beowulf,’ which is out soon and has actors of the caliber of Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, serious actors who’ve embraced the new technology.”

Initially, such advances sent out “a ripple of fear” in the community, Jones says. “When Jar Jar Binks debuted in ‘Star Wars,’ I think we all felt, ‘Are we going to now be totally replaced by computers?’ But it didn’t happen, thankfully, mainly because audiences still relate far more to real actors, even if they’re buried under makeup and costumes. And today, the blend of cutting-edge CG work with traditional makeup can give you a character like Davy Jones in ‘Pirates (of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)’ that could never have been done before.”

Like actor Jones, Englund feels that “the sky’s the limit now” in terms of what’s possible. “It used to be we’d go in and pitch horror and sci-fi/fantasy films and budget them low, but now thanks to CG and all the new prosthetic techniques, anything you imagine can be created. So that’s all changed.”

What hasn’t changed is the need “for the humanity and expressiveness” of a real actor, he stresses. “Films like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ have all these wonderful creatures, but they wouldn’t work without the talents of people like Andy Serkis and Doug Jones. In fact, I think Andy is the best thing in ‘King Kong.'”

“His work in that is truly revolutionary,” agrees Perlman, who characterizes his own work as “far more traditional. In fact, not much has changed for me with all the makeup since my first job, ‘Quest for Fire,’ back in ’80. It’s just more refined and sophisticated, and the rubber’s probably more supple than it was before.”

“I’ve also had the good luck to work with the best in the business,” says Perlman, who in the late-’80s skein”Beauty and the Beast” appeared for three seasons in makeup designed by six-time Oscar winner Rick Baker. “When a genius like Rick Baker does the makeup for ‘Hellboy,’ all I had to do was think of something and it’d read on my face. It allows you to see everything I’m thinking. It’s a mysterious alchemy at work.”

Perlman, who cites Charles Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as his childhood inspiration, is thankful for the offscreen anonymity that many of his roles afford. “I can live a completely normal life,” he reports. “I can go shopping or whatever, and few people recognize me, except at comicbook conventions.”

It was the fictional character who seemed to get all the attention. “Even hardcore comicbook readers didn’t know about Hellboy,” notes the actor, currently workin on “Hellboy 2.” “He was this incredibly obscure comicbook character, but the film changed all that and tripled readership worldwide.”

“I get recognized a lot,” offers Serkis, who started attending conventions to promote “Rings” and “King Kong,” including the “very surreal” Elf Fantasy Convention in Amsterdam, where he encountered 10,000 people dressed as elves. “Ultimately, it’s not about all the special effects — it’s about great stories and characters. And often that means a very subtle mix of digital work and the physical reality of makeup and so forth, and using those tools to tell the story.”

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