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Playback: Andy Serkis on ‘Breathe,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Mourning’ for Caesar

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Whether you see his face in films like “The Prestige” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” or you don’t in franchises like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Planet of the Apes,” where his passion for performance-capture is on full display, Andy Serkis continues to blaze a trail through the industry. This year he’s somewhat ubiquitous, starring in the third “Apes” installment as well as jumping behind the camera for his directorial debut “Breathe.” He’ll also show up later this year as the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and again early next year in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.”

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

Breathe” came to Serkis through Jonathan Cavendish, his partner at London-based production company The Imaginarium. The story, about Cavendish’s father Robin who lived for nearly 40 years as a “responaut” requiring a mechanical device to breathe, made for one of the most emotional scripts Serkis had read.

“I went in the next day and said, ‘Look, Jonathan, I really want to direct this,’ and he didn’t bat an eye,” Serkis recalls. “I said, ‘Look, I know more my wheel house is orcs and elves and jungle animals and various other beings through performance-capture, but I really, really feel that I want to tell this story.’ And partly that was because I have a connection to the world of disability. My mother taught special needs kids, kids with polio in the 1970s and all these different diseases. My father was a doctor who set up a hospital in Baghdad. He’s Iraqi. And my sister, also, was an MS sufferer. So I felt very connected to looking at how people deal with when their lives are turned on a dime and they go from being normal, healthy human beings to having to deal with something as catastrophic as that.”

Earlier this year Serkis wrapped up his journey as Caesar in Fox’s revamped “Planet of the Apes” franchise. The final installment of the trilogy, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” remains one of the year’s best films and Serkis admits to feeling a touch of mourning for one of the most dynamic and meaningful characters he’s ever portrayed. The journey from film to film has been an epic one for him.

“The first film is very much about becoming a chimpanzee, and a chimpanzee-plus, because he’s got this drug coursing through his veins,” Serkis says of his approach. “In the second one he’s become this leader and father figure who’s the head of a community trying to avoid conflict. So I was looking all the time for external stimuli, you know, basing him on a real chimpanzee in the first film. In the second film I thought, ‘Who is a great leader I can model him on?’ In the third film, I didn’t really look further than myself, because Caesar has now become me in a way. The questions asked of me were how would I respond to the situation if my family had been mown down before my eyes and would I be able to be empathic toward that killer? This movie is all about empathy.”

Now Serkis’ attention will turn to his adaptation of “The Jungle Book.” The film, a performance-capture project, is in the middle of heavy post-production at the moment and has been testing under the title “Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book.”

“[That title is] not 100%, but it’s more than likely heading in that direction,” Serkis says. “Because it’s much more about that character. It’s a Mowgli-centric story. It’s about identity. The film really examines, in a tone that’s much closer to Rudyard Kipling’s book, what it is to be other.”

For more, including thoughts on his long-in-the-works “Animal Farm” adaptation and an attempt to pry “Star Wars” secrets out of him, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Andy Serkis photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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