Lefties among us might recognise Andy Serkis. Of course he was bug-eyed hobbit Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Sure, he gave us a supremely tender King Kong. Yes, he was terrifyingly eloquent as serial killer Ian Brady in the television drama Longford, horribly creepy as French prisoner Rigaud in Little Dorrit and simply monstrous as the interrogator in Extraordinary Rendition. But there's something else. Wasn't he the fella who sold the Socialist Worker on the streets of London back in the early 90s?
Serkis says it was his days in the SWP, and his subsequent rejection of the party line, that made him the actor he is today. As a young socialist he was angry about so much: Thatcher, unemployment, racism, you name it. Actually, his anger went back further. As a little boy he was so angry, throwing such tantrums, that his three older sisters had to hold him down while he kicked, punched and raged. He's not sure what he was angry about then, but thinks it might be something to do with his absent father, an Iraqi gynaecologist of Armenian descent who stayed in Baghdad, opened a hospital, and was briefly imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime, while his English wife brought up the Serkis clan in Ruislip, Middlesex.
After A-levels, Serkis went to university to study visual art (he still paints) and set the world to rights. The politicised Serkis believed the world was black and white, and when he joined the SWP he thought he'd found his true home – here was a party founded on absolute certainties. But at the same time Serkis was developing as an actor, and found his political ideology coming into conflict with his professional evolution. As an actor, he discovered moral ambiguity was all. Yes, he was attracted to bad men, but he wanted to humanise his killers and blackmailers and all-round no-gooders. He even wanted to try to make us understand what motivates a paedophile serial killer such as Ian Brady. He felt he had to make a choice between the SWP and acting.
We've arranged to meet at a north London pub. As I cross the road, I see him walk off, so I follow at a distance, like a private eye. Has he done a runner before we've even met? He's wearing a black leather jacket, black trousers, his hair is dyed black, his eyes are Jesus blue. He strides purposefully and looks a little menacing, as he so often does in films or on stage. Eventually, he stops for the traffic lights to change. I tap him on the shoulder, tell him I'm supposed to be interviewing him.
He gives me a confused look, then smiles. It's the same warm, childlike smile he uses to disarm us when he's playing nasty bastards. "Ah, it's just the pub wasn't open yet. I was looking for another one." We head off up the street and he leads me to an alternative – small, scruffy, with a handful of people gathered round the racing on TV. Serkis has got an amazing face. When he smiles, he's charming, sexy, handsome. When he snarls, he's world-class ugly. Few actors have such elastic features – somehow he can stretch his nose, repoint his chin, flesh out his lips to order.
Now he is playing Ian Dury, the rock'n'roll wordsmith with a polio gait, in the film Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. It's a classic Serkis part, wonderfully played – the beautiful grotesque who championed disabled people while raging against his misfortune, the drug-addled philanderer and loving father, the twisted cynic who can't hide his romantic optimism. As so often, Serkis inhabits the character (he even sings Dury's songs) rather than plays him. So much so that it's a surprise when I see he's not limping today.
We're sat down on battered chairs, a pint of bitter each, and he still seems to be talking the Ian Dury talk – 'eavy, gruff, nice'n'sleazy, 'alf cockney geezer. That's the thing about his kind of acting – you can't simply pick up characters and drop them at will. Before playing King Kong, he studied gorillas in captivity at London Zoo, then went to Rwanda to observe them in the wild. When he played a City spiv in Mike Leigh's Career Girls, he spent months working with dealers, cut off contact from his friends and had to learn to play the violin (his contribution was eventully cut down to one scene, which didn't include the violin). "I was actually trading, and in the end they offered me a job. They said you'll be on £80,000 a year, plus bonuses." How much was he earning then as an actor? "Ooh, er, like, nothing."
When he and his wife to be, fellow actor Lorraine Ashbourne, were playing lovers in Your Home In The West in 1991 at Manchester's Royal Exchange, they decided to research their roles by meeting up for real in character and imagining their first time out together. They got off with each other, in character, and have been together ever since. As Gollum, it wasn't enough to play a troubled hobbit with a weird voice; he had to know where his pain came from. "His voice was based on our cat coughing up fur balls," Serkis says.
For the Dury film, he spent months walking with a heavy 70s-style calliper attached to his leg and working out only on the right side of his body." He's been left with back pain, and a "massive weird muscle" has developed in his groin. "I'm still recovering from it all."
As a young man, Serkis adored Dury – he was so witty, original and had overcome so much. Then he met him. "He was obnoxious. We were in a Chinese restaurant and he slagged eveybody off and was just an arse, you know. And that same night, Mickey Gallagher, who was one of [Dury's band] the Blockheads but was caring for him, just went, 'Fuck this, I'm not doing it any more', and he left Ian on the pavement outside the hotel."
But that's what Serkis loved about Dury – he was anything but a sanitised victim, and the film would never suggest he was. "I knew we weren't going to be painting a glorified picture of a stoic underdog, it was going to be warts and all. And when we started showing early drafts to Sophie and Baxter [Dury's second wife and oldest son], they were like, 'He's so much darker, so much more of a cunt than this. You've got to get down and dirty with this.' So we thought, great, if they're prepared to take off the boxing gloves, so will we."
Whenever he takes on a character, he looks for what they have in common, and Serkis, 45, says the two men share a near obsessive drive to fulfill themselves creatively. "Ian knows there's only a certain amount of time we have on this planet, and if you've got a family, there are going to be casualties. There isn't a moral to the story, but it's like, be magnificent in the short amount of time you've got. And I think I live my life by that code, but we also have real life to deal with. Where the Venn diagram crosses over between me and Ian is wanting to do the very best you can in the short space of time you've got, but give everything you can equally to the people you love and who are your life. That's a really difficult thing."
It seems to be a conflict very much at the heart of Serkis's life. He and Lorraine have three children; he loves chasing them round the house, playing monsters, and is desperately aware that he is not there for them as often as he would like to be. (He spent nearly two years in New Zealand shooting Lord Of The Rings, and is soon off again to shoot The Hobbit.) And sometimes, he says, even when he is there, he isn't really because he's lost in a character. "You're watching your kids playing football and you're not present. It's like the worst...it's horrible. I despise myself for it." He says it with a quiet, shocking intensity, stands up and gets the next round in. "I think it's a particularly male thing. Being present and in the moment with your kids is something a lot of men struggle with."
We're talking politics and compromise. He's no longer in the SWP, but still thinks of himself as being on the left. At the 2003 Oscars, he brought along for company a "No War For Oil" banner. He and Lorraine recently argued about education – he believes in state education, she favours private. Lorraine won.
As he worried that his mind was not open enough in his SWP days, he now worries that his mind is too open. He tells me how he tried to get into the head of Moors murderer Ian Brady. "When I played him, I thought, what's the most beautiful thing that's happened in my life? Well, it was witnessing my three children being born at home in a birthing pool in my living room, and I thought, well, for Ian Brady, the most beautiful thing must have been taking life away from a child."
A chill runs through my veins. That's horrible, I say. Serkis nods. "I know, it's a really scary thought, but if you take the role on, you have to go down that route."
Does he find at times he's unsure what he actually believes because he's borrowing a character's moral code? He smiles. "I do listen to myself sometimes and think, is my moral compass so easily swayed by the characters I play, or is it me growing as a human being?"
He loves acting, he says, and does not intend to give it up, but he is turning more towards directing. He made a great little short film called Snake about a prostitute (played by his wife), tattoos, a mysterious bag of money and an unwanted kidney transplant. Filmed in black and white, it is creepy and cool and disturbingly funny.
Why is he focusing more on directing? Well, he says, it goes back to what we've been talking about. He would like to approach things more objectively, from a distance. He talks about the times he worked with Mike Leigh and couldn't tell his family what he was doing because those were the rules, and found himself leading a secret double life. And if you're attracted to difficult, often unpleasant characters, of course it's going to mess with your head. "The whole chameleon thing about acting. That's why I'm moving towards directing – it's a much more healthy occupation."
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll opens on January 8.
OMG YAY I didn't know he was officially signed on for The Hobbit. I adore him; I hadn't heard of this movie, but I wanna see it now.