Andy Serkis is best-known for his incredible performance-capture work in gigantic sci-fi blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings,The Hobbit, and the Planet of the Apes reboot series. So when the English actor first decided to direct a modestly budgeted period drama called Breathe, out in theaters Friday, some were a bit taken aback.
“I think people were surprised that I’ve decided to do this, but it is purely the subject matter and the emotional response I had to the script that made me want to do it,” Serkis told Vanity Fair earlier this week, while sitting on a Beverly Hills hotel patio. Serkis was wearing an elaborately embroidered polo shirt, and seemed to be enjoying a moment of relative calm. After promoting Breathe that afternoon, the actor was returning to work on 2018’s The Jungle Book, the visual-effects-heavy studio adaptation he is directing and starring in. Following that, Serkis will promote his work in another mega-budgeted project—the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars reboot Episode IX, which opens in theaters this December.
Breathe, which is on the opposite side of the genre spectrum, features Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as Robin’s devoted wife Diana, who stuck by her husband through his 1958 polio diagnosis and pushed him to live a productive life in spite of it. Together they campaigned to improve the lives of disabled people, while Cavendish helped to develop medical devices that would allow paralyzed people greater independence and mobility.
“I had no qualms about doing something that was completely different,” Serkis said. “Maybe it feels a little bit out of my wheelhouse to some people, but it certainly doesn’t for me.”
Serkis’s father was a doctor, he explained. His mother taught special-needs children. And his sister, who uses a wheelchair, has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 10 years. So when the actor’s friend, producer Jonathan Cavendish, presented him with the Breathe script about how his parents’ all-encomplassing love helped them overcome enormous obstacles, Serkis was so moved that his only option was to make the movie himself.
“What was amazing about this was that it was a very small film. We raised the money in seven weeks, and we shot it in seven weeks,” Serkis said. The immediacy of a live-action film, as opposed to the computer-generated spectacles in which he usually appears, was incredible for Serkis: “To be able to see actors’ performances in the can at the end of a day’s shooting and say, ‘We’ve got it. We’ve actually got it,’ rather than ‘I’ve gotta wait and see what this character’s gonna look like when it comes together in a year-and-a-half’s time’ was really thrilling.”
When we spoke to star Andrew Garfield, the actor revealed how the inspiring love story in the script, which was written by William Nicholson, helped him out of his own recent existential doldrums. And Serkis shared similar sentiments.
“It’s such an oppressive, overwhelming existence that we all have at the moment—hurricanes, fires, and mass shootings. The will to survive and regain control and live is what drew me to this story,” Serkis said. “This story first and foremost is about love and altruism, and giving yourself totally to someone because you love them.”
Serkis revealed that Cavendish’s son and widow “entrusted me to get the essence of what their relationship was and put that up on screen. So I never wanted to make a dark, dismal documentary of these people’s survival. That wasn’t them. It was about vibrancy and wit and humor, because that was their experience. I wanted to make it feel like an old-fashioned romantic movie and almost like a fairy tale at the beginning, when they get together and they fall in love.”
This period of professional vibrance could not have come at a stranger time for Serkis, who was prepping Breathe while giving one of his darkest motion-capture-performances yet—as the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: Episode IX.
“I actually shot a lot of what I was doing in Star Wars the few weeks leading up to me directing Breathe, so there was one rehearsal period where I literally came off set from Star Wars and had to cross through my trailer back into the production office,” said Serkis. Speaking about his approach to playing Snoke, Serkis explained, “The approach to this character was very much that this is someone who’s incredibly damaged. There’s a rage and a hatred that comes out of who he is and why he is. That character was a dark one to climb inside. It’s the antithesis of making something like this, which is just so life-affirming.”