Every generation, goes the traditional Hollywood saying, gets the Batman that it deserves. Some generations even get several different ones to choose from (this year, we can pick from Robert Pattinson, Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton). But what about the man behind the Bat? How do you bring new life to the role of dutiful butler Alfred, who has already been interpreted by Michael Gough (befuddled), Michael Caine (stiff upper lip), Jeremy Irons (exasperated), and Jack Bannon (kick-butt action hero)?
This was the challenge facing Andy Serkis when he joined The Batman, Matt Reeves’s intense, almost horror-film take on the caped crusader. Responsible for finding a new angle into Alfred, Serkis delivers a fiercely loyal Wayne family lieutenant, his devotion to Bruce undeniable. But repositioning Alfred for a new audience wasn’t Serkis’s only challenge: while filming The Batman, the actor best known to some as Gollum and others as Caesar the Ape was also handling post-production of his own comic-book movie, Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Ahead of The Batman’s release in theatres March 4, Serkis spoke with The Globe and Mail about families, fans and the price of Pennyworth.
The Batman marks your third film with director Matt Reeves, after your two Planet of the Apes films. How has the relationship evolved?
Matt is one of the most exceptional directors around, but more importantly we became close friends. We’re both fathers, family men, but we’re also searching for similar things as filmmakers. There is an emotional underpinning to the worlds that he creates that I’m interested in exploring. We connect on many levels.
In a Batman film, the juiciest roles are the villains. Yet you make a meal out of Alfred here. Did you have a determination to elevate this traditionally straight-man role?
It goes back to the emotional underpinning of the characters, which is what Matt started to talk to me about during post-production on War for the Planet of the Apes. Bruce is not a fully formed Batman here – he’s still in the nascent stages of creating this vengeance-seeking character. So you have a Bruce pushing back at Alfred, which creates this tragic tension. It’s a mentorship and leadership role, but one that’s poignant and complex. That twisted relationship made it appealing.
When working as an actor on someone else’s movie, how do you separate that director side of yourself?
I was in post-production on [Venom: Let There Be Carnage] whilst shooting this, and there is something so wonderful in parking one project whilst you’re in the realm of playing a character in another. I love that change. When I’m acting, I hang up and absolve myself of any director-ness. I’m putting it aside while focusing on the character, which is a wonderful thing.
Venom and The Batman are two very different takes on the dominant genre of our time …
I like them both, though. What we tried to do with Venom is, while it’s a roller-coaster ride and fast-paced, underpin it with real stakes. You still have to believe and care about the characters, no matter how crazy and cartoonish it was. Then there’s this darkness, this weight, with the atmosphere of Gotham that Matt created, which is so all-consuming. I love the challenges that those extremes give you.
You’ve worked on many high-profile projects with devoted fandoms. But The Batman might be the most intense, with fans hungry for any secret that might spill out during filming. What stressors does that put on you as an actor, even when you’re promoting other work, like Venom?
That’s the difficult moment, when you’re doing press for other things and people are like, “What about Batman? What about Batman???” That’s been going on for a long time now. The main thing is that you don’t want to spoil it for people. We live in a world where everything is so overexplained, so you want to keep the mystery. I don’t even like watching trailers.
The Batman was one of the first films that got upended by COVID. How challenging a shoot was it?
It was also because I was working on Venom remotely with my entire team spread across the planet. My editor was in L.A., we were in London, I didn’t meet [Venom composer Marco Beltrami] once in the flesh. And then setting up to shoot The Batman under COVID protocols, this was in the early days of testing and masks, we didn’t know what was going on! But the film industry quickly found a way of making a working day possible. We’re not essential workers by any stretch, but people need stories. They rely on them to get them through the day.
The Batman opens March 4 in theatres across Canada
This interview has been condensed and edited
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