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Adventurer: Andy Serkis as King Kong
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King Kong in RwandaPhoto: King Kong

To get into character, actor Andy Serkis, aka King Kong, sought out some ideal coaches: the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.
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King Kong Discovers His Roots
Andy Serkis gets up close and (very) personal with mountain gorillas for the biggest role of his career.    Text by Michael Benoist
Photo: Andy Serkis as King Kong
KING-SIZE: Andy Serkis in character

King Kong is lonely. Andy Serkis knows this for certain. He also knows that the 25-foot (8-meter) gorilla would never beat his chest with closed fists. Or eat a human being whole. The 41-year-old British actor knows this because over the past year he's spent months researching his gargantuan role in Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic, opening December 14. In Rwanda's lush Virunga Mountains and at the London Zoo, Serkis studied mountain gorilla behavior with the goal of bringing to Kong the same lifelike range of emotions and responses he brought to the computer-generated Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. This time, however, he not only animates and voices the hirsute title role, but, with the help of 132 CG sensors, controls Kong's facial expressions, too. To get it right, Serkis learned how mountain gorillas walk, communicate, and interact. In an interview, he explains how to become a gorilla himself.
Photo: Andy SerkisThe original King Kong didn't exactly take a primatologist's approach to portraying gorilla behavior. Why go to such lengths to get it right this time?
I don't think the filmmakers in 1933 were out to understand gorillas. In a sense, Kong was just a monster to them. The difference is that our film is not really a monster movie. Early on we decided we did not want a Disney-fied, anthropomorphized version of Kong. My job as an actor was to observe as much as I could and bring those observations to the character.

What did the original get wrong?

In the '33 version, Kong walks around on two feet, beating his chest with clenched fists. Actually, gorillas walk on their knuckles and feet and beat their chests with cupped hands. Also, in the original, Kong goes around chewing people's heads off. Now we know that gorillas are herbivores.

So the new Kong is a vegan wimp.
Not quite. Gorillas are still wild creatures. That's made very clear when you observe them in nature. They charge and perform other displays that are terrifying by design. But they don't attack unless they feel threatened. We're not trying to make the PC version of Kong. We're just finding the balance that reflects reality.
What makes gorilla-watching such a profound experience?

There's something about seeing this totally peaceful society that has its own order and seems to work perfectly were it not for interference from humans. It's like sitting around with a chilled-out load of hippies. They'll just have something to eat and then crash out for a bit and then have a little walk. You're supposed to keep a seven-meter exclusion zone so that they don't catch diseases. But gorillas go where they want, so they go all around you. It's absolutely thrilling.
Didn't one gorilla try to get particularly cozy with you?
That was when I was at the London Zoo. There were four gorillas: three females and a male. The male, Bongo, was brought in as part of a breeding program that wasn't very successful. He'd been brought up in a circus, among chimps, so he didn't know how to be a dominant male, and the females gave him a real hard time. One of the females, Zaire, took a strong liking to me.
So you became the dominant male instead of Bongo?
I'm not sure about that, but from the first time I visited [Zaire and I] had this kind of connection.
Sounds steamy.

Yeah, to Bongo's chagrin, Zaire and I got pretty close. Every time I'd walk past, he'd get very cross with me and start punching his cage.
Were you at all worried about security during your trip to Rwanda?
I assumed that there was still a lot of political unrest in Rwanda, but as soon as I arrived I realized how much disinformation we have. It's 11 years on from the genocide, and they've made huge leaps in their recovery. They've been through some kind of hell and are just so incredibly driven to not go there again.
Could Kong do for gorilla tourism what Lord of the Rings did for tourism in New Zealand?
I'd like to think so. Gorilla tourism is vital to Rwanda's economy: It's the third highest source of income. I'm trying to arrange a benefit screening to raise money to build a discovery center in Rwanda, which would give visitors a taste of the almost 50 years of research on the gorillas they're about to see.
So you'll return?
I hope to. I'd also like to check out Nyungwe (see  "Tracking Primates in Rwanda" >>), this unspoiled area that's full of primates, including gold and colobus monkeys. The guides at Primate Safaris, in Rwanda, who took me originally, say it's pretty well open to be explored.

Photographs by Matt Mueller/Univeral Studios; Weta Digital Ltd./Universal Studios

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