British actor Andy Serkis has made his name not only for portraying interesting, recognizably human characters onscreen, in films including “24 Hour Party People,” “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” and “13 Going on 30,” he’s also almost single-handedly become the face and body of motion capture performance. He was Gollum, King Kong and, most recently, Caesar in the current “Planet of the Apes” franchise.
But Serkis has long wanted to direct, and he’s already completed that task on two feature films. His first, another live-action, motion capture-heavy take on “The Jungle Book,” is still in the midst of a long post-production phase. But his second, “Breathe,” based on the lives of adult polio victim Robin Cavendish and his wife Diana (played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy), is about to be released. Set in 1950s and ’60s England, it’s the story of how Cavendish, at age 28, came down with the disease, and was given only a short time to live, but through a combination of determination and love, faced up to the terrible odds and turned things around.
Serkis, speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, addressed his relationship to and feelings for the story.
Q: You played Ian Dury, the rock singer who had polio, in “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.” Was that what drew you to making this film?
A: My father was a doctor and my mother taught disabled children. So, I grew up with that (around me) and I felt very connected to this world. Also, I have a sister who’s an MS sufferer now, and getting around in a wheelchair in 2017 is pretty impossible. But to try and exist outside of the hospital system at that time, I thought, was like climbing Everest, in your backyard. That’s what inspired me about this tale.
Q: You mentioned things happening outside of the hospital system. Robin and Diana actually dealt with the medical problems with the help of people other than doctors. What are your thoughts about them now?
A: These people were incredible pioneers. To live outside of the hospital system, with that level of disability, in 1959 ... It seems to me that people choose to respond to adversity in many different ways. Some can cope with it and some can’t. But what was incredible about this story was the wit with which these people dealt with adversity, and that was what I wanted to bring to the movie.
Q: It’s kind of surprising that, despite the awful circumstances, there’s so much humor in the mix.
A: Well, it was never going to be a drama-documentary. It was never going to be a very dark take on something which affects people in such negative and desperate ways. The essence of this movie is hope, the essence of it is love, and the essence of Robin and Diana is this incredible wit and humor, and that was reflected in every aspect of making the film. At the beginning of the movie, which is like a fairy tale, we have these two young people who are athletic, totally in love with each other, and their lives are going to be incredible. Then they get struck down. But in every shot and choice of design, there’s this vibrancy with which they continued to live life afterward. We were making a movie, we were not making a documentary. We were elevating this to tell not just a little story about survival, but a metaphor for our times about the power of love. And the essence of Robin and Diana was not drab in any sense. It was not murky or gray or somber. They burned bright. And I wanted to make the film feel like that.
“Breathe” opens on Oct. 20.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.