Andy Serkis: God Save The Queen's English

Jul 24, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2015 10:21 am

In his Ask Me Another Challenge, Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings) helps expand your vocabulary to include a spot of British slang. Any idea what the "collywobbles" are, or what happens when you throw on a "boob tube" before leaving the house? You'll be speaking like a Brit in no time.

Plus, Serkis explains the origin of Gollum's voice (which he later left on the answering machine of our grand prize winner), and offers a quick tease of his as-yet-unannounced role in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Wars film, Episode VII.

Interview Highlights

On preparing to play the roles of King Kong and Caesar

I spent a lot of time researching apes. For King Kong I went to Rwanda and watched gorillas in the wild, and studied apes in zoos. I observed the differences between apes in captivity, which reflect human behavior a lot more in their rhythms, and those in Rwanda, which are like blissed-out hippies, they were incredibly relaxed and wonderful to be around. You take all this research, and then it's all about character. And Caesar is a very complex ape.

On the origin of Gollum's voice

He's called Gollum because of the way he sounds, according to Tolkien. So I based it around the notion that he was addicted to the ring, but mostly it was because he was guilty over the murder of his cousin – because of course he kills his cousin to take the ring. He strangles his cousin, so really for him, he carries the memory and the guilt in his throat. But I also wanted something involuntary, like a spasm, that forces Gollum's voice out. So I based it on my cat (Diz, after Dizzy Gillespie) coughing up fur balls.

On his upcoming role in the new Star Wars film

I'm not Yoda.

This segment originally ran on July 24, 2014.

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg. Now please welcome back our very important puzzler, Andy Serkis. Right now, if someone wanted to offer you, like, the acting role of your dream, are you more excited to play a character that is non-human, nothing like you, or would you like to step into a, you know, be yourself - disappear into a human role?

ANDY SERKIS: You know, the fact of the matter - truly and honestly - if it was a - it all depends on the script and the character. And if it was a great character that was performance capture, I'd do it over a reasonably good live action performance role.

EISENBERG: So Caesar - you were excited about that. But of course, it's not like there's a computer generating the voice.


EISENBERG: That is you.

SERKIS: Correct.

EISENBERG: And now the apes can speak.


EISENBERG: And you have to decide how that will sound. So did you watch - I don't know.

SERKIS: Ape speaking videos.


EISENBERG: Yeah, did you watch some apes speak?

SERKIS: Yeah, I watched a load of those. And they were all very informative. And no, I mean, the thing is - so what you do is, yes, you study apes. And I have done - spent a lot of time researching apes. And in fact, for King Kong, I went to Rwanda and watched apes and, you know, gorillas in the wild and all the rest of it and studied apes in zoos and, you know, observed the difference between apes in captivity which reflect human's behavior a lot more and their rhythms and so on. And then you go to somewhere like Rwanda, and they are like blissed-out hippies, basically. I mean, they are just, like, incredibly relaxed and wonderful to be around. And then you take all this research, and then it's all about character, really, after that. It's about, OK, who is Caesar? And what's his journey? And what's going on? And he's a very conflicted, you know, complex ape.

EISENBERG: I'm sure every day someone comes up to you on the street and does their Gollum impression for you.

SERKIS: Every day.

EISENBERG: Seriously? Does that...

SERKIS: Pretty much.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And I know we were talking about how you voiced the apes, but of course, Tolkien didn't say here's how Gollum should sound. So how do you devise that when you have nothing to go with?

SERKIS: Well, yeah, so Gollum - you know, he's called Gollum because of the way he sounds, according to Tolkien. And so I had to find something that was - that felt, you know, like there was some sort of choking going on. So I based it around the notion of - that he was a ring addict. You know, he was addicted to the ring in some way.

But mostly, it was because he was guilty over the murder of his cousin because, of course, he kills his cousin to take the ring. And he strangles his cousin. So really for him, he carries the memory and the guilt in his throat. But I also wanted something that was going to be a kind of involuntary action. So that it was like a spasm that forces Gollum's voice out. So I actually based it on my cat coughing up fur balls. And so, I mean, so - I don't know if you remember, but he sort of - well, I mean, how many of you have got cats? Yeah, right, OK. So Diz - I had a cat called Diz after Dizzy Gillespie - and he came into the kitchen, and he just started going (Coughing). And so I thought, God, well, that's really interesting 'cause actually...


SERKIS: If you put that and the guilt of creating the character, then you get then something (Coughing) Gollum, Gollum. And that's how it came out. So I thought...

EISENBERG: Wow. We're going to go to this game. I have to ask - my husband would kill me, and I would not be married anymore, if I did not ask you about Star Wars for one second. So can you tease anything about Star Wars?


SERKIS: OK, what do you want to know?

EISENBERG: Can you tease anything about it?

SERKIS: Anything? OK, I'm not Yoda.

EISENBERG: Good. See now I'm going to be married longer. So clearly, you're British.

SERKIS: Is it that obvious?

EISENBERG: How often do you spend time in America?

SERKIS: In American land - I don't really spend that much time. Well, I come over here, and I do work. And then I go home. But I'm very much, you know, based in the U.K.

EISENBERG: OK, so you still speak fluent British.

SERKIS: Yeah, I reckon.

EISENBERG: OK, that's good because what we would like to do - well, your game is called God Save The Queen's English.

SERKIS: Absolutely.

EISENBERG: ...Because we'd like you to expand our vocabulary because between the prams and the trolleys and the wankers, we can't understand everything that they say on BBC. So with that in mind, let's welcome your teammate, Topher Ziobro.




EISENBERG: How's it going?


EISENBERG: This is Andy Serkis.

ZIOBRO: No pressure.

EISENBERG: Now this is not your first time performing, though. You have a bit of a performance background.

ZIOBRO: As a friend I worked with likes to call it, I went to college to become a doctor, and I came home a stuffed animal.

EISENBERG: In what sense were you a stuffed animal?

ZIOBRO: I graduated and became a professional mascot.

EISENBERG: Oh, for - a sports mascot?


EISENBERG: OK, and what animal - or stuffed animal - are you?

ZIOBRO: I was five different ones, but my favorite was probably YoJo. He was a ambiguous blue character. But we taught kids at elementary schools about bullying and about the importance of learning through a fun kind of...

EISENBERG: That's amazing.


ZIOBRO: For the crowd vote, I was also an eight-foot-tall inflatable monkey called Spanky. So...

EISENBERG: Was that for a bachelorette party or? OK, our puzzle guru, Art Chung, is going to explain the rules of our game.

ART CHUNG: OK, Andy, you and Topher will be working together. You're going to hear a word or phrase read aloud by a proper Brit that only a true Anglophile will understand. And Andy, all you have to do is use that phrase in a sentence or two so that Topher can guess what it means in American English. Here's an example.


CHUNG: The word was bollocks, and you might say don't listen to that guy at the bar. He's talking bollocks. And Topher would hopefully answer rubbish or nonsense. So Andy, you can use as many sentences as you need to get him to say the American version of the phrase. The only catch is you can't say any of the words in the phrase itself. And if you do, you'll hear this.


CHUNG: And you'll have to move on.

EISENBERG: You've got two minutes on the clock. If you get stuck on a clue, you can pass, Andy. So don't worry about that. And if you get enough right, our puzzle guru will write you both anagrams of your names. I know - think about it.

ZIOBRO: There's a Z in my name, just as a reminder - not easy.

EISENBERG: Are you ready? Two minutes are on the clock. And it starts now.


SERKIS: So if you have a young infant that's teething, you need to put something in its mouth so that it...

ZIOBRO: Pacifier.

SERKIS: Correct.


SERKIS: A garment worn by ladies on a night out to accompany a mini skirt.

ZIOBRO: A blouse.

SERKIS: No, it's something a little more economic.

ZIOBRO: A shirt?


ZIOBRO: A bra?

SERKIS: No, no, no, no, no. No, but think of, you know - think of the word tube.


ZIOBRO: Sorry, my fault.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give you a bell.

SERKIS: So if I'm going to give you a bell, I'm going to get on the blower. I'm going to...

ZIOBRO: Call me. Telephone.


SERKIS: That's not British. I suppose that means - oh, yes, I see what you're saying. I get it. I get it. I get it. OK, yeah. So we - when we go into an - well, we don't get into elevators, we get into lifts. But if we were to get into a lift, we would then - if you press number one, you call it...

ZIOBRO: The ground floor. The second floor.


ZIOBRO: Again, no pressure.

SERKIS: OK. So if I've got the colleywobbles, you probably wouldn't want to stand next to me.

ZIOBRO: You're sick.

SERKIS: In the...

ZIOBRO: The flu.

SERKIS: Yeah, but, I mean...

ZIOBRO: Diarrhea.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hundreds and thousands.

SERKIS: Oh yeah. So if you have a cupcake, you pour on top hundreds and thousands.

ZIOBRO: Sprinkles.

SERKIS: Correct.




ZIOBRO: Brooklyn.


SERKIS: So if you write to an agony aunt, it's - it's someone who writes for a...

ZIOBRO: Like a advice column.

SERKIS: Yeah, exactly that.


SERKIS: Yeah, what a load of codswallop (bleep).

ZIOBRO: This is pool hockey (bleep) crap, poo.

SERKIS: Kind of, but, actually the word is - OK, so codswallop - it's more literally than that. It's more like...

ZIOBRO: Hoo-ha.

SERKIS: More literally than that - it's sort of like what a load of - it doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

ZIOBRO: Oh, good, OK.


EISENBERG: Oh. Ten seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lollipop lady.

SERKIS: OK, so a lollipop lady - well, if kids are going to school, and they have to cross the road then...

ZIOBRO: Crossing guard.


ZIOBRO: Oh, you said cross.

SERKIS: Oh, what?

EISENBERG: I know. You guys already did better than we expected, just so you know. Basically, you got them all. We had one left. We had one left, which I didn't know. Do you want to play it just for fun?



EISENBERG: Can you explain this to all of us - shanks pony?

SERKIS: Yeah, shanks pony - that's quite straightforward, really. Shanks pony is if you need to get somewhere quickly and there's no other form of transport, what do you use?

ZIOBRO: A bike? A taxi?

SERKIS: No other form of transport. No form of transport.

ZIOBRO: Your feet.

SERKIS: Correct

ZIOBRO: You walk.

SERKIS: Exactly. Shanks's pony.

EISENBERG: Oh, so that's your shanks pony. You Brits are so clever. Puzzle guru, Art Chung, how did our VIP and special guest contestant due?

CHUNG: Well, for doing so amazingly, Topher, your anagram is hi, bozo report.

ZIOBRO: That's oddly appropriate, so thank you.

CHUNG: And Andy, you'll be forever known as a nerdy kiss.

ZIOBRO: Oh, that's wonderful.

EISENBERG: Oh. How about a huge hand for our VIP, a nerdy kiss, Andy Serkis? And if you saw Andy in "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes," let us know if you were on the side of the apes or the humans. Just tell us by going to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.