At this point in Andy Serkis‘s career as geek icon and performance-capture pioneer, it’s not a surprise to see him playing an ape, an intergalactic despot, or a Marvel Cinematic Universe troublemaker. What is surprising, though, is to find him behind the camera for a dramatic period piece like Breathe, the new biopic about polio victim and patients’ rights activist Robin Cavendish, played onscreen by ex-Spider-Man Andrew Garfield. “It’s quite an unusual outing for me,” Serkis admitted to Yahoo Entertainment at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Breathe had its world premiere in September. (It opens in limited release Friday.) “People wouldn’t have expected me to something like this one, I think.”
Had Serkis not found his way to fame via fantasy and science fiction, it’s very possible he would have directed a movie like this one much earlier. Back in his school days, the British actor studied the visual arts with an eye toward being a painter, and he often describes his directorial approach to Breathe in painterly terms. “We chose to shoot the film in a way that makes the audience feel that they’re going to watch a very romantic ’60s film, but then buck those expectations. It had to have an element of fairy tale to it, in the design of the costumes and the color palette. You paint the picture in a particular light so it will affect the audience in a particular way.”
Serkis may have ultimately embraced an actor’s journey, rather than a painter’s path, but as he explains it, directing allows him to bring those twin interests together, using the camera as a kind of paintbrush to specifically capture performance. It’s no surprise, then, that Breathe is particularly attuned to the actors’ faces and body language, with the director inviting the audience to closely observe Garfield and Claire Foy — who plays Robin’s wife, Diana — as they portray a couple whose lives are forever changed by illness. (Cavendish died in 1994.) “For Robin, I was only able to express myself through my face and eyes,” Garfield says of the experience of playing Cavendish, who was confined to a bed and wheelchair for 36 years after polio left his body paralyzed from the neck down. “Andy wanted to get inside Robin’s experience and honor that limitation. All of my energy went to the part of my body that could express something. My duty and privilege was to attempt to begin to understand the depths of what that would do to the psyche, and your understanding of life and how the universe works.”
Cavendish’s son, Jonathan, is a producer on Breathe and functioned as a valuable resource for Garfield and Serkis during production, providing unique insight into his father’s personality and spirit. Interestingly, one aspect of his father that isn’t as prominently represented onscreen is the elder Cavendish’s conflicted feelings about religion. “Robin was a very spiritual man before [his illness],” Garfield explains. “He was a devoted Christian who converted lots of people in his army battalion. Without being forceful, he was connected to sense of spirituality that went when the polio hit. After that, he had no faith whatsoever in the God he formally did.” Picking up that thought, Serkis says that Cavendish eventually found an outlet for those spiritual leanings by making a conscious choice to live every day to the fullest. “By the end of his life, there are moments where he did say, ‘It helps knowing that this is it, there’s nothing after this.’ He was a spiritual man, but not necessarily a religious man in the last part of his life.”
It’s rare that a filmmaker embarks on one assignment with another already in the can. But that’s just how the timing worked out for Serkis, who shot his performance-capture-augmented adaptation of The Jungle Book before jumping to Breathe. (After several delays, that film is set to be released in October 2018.) Asked if he’s hoping his next directorial assignment will be one of the fan-friendly entertainments he regularly appears in — say the next iteration of the Planet of the Apes franchise or a standalone Star Wars story like Rogue One — Serkis says he’s looking to make his stamp as an auteur, not just a craftsman. “I have scripts that I’ve written that I want to make, and which I was originally going to make before all these other things started to happen. So that’s the one that I’m concentrating on. But I love the Apes franchise, so who knows? They all interest me hugely.”
Breathe is currently playing in theaters.
Watch: Andrew Garfield reveals how he pulled off his stunning transformation in Breathe:
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: