Giving credit where credit is due


Andy Serkis helped actress react to ape in `King Kong'

Spotlight Naomi Watts


Her predecessor was promised the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood and got him, in the form of a 35-foot gorilla given to beating his chest and roaring lustily. Seventy-two years later, Naomi Watts had to make do with Andy Serkis, a native Londoner of average height and build, albeit with a decidedly jollier disposition.

Not that Watts has any complaints about her co-star, whose human-scale performance was translated through 21st-century movie technology into the oversized ape that appears onscreen.

"Most of my performance is credited to Andy Serkis, I have to say," explains the 37-year-old Australian actress, who gets to play the love interest in King Kong, Peter Jackson's $220 million remake of the iconic 1933 film about an oversized ape with a blonde fixation. "I'm reacting to him, that was my job. He was extraordinary. He made me go there, he made me believe."

And that's important, she stresses, when acting in a film populated by dinosaurs and gorillas with overactive thyroids.

"We knew what we had to do, the work that had to be done in order to suspend disbelief. ... There were times when we'd fall about laughing, going, `What are we doing? This is the most peculiar thing.' We'd let that run through us, and then get back to it."

When Fay Wray originated the role of Ann Darrow in 1933, Kong was nothing more than an 18-inch model animated by the wizardry of stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien. Wray, whose naturally dark hair was covered by a blond wig for the role, spent much of the film acting before a blue screen; the closest she came to actually working alongside Kong was being cupped inside a huge mechanical paw for a few shots.

But Jackson's Kong combines motion-sensor technology with Serkis' acting skills to put the big guy on film. Hundreds of electrodes attached to the actor fed his body movements into a computer, where they morphed into the gargantuan gorilla you see onscreen. The technology both gives Kong more lifelike movements (Serkis likewise acted the role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) and allowed Watts a partner during her many scenes.

With, of course, a few allowances made.

"I gave Andy a Barbie," Watts says with a disarming laugh, "because he was always up in this big tractor-thing that was my eyeline, that created the scale. I couldn't [actually] fit in the palm of his hand when he was doing motion capture. So we gave him some Barbies and dressed them up."

As Ann Darrow, Watts gets to follow in some pretty imposing footsteps. Wray rode the role to screen immortality, becoming cinema's first scream queen. Jessica Lange, in her acting debut, reprised the role in the 1976 remake (although her character's name was changed to Dwan), and while her performance earned mix reviews, she used it to launch a career that would eventually earn her two Oscars.

Watts comes to the role of Kong's reluctant paramour with a more established reputation. Watts has been acting for nearly 20 years (Wray was only 25 when the first Kong was filmed), proved her box-office mettle by starring in both The Ring ($128.6 million) and The Ring Two ($75.9 million), and been Oscar-nominated, for 21 Grams.

Still, Watts saw something in the character that resonated with her. In Jackson's script, which he co-wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Ann is a struggling vaudeville performer during the Depression, unsure where her next meal is going to come from, much less her next paycheck.

While she's never had to starve, Watts knows what it's like to struggle as an actor. For 15 years, beginning with her debut in the 1986 film For Love Alone, she was relegated to bit parts, playing girlfriends, ingenues, whatever else was available. It wasn't until David Lynch picked her to co-star in his 2001 film Mulholland Drive, where she got to play both a struggling actress and a conniving lesbian seductress, that Watts finally made Hollywood's A-list.

"Times are tough for Ann," Watts says. "She's at the absolute low point. She's resorted to stealing food. The theater's closed, she doesn't know when her next paycheck's coming. It's absolute rock-bottom for her.

"I can identify with struggle, but not to that degree."

With Kong, Watts relished the chance to work with Jackson, hot off his Oscar win for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She was also lucky enough to get Wray's blessing; after a dinner meeting with the legendary actress shortly before her death at 96 in August 2004, she whispered in Watts' ear, "Ann Darrow's in good hands." (Wray never had a good word to say about the 1976 remake.)

"I was given the baton, you know?" Watts recalls.

Ultimately, like Wray before her, Watts became pretty enamored of Kong, who goes in the film from threatening Ann to becoming her protector.

"He was my big boy," the actress says with a laugh. "He is the ultimate man. He has everything you need."

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