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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Andy Serkis on haunting Guy Pearce’s Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Andy Serkis
Andy Serkis
Photo: Robert Viglasky (FX)

Here’s what’s happening in the world of television for Thursday, December 19. All times are Eastern.

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A Christmas Carol (FX, 7:30 p.m.): “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.” But Scrooge was not dead, and he was played by Guy Pearce.

Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders, Taboo) new take on the Charles Dickens’ classic arrives tonight in the form of a TV movie starring Pearce, Stephen Graham, Charlotte Riley, Joe Alwyn, Vinette Robinson, Jason Flemyng, Kayvan Novak, and the great Andy Serkis, who plays a very different kind of Ghost Of Christmas Past. Allison Shoemaker will recap, and promises to keep her references to A Muppet Christmas Carol to a minimum.

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But first, a bit more on Knight’s approach from the aforementioned ghost himself. The A.V. Club spoke with Andy Serkis about spooking Scrooge, and which of his other famous characters would make the best spectral visitations.


The A.V. Club: When you started on this process, did you look to other great ghosts of cinema for inspiration? Were you looking at other Christmas Carols? Other ghost stories?

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Andy Serkis: I was terrified by this story as a child. The Jacob Marley scenes. I remember vividly being read the story. But what Nick [Murphy, the film’s director] and Steven wanted to do with the character [was to create] a spirit who transforms and shape-shifts. It’s a way of putting a mirror up to Scrooge’s soul, to intimately inspect his personality. But at the same time, he had to feel very real and of this realm. We wanted to create a personality for him. He’s traveled through time, but there’s a real logic to the connection. He lived in Dublin 200 years before this story happened. He was a murderer, he’s committed crimes, he knows... And he’s living in limbo and has become a guardian of the past, of Christmases, for lots of different people.

He’s sort of a vagabond, a roving vagabond. He’s been doing this job across the board with kings, queens, paupers, soldiers. He’s been revisiting them and making them face their past. And he’s actually come to the point where he doesn’t care anymore. He’s almost like, “It’s my job. I have to do it, but I don’t care.” Until Scrooge comes along. Well, actually, it’s Marley who comes to him first. Marley can’t ever be redeemed until Scrooge is redeemed, because they are partners. As in life, so in death. They are inextricably linked. He sees Scrooge as a major challenge to crack. It’s a different approach to the character.

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AVC: As he shape-shifts, did it give you the opportunity to try different flavors of the same person? Does he move or speak differently?

AS: He literally becomes someone else. He’s kind of like the string of a pearl necklace, in a sense. What Steven Knight has written is so unique in that way, because the characters that [the ghost] becomes are characters from stories that Scrooge has read or people that he’s confronted. A huge part of this story concerns the business endeavors of Scrooge and how he, as a capitalist, has really screwed workers in the mines that he owns, or the factories. So the spirit goes on this journey and literally shows him how his actions have affected the lives of countless other people.

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AVC: When you’re approaching a character that you’re playing without any sort of technological element, how does your process change, if at all?

AS: I’ve never drawn a distinction between [something like this] and playing a character using performance-capture technology. I started off in the theater, spent many years working in theater. I was a stage actor, then TV, then film, and then the performance-capture thing. But throughout all of that, it always starts with the same thing, which is a combination of understanding the psychology of the character, the backstory, the emotional center of the character, and the physicality, which is an important part for me because we, as human beings, have centers where we carry pain, tension, and where we release. I suppose I look for where a character is carrying their burdens of who they are, physically. That’s part of my process.

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It’s always a period of research, a period of drawing together inspiration from... It can be anything. It can be music. It can be art. It can be all sorts of inspiration. Reading. And then clarifying the arena of the character physically, as well.

AVC: What are some of the threads that you pulled on for this character?

AS: He was born, brought up in Dublin. There’s a direct kind of honesty about him. He’s a very straight-up kind of person in the sense that he is not afraid of going to the heart of things immediately. That was one of the core things that I started off with the character. It’s like he’s a scalpel. If he was to use a tool to kill, it would be a scalpel, because he’s very, very accurate in terms of dissecting a person’s personality. Those kind of images: of being almost like a surgeon, really, in the way that he gets inside.

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AVC: Were you able to work collaboratively with the costume designer, and hair and makeup designers to craft what this guy was going to look like?

AS: Very much so. Joanna [Eatwell], the costume designer, I’ve worked with before. We did a film together years ago called Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll about Ian Dury. We had an amazing time on that. And on this, although it was a much quicker process on this because I came into the project quite late. She’s such an actor’s costume designer. She really does work with your ideas. They had a basic idea of him being this sort of pagan, a quite paganistic traveler, and there are elements of that. But because he lives in this limbo place, this graveyard of past Christmases, I wanted to have elements of other people’s lives, almost like scalps, hanging off him. So I’ve got lots of different details, objects—you know, children’s toys, glasses. All these different items that have been part of people’s lives hanging off me, really. That was something that we arrived at together. I had an idea, and then she came back with stuff.

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And then in the makeup department, there were several different look ideas. [The idea] was to get away from the stereotypical image of the ghost of a quite jolly, Santa Claus-like, chubby, sort of ho-ho-ho kind of character. So he’s quite disfigured. I mean, he literally wears a crown of thorns. There’s a sort of self-flagellatory nature to the character. For every single soul that he doesn’t manage to get redemption for, he almost blames himself.

He’s scarred. He’s got lots of scars from his crown of thorns. I had this long beard, quite a lengthy beard. I had to have these, every day, these wefts sewn into my own beard. And that’ll drive you mad. I had long fingernails. I’ve never played a role where I’ve had so much sensory deprivation, because when I had all this stuff on, the long fingernails and beard, it’s just like there’s nothing you can do to function. If you wanted to pick up your iPhone... it’s just like I couldn’t even do anything. Eating! I was constantly eating my beard! It was horrible. It was horrible. Every day it was just like, “Here we go.” Two and a half, three hours of makeup.

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AVC: One last, silly question: You’re also a director. Pretend you’re casting A Christmas Carol, looking to fill the roles of the Ghosts Of Christmas Past, Present, Future, and Jacob Marley. And the four actors that you had to work with are Gollum, Caesar, Ulysses Klaue, and Snoke. Who would be who?

AS: I think Snoke would obviously be the Ghost Of Christmas Future. That’s probably a bit too easy, isn’t it? Maybe Gollum, actually. I don’t know. No, Jacob Marley would definitely be Gollum, which only leaves... Who are the other two? Caesar? Caesar would be the Ghost Of Christmas Present. And who was the last one?

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AVC: Ulysses Klaue.

AS: Actually, Ulysses Klaue would be quite a good Ghost Of Christmas Past. Yeah, that’s good.

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Wild cards

The Daily Show, “Votegasm 2020: Worst Holiday Special Ever” (Comedy Central, 11 p.m.): We’re not sure what to expect of Trevor Noah’s entry to the holiday canon, but we suspect it’s going to have quite a lot to do with voting.

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