'Black Panther' Star Andy Serkis Dishes On His "Nihilistic," "Mercurial" Villain [Set Visit Interview]

Andy Serkis' Ulysses Klaue had a bit part to play in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but he's a more substantial threat in Black Panther.

Like with the rest of our set visit interviews, we didn't learn too many plot details when we sat down with Serkis. But as you'd imagine, the man behind Gollum, Caesar and numerous other digital and non-digital heroes and villains has a lot to say about bringing a character to life, especially one as nasty as Klaue.

So read on to learn what Klaue has been up since losing a limb in Age of Ultron, how Serkis decided on the character's accent, and what it's like to work with director Ryan Coogler.

Note: This was a group interview conducted in a press conference format with assembled journalists.


How long have you known that you were going to be part of this movie? 

Klaue appears in Age of Ultron, and the way that all happened was, they were working with The Imaginarium, which is my performance-capture studio. We were all working and consulting back on Ultron, working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo and initiating them into the process of motion-capture because they were both using performance-capture. We were providing services for that. Then Joss Whedon said, "Hey, this is crazy, why don't you come and be in the show?" And I thought, "Oh, alright, that'd be fun." So that happened and then, of course, when this came along, I knew that he was part of the Black Panther story. It's just really great being back.

Is there a different level of connection that you're able to get with this character? Is there a difference from motion capture?

No, I think everyone knows now really that, at the end of the day, it's just acting and it doesn't really matter what you're wearing. It's just another costume. You're looking into another actor's eyes and you're communicating with them and you're playing the role that you're playing, whether it's an ape or a human or whatever. Obviously the next Planet of the Apes movie is coming out soon, and the level of connection in that is exactly the same as the level of connection I have with my fellow actors in this.

What has Klaue been up to since Age of Ultron?

Well, he's just basically been causing mayhem in the world, on minor and major levels. He's a smart guy in the sense that he's a businessman as well as an arms dealer. He manages to cover his tracks. He has a mercenary army that works with him in different locations all around the world and he's able to go down rabbit holes and appear in other places. So he's got the smarts, but he's also a little whacked out.

How did you come to that voice?

We decided that Klaue, we would make him South African, a very strong Afrikaans, quite bullish, in a very ... edging towards not being particularly a politically correct person, let's say. [Laughs] He'd fit in the White House quite perfectly. I didn't say that! I didn't say that! Or, in fact, in Britain at the moment.

No, it was quite a smart decision, actually, I think. It gives him a real edge. Also, because of the relationship to Wakanda as well, which is obviously a misunderstood African nation, it fits very well politically that he was of South African descent at a time when, of course, he grew up through apartheid.

Klaue's a very prolific adversary in the comics, and now we're working with another adversary, Killmonger. Are you guys working in tandem together against T'Challa, or do you have your own separate plans?

Klaue doesn't really trust or work with anybody. He is his own man. He does deals with people, he interacts, but he doesn't form allegiances or alliances with anyone. Ultimately, he's a lone wolf. He has these pop-up groups wherever he happens to be in the world. So he and Killmonger aren't working together, as such.

Are we going to see a closer iteration of Klaue to the comics?

We've established the character and the character is kind of what we saw in Ultron, our version of Klaue. He obviously had his arm chopped off and he has a weapon, which we will discover. I don't know if I'm allowed to say too much about. Am I allowed to talk about Klaue's weapon?

[Publicist: No, let's keep that for now. Surprise, surprise.]

He's a very good donut-thrower.

Villains, especially super villains in comic book movies, there's a danger of coming across too one-sided. What kind of balance are you able to find with Klaue to make him a full character?

I think, hopefully, he's quite grounded. I think he's not the one color, he's different shades. He's got a humorous side to him, he's got a sense of humor. But he's equally very deadly and he's quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly. He turns on a sixpence. He can be outwardly friendly to some people or funny or amusing, and then turn. He definitely feels grounded. There's a darkness to him which grounds him.

Having worked on so many other huge franchises, what stands out about Black Panther specifically and how Ryan [Coogler] works?

In the short time that I've worked with Ryan, which is literally two days, he creates the most incredible atmosphere on set. He's really is the most subtle actors' director. He knows what he wants, but he allows you to play and explore with the other cast members, and then gives great, very specific notes. I was told, actually, because of course Martin Freeman I've worked with before in, what was it, what was it – oh, The Hobbit. [Laughs] We've kind of faced off each other there. We were emailing each other before I came down, and Martin said, "Ryan loves the freedom of what actors give and then bouncing back and circling around." So there really is a great deal of play in this, which is really exciting.

In the context of the scene you guys are filming today, what is Klaue's first reaction when he sees T'Challa walk in the door?

Well, something I can say without giving too much away, he's aware ... it's not a great surprise, put it that way. Yeah, it's not a great surprise.

You've done a lot of work now behind the camera. How has that translated to how you approach a film now?

I'm actually right in the middle of posting two films at the moment as well. This is actually great. I'm really enjoying not having the responsibilities. I'm right in the thick of it with Jungle Book that I'm in post on, and also another small independent film that I've directed at the end of last year called Breathe, which is coming out at the end of this year with Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. They've just turned in the most amazing performances.

I'll tell you what I find. When I was on Jungle Book, I found that I'm not the sort of actor-director who likes to direct himself as an actor, if you like. I find that I don't like to split my skills. I much, much prefer – I mean, I love this, coming in and just digging straight into the character and getting into it. Lots of actors do direct themselves in movies, it's just not my thing. I like to concentrate on one or the other and bury myself into that world.

In the movie version of Klaue, will we see a longstanding connection with Wakanda?

He's got a very specific relationship to Wakanda.

I was gonna say, the brand on your neck is still there. 

Yeah, exactly. I hope you're not giving too much away. So he's got a bit of a love-hate relationship with it, really. He certainly has discovered things about it that nobody else has, and we discover that in this movie. He's one of the few people who's actually been to Wakanda and he reveals quite a lot about it.

Does he have a personal relationship with T'Challa?

Again, he doesn't really have a personal relationship with anyone. But they've definitely crossed paths. They spar.

What was new for you about the character, the thing that you were like, "Oh, okay, I get to play this side of him"?

In this one, there is quite a lot more humor, actually, which is great. Again, it's that thing where you don't know whether he's actually really enjoying this, or whether he's playing enjoying this, whether he's really laughing or just hiding behind it. It's very interesting the way Ryan and the writers have put it together.

A lot of actors talk about villains who don't look at themselves as villains. They're always the heroes of their own story or they have their own goal. Does Klaue look at himself as a villain?

Of course he doesn't. No, no, no. He thinks what he's doing is existing in this world, in the way that he's created his own moral relativity, really. He's quite nihilistic. He's squared it with himself. He knows life is cheap and you're either at the bottom of the pile or you're at the top of the pile, and that's it. It's very, very simple. It's quite clear to him where his moral compass is. What he doesn't like is hypocrisy. He absolutely despises hypocrisy. So uncovering that is definitely part of the way I'm playing him, anyway.

Building off of that, can you talk about his goals? We know this particular scene we're watching is about a third of the way through the film. It's in South Korea. Can you talk about what Klaue is doing there?

At this point in time, he's actually been ... Can I say? I don't know what I can say, really. But he's been caught. He's being held and interrogated. They're trying to, basically, work out what he's planning to do.

A huge element of the Klaue character in the comics is the fact that he kills T'Chaka, which isn't something that's being put into these movies. So I'm curious how you're able to use the comics as a source material for your performance.

I think with all of these, it's about how you expand on a character and bring your take on it. Obviously, some of the plotlines are going to be different, obviously they're not going to be exactly the same. So it's importing the essence of those stories and the character into this particular version and retelling of those tales.

What kind of research did you put into Klaue?

Again, it's just so hard without giving away too much. I was just about to launch into it, but I just don't want to say too much.

We won't tell.

Gosh, what can I say? Just in terms of the weapon he might or might not have ... He is actually quite a brilliant assembler of weaponry and technology and putting those together. And so I kind of looked a lot into that, to be very superficial about it.

Here's one that's not plot, so you can maybe answer. If you could play any character [in the MCU], who would you do?

Oh, golly. Wow. Let me think. I've always wanted to play Iron Man, actually. I think Iron Man's a great character. I'd like to play Iron Man. Next time, when they make them again.

So your last few characters like Caesar and Snoke are both enigmatic and powerful leaders. What kinds of qualities are you able to draw from past roles like those that you're able to put into Klaue as well?

I don't know if Klaue thinks of himself as a leader. Because he is just a solo operator, ultimately. He is a mercenary, literally. He came out of the army and became a mercenary and started amassing on a small scale, getting to deals and working with agencies and building up his own networks. In this case, it is slightly different to a lot of the roles I've played, in that he's the master of his own destiny and he is very accepting of that. I don't think he ever feels like he's leading a gang or a mercenary army. They fit into his – he picks people up as and when he needs them.