Credit: Annie Leibowitz

For those frustrated by the lack of information about Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis feels your pain. When he started work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the performance-capture character, he had no idea either.

“It’s the first time I’ve been on set not yet knowing what the character’s gonna look like. I mean, talk about secrecy!” the actor says.

Serkis is known for his pioneering work in motion-capture, merging human performance with digital characters to create Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, King Kong, and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (When he spoke with EW, he was having his dots applied and camera attached to start the day’s work on the third installment in that series, War of the Planet of the Apes.)

Each character is always a collaborative process with the filmmakers and visual effects artists, but in the case of Snoke, the look, voice, and movements evolved based on how far Serkis and director and co-writer J.J. Abrams could push the tech.

“When we first started working on it, he had some rough notions of how Snoke was gonna look, but it really hadn’t been fully-formed and it almost came out of discussion and performance,” Serkis says.

Snoke kept changing, not only through principle photography, but even after. (So any “early concept art” that may be floating around online is probably nowhere near what this dark-hearted character looks like.)

“We shot on set of course, and I was in the scenes I have with other actors, but the beauty of this process is you can go back and reiterate, keep informing and honing beats and moments,” Serkis says. “So J.J., after we shot last year, we’ve had a series of sessions where I’d be in London at The Imaginarium, my studio, while he’s been directing from L.A., and we’ve literally been creating further additions and iterations to the character. That’s been fascinating. And in the meantime I’ve been able to see the look and design of the character grow and change as the performances change. So it’s been really exciting in that respect.”

While Snoke’s final appearance, as well as his motives and history, will likely be saved for the Dec. 18 movie to reveal, Serkis did provide a little background on the Supreme Leader, whose voice was heard on the very first teaser trailer nearly a year ago.

Here’s what Serkis can share about Snoke: For one, obviously he’s not a nice guy. And he’s a long-range schemer, not an impulsive hothead type.

“Supreme Leader Snoke is quite an enigmatic character, and strangely vulnerable at the same time as being quite powerful,” Serkis says. “Obviously he has a huge agenda. He has suffered a lot of damage. As I said, there is a strange vulnerability to him, which belies his true agenda, I suppose.”

While Abrams has emphasized a return to practical effects on The Force Awakens, is Snoke perhaps a character who could have been played by Serkis in make-up?

“No, no,” the actor says. “The scale of him, for instance, is one reason. He is large. He appears tall. And also just the facial design — you couldn’t have gotten there with prosthetics. It’s too extreme. Without giving too much away at this point, he has a very distinctive, idiosyncratic bone structure and facial structure. You could never have done it [in real life.]”

He says Snoke and Maz Kanata, the tiny alien character Lupita Nyong’o plays, “are the only two performance-capture characters in an otherwise very analog world.”

If Snoke is a “damaged” character, that raises the question: Did his wounds come from the clash between the Rebellion and the Empire, seen in the original Star Wars trilogy? Serkis hesitates here, but then says he believes Snoke was outside of that conflict.

“No, he’s a new character in this universe. It is very much a newly-introduced character,” Serkis says. “He’s aware of what’s gone on, in the respect that he has been around and is aware of prior events. I think it’d be fair to say that he is aware of the past to a great degree.”

And yet, he is plotting to unleash further conflict on the galaxy. So much for philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Maybe it’s hard to see such things on the Dark Side.

For more on Star Wars, follow @Breznican.

Later today at Why is Luke Skywalker missing?

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