Toby Kebbell: Mo-Cap's Heir Apparent

Could the Skull Island actor you’ve never heard of be the next Andy Serkis?

Movies Features Toby Kebbell
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Toby Kebbell: Mo-Cap's Heir Apparent

Name the actor: He’s given a great, almost Shakespearean turn as a wily primate in the Planet of the Apes franchise. He was the most memorable thing about a Hollywood fantasy epic as a vaguely humanoid monster-with-a-soul. And in a modern remake of King Kong, he takes double duty, playing both human side-character and the king of the apes himself. In each case, he brought the character to life via motion capture.

Of course, most film fans will immediately think Andy Serkis, one of the pioneers of motion capture, and the first true mo-cap star. But it also describes another actor, one who—three mo-cap performances in—looks like he could be a potential successor to the master himself. Toby Kebbell might be a name you’ve never heard, but if you’ve seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which he played Koba, the troubled rival to Andy Serkis’ head ape Caesar; Warcraft, in which he played rebellious orc Durotan; or new MonsterVerse movie Kong: Skull Island, in which he plays Major Chapman and brings Kong to life along with fellow mo-cap artiste Terry Notary, you’ve also seen this actor give motion capture performances that rival even Serkis’.

The similarities between Kebbell and Serkis don’t end at their mo-cap filmographies. For years, these two were jobbing actors, dutifully showing up in lower tier parts in strictly non-animated projects, until slipping into the dotted suit finally got audiences to take notice. For Serkis, his breakthrough came playing a wretched, warped hobbit in The Lord of the Rings; for Kebbell, it was playing a scarred bonobo monkey in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Anonymous for so long as themselves, it took putting on digital disguises for the pair to at last be recognized.

Mo-cap has offered actors like Serkis and Kebbell the chance to become leading men. The reality is that neither fits the narrow Hollywood definition of what a modern star actor looks like—muscular, chiseled, preferably blond and just a little bit bland. Serkis and Kebbell could never be the next Chris Pratt, Evans, Pine or Hemsworth, because they are rather vital, adaptive artists with everyday looks. In another era, they might have made great character actors, and indeed in their own time have stolen films from their stars in small yet memorable roles. (See Kebbell playing it gleefully vulgar as Joy Division manager Rob Gretton in Control, or giving an OTT comic turn in Guy Ritchie’s otherwise forgettable RocknRolla).

Fortunately for them, they are the kind of expressive, physical performers who are perfect for motion capture, and who have through their proficiency with the tech found an avenue into leading movies of their own. Without this technology, Serkis could perhaps have hoped to have become the Peter Lorre of our time. With it, he’s become the Tom Cruise of this new field of acting, the immediate go-to for any filmmaker looking for a top-drawer motion capture performance, whether it’s Peter Jackson (Rings, King Kong), Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) or JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

It’s still early days for Kebbell, but though he’s not yet a household name like Serkis, he’s immediately gained the trust of blockbuster filmmakers in need of pivotal mo-cap performances. He was arguably the real lead in Warcraft, and rewarded director Duncan Jones’ confidence by giving what was ironically his film’s most human turn, whereas Skull Island’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts promoted Kebbell late in production to co-creating Kong with choreographer Terry Notary after he’d originally only planned to have Kebbell playing a soldier. Matt Reeves is the filmmaker who gave Kebbell his real break, though, casting him opposite Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in a role Kebbell made both sympathetic and savage, tragic and detestable. There was even talk at the time that he might be Oscar-nominated.

There are actors who have done fine work in their brief flirtations with motion capture—Zoe Saldana in Avatar, Lupita Nyong’o in The Force Awakens, to name two—but, like Serkis, Kebbell is that rare actor that is actually making his name with mo-cap, perhaps because he excels at it more so than he does at traditional, non-CGI-assisted acting. Which is not to say that Kebbell has not been impressive acting in his own skin: his debut feature performance, as a mentally handicapped bullying victim in 2004’s revenge thriller Dead Man’s Shoes, is shattering.

But now, liberated by the chance to truly disappear into a role as no other type of acting would allow, Kebbell—again, like Serkis—seems to use motion capture to leave himself behind. Unlike, say, Tom Hanks in The Polar Express or Willem Dafoe in John Carter, there’s so little trace of Kebbell in his mo-cap performances. So far he’s made each motion capture character someone (or something) with distinct personality, and one always unique from his own.

That he fully embraces the possibilities of mo-cap in this way is why Kebbell looks like the most obvious heir to Serkis’ throne. Serkis, now running his own performance capture studio, is increasingly turning to behind-the-scenes work, recently acting as assistant director on the Hobbit trilogy, consulting for Marvel and others on the technology, and now directing movies of his own. (He already has two in the bag, one fully live-action, the other a new Jungle Book movie which uses an extensive amount of mo-cap.) Meanwhile Kebbell, as a mo-cap performer, seems to be only just getting started.

Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, and editor of online film/TV magazine Screen Robot. Opinions on film range from the pretentious to the frankly laughable. Find him on Twitter.