By Sharon Knolle
Moviefone had the exclusive privilege of sitting down, one-on-one, with Benedict Cumberbatch, the “Sherlock” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” star who lends his impressively deep voice to the villainous Smaug, whom Bilbo (Martin Freeman) encounters at great peril in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” which opens Friday.
After being ushered into the hotel room at the Beverly Hilton, the actor sat in an armchair and proceeded to drape his legs over the edge, then asked, “You don’t mind me being slouched like this, do you? It’s ever so comfortable.”
He proceeded to talk about his elaborate preparation to not only voice, but act out the dragon — he’s the one who suggested he do motion capture to get into the part — why dragons love lying in gold, and what kind of fan fiction might be coming out of this particular film. With Cumberbatch, you know that’s a given.
Moviefone: You’ve said that the way you voice Smaug was inspired by the way your father read “The Hobbit” to you when you were a boy.
Benedict Cumberbatch: I think it must have been, to some degree. That inspired me a lot, really inspired me to read books. It was the first imaginary landscape I had in my mind as a kid. Yeah, he was brilliant. He’s a great actor and he did the most fantastic characterizations. I don’t really remember his Smaug specifically. I remember his Gollum, which was fantastic. He used to bring that out of the woodwork to bring me out of a grump or make me crack up or just to amuse me. It worked, it always made me smile. Or creep me out, maybe.
How old were you when he first read it to you?
I must have been 6 or 7, since I went to boarding school at 8. It was a bedtime treat, so I’m sure I was definitely older than 4 or 5. It wouldn’t really have sunk in as much. But I remember the treat of having two chapters if I’d been good and, well, if the chapters were short enough and he wasn’t exhausted.
What kind of preparation did you do to play an evil dragon?
It starts with the motion capture, so I looked at animals in the reptile house at Regent’s Park Zoo. I looked at Komodo dragons but also other reptiles and serpents and also bats and other winged creatures like bats and cranes and herons and things with a beautifully angular wingspan. Dragons are quite a large part of English folklore and culture through heraldry and symbols on churches and St. George and the dragon. It’s kind of our thing, really, the Welsh dragon. So I guess they’re in your imagination from quite a young age. So although it sounds ridiculous, I kind of imagined what it would be like to be a dragon. Especially the animalistic side of the movement was kind of fun to recreate in an abstract way in the mo-cap stage, unlike Andy [Serkis’s] work [as Gollum], which is obviously much more representative.
What were your motion capture sessions like?
I articulated my front hands to sort of claws into front legs. And these guys [his legs] I just kept together and sort of slid around like a mermaid. [Laughs] I dragged my belly across the floor and sort of hyper articulated my neck and did a lot of damage to my back and shoulders. I had a lot of fun. And then started to place the voice in all of that. And then compromised again back the other way in the sound studio, even though, as the shots on the internet show, I was kind of rigged up, I could move around and vocalize through the physicality, but I tried not to do too much of that because it makes your voice [makes a strangled noise while stretching his head back] the more crushed your vocal cords are. The closer your head is to your chest, the more it stretches it out the other way like a rubber band. And I loved it!
Is this the first time you did motion capture?
Yeah, yeah. The mo-cap thing is not like green screen. When Peter offered me the role… well, I mean, after auditioning for it and getting it… he said, “Oh, I’d love you to do it.” I said, “Fantastic. Can I do some motion capture?” And he said we wouldn’t really need it. And I told him, “Yeah, I know, but it would really help me to characterize him.” And he said OK. And it really helped. And WETA as well. They were really sweet about it.
Can you see any of your own facial expressions in Smaug?
When there are scenes between him and Bilbo, the confrontation and the riddling, I can see very clearly the sort of things that my eyes are doing, and my cheek and my mouth, the stuff that I did in close-up in the mo-cap. Obviously less so, the bodywork. But what I loved about that, all of it really, was just the lack of restriction. It was so freeing. Just get to play, be a kid again, which brings me back to my Dad. So it was really joyful.
Did you voice any of your scenes with Martin?
No. So I was completely free. [Smiles]
I’m sure you’ve got a good enough idea of him in your head.
Good enough idea. Too much of an idea when you’re working. It can be really distracting. He really can be very funny. He’s very supportive, though. Same with the Necromancer. I had scenes with Gandalf and didn’t get to work with Sir Ian [McKellen] or Cate [Blanchett] or Hugo Weaving.
Are you getting to know the actors you didn’t work with during the press junkets?
Yes, it’s really bizarre. Now, Luke [Evans], I’ve met a couple of times before. I love Luke. Richard [Armitage], I only met through this job. Martin, of course I know really well. This is the first time I’ve really gotten to know the [rest of the cast].
Were you at all jealous that you don’t get to put on elf ears or a wizard’s beard?
Not at all. Look, I think they do a wonderful job, but I think it’s really rather unfair. I get away with a maximum amount of impact and a minimum amount of effort with this job. I’m very happy about that.
And you don’t mind that you don’t have a hero shot like Thorin or a character poster?
I do other work where I have hero shots. It’s hard work, all that stuff. Yeah, the poster shot would be nice, but I’d much rather people step into the cinema and go, “F*ck, that’s amazing!” when they first see him. It takes a little away from the thrill of seeing him for the first time. I’m fine with not being on a bus stop or somewhere over the skyline. I can deal with that. My time will come on something else, I’m sure. But those guys have f*cking earned it as well. They worked so hard. It’s arduous as hell. Really difficult stuff. Endless amount of prosthetics, the overheating and constant dehydration, the hours in the makeup chair. I just thrashed around on a mo-cap stage.
Why do you think that dragons love gold so much?
I really don’t know. I think it’s cooling and luxuriating and lovely for him [to lie on]. The gold is an inert and inanimate reflection of his power and prowess. So to be able to bathe in it, the equivalent of us sinking into a bath of polystyrene beads, I think it’s quite comforting and silky and — not that I’ve done that. Or a sand dune. It’s just that thing of being enveloped with warm, hot sand. It’s such a wonderful feeling. Before you realize you’ll never f*cking get it out of your… wherevers. It’s a nice thing on the beach. It’s never a nice thing when you go home, is it?
Does he not get lonely in there all by himself?
No, you see, I think that’s it. In all honesty, I do think the gold thing is his status made real. He doesn’t have to prove anything, he’s sitting on it. And there’s a great metaphor for capitalism gone wrong in the last couple of decades. The potency of this story, nearly 100 years on, is that — like at the time it was written — it’s a metaphor for something much beyond the fantastical realities of the world that he’s created. It’s something that was born out of Europe at war and the rise of Nazism. The parallels are very, very clear. The bravery that it takes for Bilbo to do great things in a dangerous and dark world, that carries on as an inspirational story of courage. And I think Smaug, he’s kind of a horrific embodiment of the evil of the Third Reich. Both he and the necromancer, I believe, are. I think now that can work for market capitalism gone wrong. It’s just avarice and greed and all that venality is just large and it’s tied in with an ego that has human complexities, vanity and pride and all those things that make him think he’s invincible and stop him from realizing his limitations.
He seems to enjoy it when Bilbo invades his lair, though. He enjoys toying with him.
I think that’s a really good observation. I think another friend said it, both from women, I have to say, “He’s a male dragon, he needs a mate.”
What about the lonely female dragon from “Shrek?”
[Laughs] That’d be great. Oh my God, I can feel the fan fiction being written right now. If [the Internet’s] not still broken from my earlier discussions. Oh God. I know what you mean. But he’s so self-involved. Just “me and my gold.”
But he enjoys showing off to Bilbo and intimidating him.
No, no, you’re completely right. Rather than just killing him, which he could very easily do. To be honest, it’s an investigation. He’s trying to grill the guy, it’s a very cunning way to eke out the context of this little irritant that he’s going to kill. He can smell the dwarves and he knows there’s something else going on on the mountainside. He’s almost telepathic. There was a point when we were going to [make him telepathic], rather like the spiders when the ring goes on, they suddenly have voices. There’s something very unnerving and uncanny — even in this fantastical world — of dragons and giant spiders that everything leads back to Sauron. Everything leads back to the Necromancer and what he’s been doing.
So Smaug is connected to Sauron? That was never spelled out in the original book, as I remember it.
Yeah. I think he’s definitely perceived as being connected. In that first scene, Gandalf says he fears as much, a connection between the great work of the Third Age of Middle Earth and this gathering dark. I think Sauron could definitely master him as an agent for his purposes.
What would be in it for Smaug?
There’d be a way! Maybe mine some more gold. There are ways, definitely, of taming a dragon, I think.
What is the trick to pronouncing “Smaug”?
Listening to the author’s reading of it, the way he says Smaug. It was “Smog” when my dad did it. I always thought of smog, this thing that created … well, there’s nothing like smog, is there? It’s nearer the derived root word, which I think is Old English for “worm.” See now, he had his reasons, Tolkien, the way he wove this story. I think that’s why it’s so popular, because there’s so much stuff to geek out about it and just involve yourself in, whether it’s Elvish or Black Speech. I’ve got dads of my generation reading it to their kids now.