By Brian Truitt
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2013 was the Year of the Snake. But in Hollywood, it was the Year of the Cumberbatch.
British actor Benedict Cumberbatch raised his status from cult star of TV’s Sherlock to a favorite for a massive amount of new Cumberbabes and Cumberbros in a string of big-screen fare, especially as bad guys.
He proved a worthy foe for Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk as the new Khan in the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek Into Darkness and makes things doubly difficult for the heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth inThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (in theaters Friday) as the evil Necromancer and the antagonistic talking dragon Smaug.
Cumberbatch’s presence also graced The Fifth Estate (in which he starred as real-life WikiLeaksfounder Julian Assange), the Oscar-buzzworthy 12 Years a Slave and the upcoming August: Osage County (opening Christmas day), but in those he worked with his fellow actors. For The Hobbit, he mainly spent time with director Peter Jackson doing motion-capture and voiceover work for his baddies and didn’t hang out with many of his cast members until this past week at the Los Angeles premiere.
“I’ve never even met Cate Blanchett and apparently I’ve got a scene with her coming up, so there you go,” Cumberbatch says with a laugh. (He and Blanchett will be in the final film The Hobbit: There and Back Again in 2014, which also brings a new three-episode season of Sherlock and Cumberbatch as World War II code-cracker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.)
Cumberbatch talks with USA TODAY about his Hobbit roles, his 2013 highlights and who’s he taking to the movies on his Christmas break.
Q. How much motion-capture did you do for ‘Smaug’?
A. The most bits I recognize are when it’s square on, where it’s face to face with Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman) or Thorin (Richard Armitage) in the Hall of Kings at the end. That’s where I can definitely see my gestures.
There’s a temperature and pace to some of the movement of the dragon before he obviously flies and does the fantastical things he can do that no human can. Those guys at (digital-effects company) WETA are extraordinary, but they were really receptive to the idea of me characterizing him first in the flesh and moving around the mo-cap studio — “the Volume” as they call it — and give an anthropomorphic quality to this reptile who can breathe fire and fly.
It was also important for me to physicalize where the voice was coming from and not just be a bodiless voice. It fed into the stuff we then did on the soundstage.
There were certain characteristics, eye movements and facial expressions layered underneath this extraordinary creation that came from me.
Q. That must have been a challenge.
A. It’s a completely different way of acting. I completely loved it. It gave me total and complete freedom. There wasn’t a mark to hit, there wasn’t a costume or makeup issues to keep in continuity, there wasn’t all the amazing amount of hours that the dwarves and everybody else in that production puts in.
There’s no way I can be a serpent of that size who breathes fire and flies. Even if it was profitable for me to interpret that somehow, I’m a biped. It was up to me to completely imagine being a dragon. It’s child’s play. It’s the most enjoyable fantastic and freeing kind of moment of reinventing what it is to be an actor on camera.
I was really enthralled for that process. And it’s a lot easier than having to spend hours acting opposite a ping-pong ball in front of a green screen. You are the effect — everything you do is being manipulated into the effect.
Q. What was the biggest difference between playing the Necromancer and Smaug?
A. The Necromancer was much more ethereal and disembodied — he’s this sort of formless spirit that’s not found a real physical realization yet. He’s getting there, he’s becoming the all-seeing eye as we know from Lord of the Rings and that’s really exciting. He’s Sauron. It’s a slow evolution for him, so that quality was brought about by movement I did as myself just as a human form and not trying to ape any reptilian behavior. I was walking toward the cameras in the Volume but with a bungee — I had this sensation of being pulled back.
Peter’s great note about the Necromancer was that he should be like a black hole, with energy sucked in and toward him while Smaug is much more confrontational and a huge animal. That was much more forward and investigative and there are articulations at the neck and the head and the shoulders. I would clamp my elbows into my body and push myself around like a worm with my feet bound together on the mo-cap stage, as to not use them as feet but just as a thing I was lugging behind.
They are very, very different energies and they both fed into the voice. Smaug had to really be rich and deep and come from the same bowels that create all that fire.
Also, I wanted it to be worn — not necessarily old but I wanted there to be an element of it that sounded like hot air being blown over flaming coals rather than a crisp, clean, delicate or fresh voice.
I shredded my vocal cords to bits trying to do very weird things. Some guys came and they said, “You’ve already added effects to this, right?” And they went, “No, no, that’s just him on his own in front of a microphone.” They went, “Wow.” That was great. I was pleased to impress that crowd.
It was such a thrill to please both J.J. and Peter Jackson in the same half of a year. I worked hard to give them what they needed and tried to surprise them as well.
Q. Smaug’s definitely got a personality, too. He doesn’t just haul off and fry Bilbo to a crisp — they have a proper conversation.
A. He’s smart. He doesn’t want to just kill the mouse — he wants to know who set the mouse into the lair. He’s got an intelligence and a charm about him that soon degenerates into a venal, terrible vanity and dead-end rage. He’s a psychopath, he can empathize as long as it gets him what it needs. He’s an utterly self-serving and greedy destructive force, but his failings all have a human character. It wouldn’t work as a creation at all if it was just, oh, there’s a beast in a lair.
What’s beautiful about the book is he has a personality and if anything his personality is a metaphor for capitalism gone wrong and that stretches across the age, no more so in the last couple of decades in our lifetime.
The thing I learned from him is know your limitations. He’s someone who thinks he’s invincible because of how locked into his own majesty he is, and he’s not at all. He’s very vulnerable.
All of that is in the original Tolkien text completely, and my dad read this book to me when I was a kid so that was the first seed of it. He did a great Smaug but I really remember his Smeagol, his Gollum, to be honest. That was a character he used to bring out every now and again to amuse me. He was really good at it — he’d give Andy a run for his money.
I told Dad the first time I knew I got this job for sure. I rang him and said, “You’ll never guess what I’m doing.” He went, “Oh, that’s fantastic. Why aren’t they seeing me?”
Q. Has your dad seen The Hobbit yet?
A. No, he’s waiting in line like everyone else. We’ll probably go and see it together as a family when I get back to London.
Q. Has dealing with, say, paparazzi while filming Sherlock or having your Star Trek character overanalyzed on the Internet changed the way you look at your career?
A. To be honest, I’m so happy to be given an opportunity to play these parts. The reflections that happen in retrospect on me playing them, I try not to get involved because it’s kind of scary.
I always just primarily worry about pleasing the director and the person in front of me and the rest of my cast. Whether it’s a radio studio or a rehearsal amongst the team with biscuits and scripts in hand, it doesn’t matter what scale it’s at — it’s about being true to your intent to being truthful in the moments.
I’ve worked with some of the greats. I’m just very, very grateful. (Pauses) I’m sure it makes boring copy — hey, here’s another actor telling you how grateful he is! But look at the work I’ve been doing the last year. How can I not be grateful?
Q. You mentioned child’s play before. Does a lot of acting for you come down to having a youthful enthusiasm to pretend, even with a serious character such as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate?
A. There is no simple formula for it. Every job requires a completely different approach. (The Fifth Estate was) getting under the skin and understanding Julian and also the moral responsibility of being a storyteller about an issue and a man and many men and women whose freedom and personality are going to be perception-shaped by what we do. That there are real lives we might affect for this story was a huge burden. It was something that was very important for me to get right. That was another consideration that’s well beyond a sense of play.
The only thing that may unite all forms of acting in a sense is no matter what preparation you do, no matter what transformative process you go through, you are always yourself. You are always inside your own skin — you are who you are no matter what the actions of the movement or the effect.
You have to have an essential element of you and that is also what is in the present. Once you’re in the present and you’re not worried about the wig or the special-effects suit or the dialogue or the accent or the moral responsibility, when you are lost in the moment and you’re in the present is when the stuff that’s really good comes on screen. Until that point, you’ve put in a lot of hard work to then let go, and all of us experience moments — and they’re rare in every job I find — where you feel free of any kind of self-consciousness.
Q. Your fans probably enjoyed your recent gigs. What’s it been like on your end?
A. It’s been incredible, and such a variety of work. Overexposure is always the thing I’m frightened of but it’s just the way it happened. My workload exploded over the last couple of years, but they’ve all come home to roost this autumn. That’s just chance — that’s just how the movie industry harvests, I guess. I remember Jessica Chastainhaving this kind of a moment two years ago where all that brilliant work she did came out in one sudden moment.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, but it’s kept me very, very busy. I’m heading off into Christmas now and getting ready for a nice long break just to regroup and see where to go next. I cannot wait to be on my time and be impulsive and move at my own pace.
And the third season of Sherlock is coming.
Q. Last thing we saw of that show was everybody thinking your ace detective was dead. Anything you can tease about what’s happening when it returns to PBS Jan. 19?
A. There’s a reunion and there’s an explanation and there’s a marriage and there’s a new villain on the scene. There’s an awful lot to enjoy in the three films we’ve made of it. And trust me, they’re films — they are really richly detailed and you don’t go away feeling unsatisfied. There’s so much in all of them.
I’ve seen the first two and they’re terrific. I haven’t seen the third yet, but I knew when we were doing that one it was going to be really special. They’re all very different and they all hold their own.
Q. Do you have a next project yet?
A. I know for certain I’m doing Hamlet sometime in autumn on the London stage, and before that there are all sorts of film projects flying around, but the one that looks most real at the moment is Lost City of Z with James Gray.
Q. What was your best day in 2013?
A. Oh, that’s a good question. It’s been a long year to flip back through since there’s been so many moments. I’ve met some extraordinary people and had some amazing experiences. I’ve had some wonderful moments of calm and isolation as well amongst all the circus and hype. I’ve met some wonderful fans, I’ve had some fantastic relationships, I’ve been with some extraordinary comrades and fellow workers.
Days on set of The Imitation Game playing Alan Turing was an amazing experience and wrapping the third season of Sherlock was a rather emotional and proud moment.
Q. I’m sure you live for the quiet times, too, though.
A. Being home in London’s great when people respect my privacy. You can just take a beat or a moment or two and find there’s still islands of calm in your day anywhere you are. Everyone does that in their own way in work and any kind of life that involves other people.
It could be anything. It could be drinking at a sunset for a second or two, it could be going on a holiday to some far-flung place and getting away from it all, and it could be dissolving into a book at bedtime.
Or it could just be bedtime. Bedtime’s always nice. (Laughs)
Q. Who’s the coolest person you met this year?
A. I would say Harrison Ford’s up there. I didn’t actually meet him this year, we’d met before but he was so lovely to me on The Graham Norton Show. That was very, very cool.
Oh, who else? God, this is embarrassing. Who am I forgetting?
My mind always goes blank at things like this. Somebody said, “What’s your favorite place on Earth? Tell us about a place you’ve been to the last couple of years.” My mind went blank, and then I stepped out of the room and went, “(Expletive).”
Being 15,000 feet up in a plane in New Zealand was pretty (expletive) fantastic as was landing after the parachute jump. Going to Big Sur. Stepping on the Star Trekbridge for the first time. Seeing people’s homes that are fantastic. Walking into my own flat for the first time after it was finished. Seeing someone that I know and love very well get better from a terrible illness was one of the great moments of this year, to be honest.
It’s life, isn’t it? It’s what everyone experiences. I guess sometimes ours is more extreme.