Benedict Cumberbatch sure has the vocal power to voice the titular dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. And given his uncanny ability to channel evil, as we saw in Star Trek Into Darkness, there could not have been a better choice for Peter Jackson when it came to casting his dragon. And much as Andy Serkis famously did for Gollum, Cumberbatch donned a motion capture suit, in addition to doing voice work in a studio, to fully embody the evil dragon.
We caught up Cumberbatch recently at the Beverly Hills Hilton, in an area of the hotel that had fittingly been turned into the “Book of New Zealand,” and he told us about channeling his inner reptile, one who has taken over the dwarves' home creates a new fellowship together on a mission to rid him from the mountain locale with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf along for fighting help.
Given our surroundings, we wondered if Cumberbatch was able to go on the New Zealand set and how that informed what we see teased in this The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug trailer. “Yes, I did go to New Zealand. It was hugely, hugely helpful,” Cumberbatch said and smiled.
“We were in the mo-cap stage so it began as a physicalization, both voice and body work, the whole thing. That’s how I discovered him.”
It was a journey that in many ways dates back decades. “It was via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven. When I went to school it was a bedtime treat at home. So that was my first bit of research,” Cumberbatch said. “Then, I went to the reptile house at the London Zoo and had a look there. It’s so beautifully written, the book, and it’s so well illustrated in countless editions of the book.”
Cumberbatch credits Jackson with the ultimate help in finding the keys to the character that is honestly the true heart of The Hobbit book and movie trilogy. “With Peter’s input, our rehearsals and just playing like a kid really in this incredible freeing volume -- as they call the mo-cap stage -- meant that we could kind of go anywhere with it,” Cumberbatch said.
There was one drawback. “Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast! And Martin, I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin which was sad. We know each other quite well so we kind of second guessed in a weird way our performances to some degree I guess. I’ve had scenes with people I haven’t even met yet. So that is bizarre.”
Cumberbatch does know Freeman, as the two are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively, in the wildly popular BBC series.
“It’s a very different dynamic,” Cumberbatch said of his Sherlock time with Freeman. “One, I’m in the room with him and I’m not the flying, psychotic napalm machine. I could be dismissive of him as Dr. Watson as my Sherlock, but they’re friends.”
The two actors have grown quite close over the years, and even though he didn’t get to perform with him directly in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, their kinship transcended the physical absence. "He’s very smart and he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met,” Cumberbatch said. “He’s a craftsman. He works incredibly hard and creates authentic characters and moments in drama. He’s an inspiration to work with obviously and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Martin.”
Would they ever do something else together?
“We do love our Shakespeare,” Cumberbatch said. Perhaps they could do Romeo and Juliet, but, who would play whom? “Oh, come on! You know Martin would look very pretty in a dress and wig. Martin and I will probably have another outing together at some point, but who knows?”
Cumberbatch did spend time with one The Hobbit star, and veteran of The Lord of the Rings, and that would be Serkis. He famously wore the motion capture suit as Gollum, and although Cumberbatch is playing a reptile and Serkis played a two-legged creature, the actor could not get enough from the master.
“It’s obviously more abstract. It’s only going to be an impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile who can breathe fire and fly. One of the ways I did it was trying to squeeze my legs together, just forgetting the fact that they were legs, just trying to feel that as an elongated body crawling on the floor with my elbows and using my hands as claws and over-articulating my neck and shoulder,” Cumberbatch said.
“[I] just threw myself at it with a kind of kid-like imagination and their brilliant, expert guidance. It was a really fun way to work. Andy’s the originator and master of that form -- art form, I should say, giving it its proper title. We just sort of laughed afterwards because we both realized he’s only done biped mammals. No one’s really tried a serpent before!”