Audiences won’t see Benedict Cumberbatch in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug even though he portrays the title character – no, not the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, that role went to his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman. Cumberbatch, through motion capture, embodies the frightening dragon, Smaug.
The actor spoke of his role and his relationship with Freeman, who was unable to attend the press day. Hobbit 2 trilogy opens on December 13th.
What is your background where The Hobbit is concerned?
Via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven. It was a bedtime treat. My dad is an extraordinary actor, so he brought to life for me this already extraordinary world of Hobbits and Dragons. It was a very rich way to be introduced to such an incredible book.
That was my first bit of research, and then I went to the Reptile House at the London Zoo and had a look there. It’s so beautifully written in the book and it’s so well-illustrated in countless additions of the book.
Then with Peter’s input and 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 go anywhere with it.
Can you talk about embodying Smaug? Did you go to New Zealand to do it?
Yes, I did go to New Zealand. It was hugely helpful. I started off with Peter, (and screenwriters) Fran (Walsh) and Philippa (Boyens), just the three of them and me.
It was a privilege in itself to have their sole attention, because of how large everything else is on this film. We were in the mo-cap stage, so it began as voice, face and body work, the whole thing. That’s how I discovered him.
If it’s Andy Serkis as Gollum it’s easier to understand how he would do a motion capture performance. How do you motion capture a giant dragon?
It’s obviously more abstract. It’s only going to be an impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile that can breathe fire and fly, because I’m a limited [human] mammal. But Peter knew that when I auditioned, so we worked with my negatives and tried to turn them into positives.
One of the ways I did it was trying to squeeze my legs together, just forgetting the fact that they were legs, trying to feel it was an elongated body crawling on the floor with my elbows, using my hands and claws, and over articulating my neck and shoulder, just throwing myself at it with a kid like imagination and their brilliant expert guidance.
It was a really fun way to work. When Andy came down to start on second unit, I said, ‘God, I wish you’d been there,’ because he’s the originator and master of that art form.
Did you get to meet the rest of the cast?
Sadly I met hardly any of the cast. I didn’t spend any live time with Martin, which was sad, but it was fine. We know each other quite well, so we second guessed in a way with our performances to some degree.
You and Martin Freeman are Sherlock and Watson, you’re now Bilbo and Smaug, what’s your vision on what you’ll do for your third collaboration?
Romeo and Juliet. We like our Shakespeare.
Which one is Romeo and which one is Juliet?
Oh come on, you know Martin would look very pretty in a little blond wig. The weird thing about it is [that] with all that chemistry it was very peculiar acting by proxy with him.
He’s a bit of an inspiration to be around, so that was the biggest con really of what was otherwise [a great experience]. Martin and I will probably have some kind of an outing in the future. Who knows?
I did my job in about eight days, so hearing all the stories of the live action perils, and the amount of work that all the actors put in, I feel like I’m the cheat at the table.
As Martin wasn’t there, Benedict was asked what it is like working with him? Click here to listen to his remarks, embellished by director Peter Jackson.
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