Benedict Cumberbatch inspires the sort of rabid, overwhelming Internet love usually reserved for cats wearing sweaters and cute baby videos, but sitting with the actor even briefly, it’s sort of easy to understand why. In the course of 20 minutes, Cumberbatch, while enjoying a cup of tea and some Swedish Fish, sounded off with ease and eloquence on his personal relationship to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, his “porn star dragon” Smaug — one of the two characters to receive title billing in the latest epic fantasy from Peter Jackson, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — and dealing with international celebrity (specifically being recognized for his acclaimed portrayal of Sherlock Holmes by a waitress in Oklahoma, a tale he shared by dropping in and out of a rural American accent).
Hero Complex: Smaug really is a work of art.
Benedict Cumberbatch: He’s an incredible creation, isn’t he? 80% of it is [created by the special effects team at] WETA. It was amazing to do. I did do motion capture. I can sort of see bits of that in those closeups when he’s one on one with Bilbo and with Thorin at the end; it’s vague but I can see underneath all those scales, the eyebrow movements and the mouth and stuff. So what I’m saying is I can say that it’s good without saying that much about myself. I loved doing it. To be sat in an audience watching yourself is always really weird. You get very self-conscious as an actor. It takes you out of any enjoyment. No suspension of disbelief — “Ah, no, wrong choice, I could have done that differently and better. Why didn’t they use the other edit?” It’s very weird. But with this, it’s completely different. I’ve seen it once 24 frames per second… and then I saw it 48 frames. It blew me away. I know 48 frames has its detractors but for the dragon, I think it’s sensational. It’s so real. It looks like a model acting with Martin at times, animatronics rather than a digital creation. I loved it.
HC: How did you come to play Smaug?
BC: I approached them. I put myself on tape. I auditioned. I was asked to audition, I guess, at some point. My dad read this to me when I was a kid. I must have been about 6 or 7 because I went to boarding school at 8. So, it was a bedtime treat. This is for him. I owe a lot of it to him. I don’t know how much of his performance I ripped off. I can remember his Smeagol, his Golum, was brilliant. He did that a long time afterwards just to keep me sweet when I was in a grump, get my attention or make me laugh. It was one of the first things I said to [Gollum actor] Andy [Serkis] when we first met… Dad was sort of the seed of it. I loved the “Lord of the Rings” films, I wasn’t that into the books as a kid, but “The Hobbit” was a huge deal for me from dad reading it. That made me realize, Christ, the written word. You can read a book and have that much going on in your head as an imaginative world of characters and places. So, it sparked off my love of reading as well. It’s a big book in my life, in a lot of kids’ lives, and when I heard it was happening I thought I really need to audition for this. I knew I wasn’t really right for a hobbit and maybe an elf, or a dwarf. It was always Smaug for me, always, always. He’s just such an extraordinary creature in the book. He’s got a lot of personality. He’s not just a presence of animal — he’s got very wrong human emotions, avarice and venality and cruelty but also charm. I just thought he was a fascinating villain, a beautiful mythical creature.
HC: Peter Jackson mentioned something about you rolling around on a bit of carpet…
BC: It was motion capture, so I did roll around a bit on the carpet. He’s talking about the dragon porn that happened a little bit later, in the sort of third installment of our work together… they built the platform in the main soundstage at the post-production facility down in Wellington and it was great. It was sort of above [the floor] so I had this kind of thing of superiority. They built a wooden platform on stilts and they had this hard board that they’d padded with some foam and mats and stuff and on top of that they put this sheepskin. It was literally like “Baum chicka baum baum,” me up on my Smaug-y platform. I was like, “This is cool, I can slink around like a porn star dragon.”
HC: A porn star dragon?! That’s one, sort of hilarious, way to think of it.
BC: It was great because that luxuriant sensation I imagine it is for him to feel all that gold around him, [as an actor] to have some kind of contact with this thing was great. But apparently Peter’s saying that I took my shirt off and rolled around, and well, no, I didn’t. I just made one comment which he’s imagined in his head into some kind of porn thing. There was actually a camera on me as well, but it was mainly a sound recording. They built this rig for the mo-cap skull cap — which usually carries a camera — they built one with a microphone so I looked like one of those ridiculous bottom of the deep ocean angler fishes with those antenna things, but it meant I could move in any direction. There’s a lot of thrashing about and I really wanted to get that energy into the voice. The wire came back to this little pack, and then trailed back around so that sort of became a swishy mermaid serpentine-type tail. It was great, they really got what I wanted to do with him, which was to color everything with a physicality rather than just being a disembodied voice. I think it works. You don’t feel a disconnect between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing. As far as the speed of him and the color of him, the bigger picture of him, the boys and girls at WETA said it was really helpful because it gave them an idea of the characterization beyond the words.
HC: As an actor, how does one prepare to play a dragon?
BC: They had some artists impressions of him and of Erebor and this landscape he was going to be in, so I looked at that first, then went on to the mo-cap stage, imagined it, moved around with my hands [in the shape of claws], my elbows in, crawling on my belly, feet kind of clamped together as a tail, overarticulating my neck and my jaw and ruining my shoulders and doing all sorts of nonsense and damage to myself and then evolving the voice out of that. It was a wonderful evolution. I went to the London Zoo to do my good kind of actorly drama school kind of thing, my animal study. They sit around doing [nothing] for a long time, lizards. They really like doing very little. Then, when they act, it can suddenly be very violent or very slow and they really take their time. I tied all that in to the playing I did rolling around on that carpet. They said it was really helpful. It fleshed out and colored where they wanted to take him in that environment.
HC: What about the voice?
BC: It was all my own voice until the last session where we used this [device] which drops it a couple of octaves so that you can flesh out with a bit more color and character. When you’re forcing your voice down you kill your range of expression. It sounds gravelly and like you’re breathing fire a bit, but you can’t get as much color into it and variation and personality. It was a combination of that, mo-cap and the sound work that we did that you see in the finished film.
BC: Motion capture is great because you’re providing a physical context for this voice and imagining your environment, whereas with traditional animation you’re really acting in the dark… I’d never done anything in motion capture before so I was just fascinated by the whole technology. You walk onto that thing called the Volume, which is a really bland room, carpet and cheap furnishings and decorations, it’s nothing special. You’ve got a load of infrared camera sensors that pick up any motion from these little reflectors on this ridiculous gray suit. You’re wearing a skull cap with a little dangly thing with a camera on, so it’s high tech but it’s sort of low-fi. It’s not like stepping onto a set, even though those can often be dead places until something’s breathed into them. You can still get some inspiration from them and locations even more so. It’s a weird thing. I absolutely loved it after a minute of stepping on and feeling completely like a nob. Once you get over that bit of self-consciousness, it’s so freeing. I just played like a kid in a bedroom, just imagining this thing, which is great. It sort of brings me back to my dad, who first read it to me.
HC: Did you have any interaction with Martin Freeman?
BC: No, not at all. That was the only con for all the pros of doing this work. If the other person involved isn’t in a mo-cap suit, there’s no reason for them to be there. I can’t react to his face, because his face is the size of a fleck of dust, so I wouldn’t be able to look at him. He was on a well-deserved break. I came out just after Christmas  to do my first stint with them. I’d done one day on [“Star Trek Into Darkness”] as Khan, flew out to New Zealand for two weeks work.
HC: Are you now allowed to say that you were Khan?
BC: I think so. According to [“Into Darkness” director] J.J. [Abrams] he’s now regretting keeping that a secret, so I can say it as much as I want. I teased him the other day. We worked really hard to keep that secret, I was dying to tell people about it. I remember his intention, and it was for people to walk in to the cinema and have the chance, should they want to look away and not have spoilers thrust in their faces through trailers, or profile/interview pieces, just walk into the cinema and go, “Right, who’s this guy Harrison? [Wait?!] It’s Khan!” I sat with a couple of audiences early on in its public life and there were huge gasps,” Oh, no way, cool!” People cheered and clapped and that’s great. It was about having an experience of discovery as the film unfolded and not being behind Kirk. I think that was the other real concern for J.J. Narratively, if your hero’s going, “Huh? Who is this guy?” — because they haven’t come across him because it’s the new generation. I think he didn’t want [Kirk actor] Chris [Pine] to be a slow detective in the thing.
HC: Who stops you most often — “Hobbit” fans, “Trek” fans or “Sherlock” fans?
BC: Yet to find out really. “Star Trek’s” still having a bit of a life. Season 3 is coming out in the new year of “Sherlock.” I would imagine most people aren’t going to go, “Hey, there’s Smaug,” because thankfully I don’t look too much like a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe I’ll have people running up in the street trying to pin a tail on my ass. They could pin worse things on my back, I suppose… “Sherlock,” really. If I’m curly and dark, I’m [in trouble] anywhere I go pretty much now. Oklahoma last year, doing “August Osage County,” I was in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, beautiful town, lovely people. I thought, “I’m going to be fine. ‘Sherlock’s’ big in certain parts of the world, but I’ll be all right.” The first café I went to on my own outside of the hotel, this girl came up to me and went, “Sherlock Holmes.” I couldn’t believe it. The reach of that program is extraordinary. He’s an iconic character and I’m really proud of the job we’ve done on it. So I understand its appeal but it still blows my mind the reach of it.
BC: Wonderful. I really enjoyed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and he as a person, he’s lovely. He’s so easy and relaxed and unpretentious and really tireless and so supportive. It’s a long way to go to do a job and the minute you get off that plane, you feel that you’ve arrived at a sort of alternate home. It’s amazing the way they look after you. It’s all familial and easy. It’s not about absurd luxury, it’s about being made to feel that you’re part of a team and a family. I wasn’t there for a lot of the live action. That was the only thing. I did so much in isolation. The downside of that meant that I obviously didn’t get to work with other actors and also see what happened, which was whole families descending on that place, just this continual life around the project, but the good thing for me was I just had Peter, Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens]to myself. That was an amazingly spoiling environment to work in.
HC: How does it feel for you to join up with Peter Jackson and become part of the “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” family?
Every time they had the other characters on set – for any dwarf there’s about four people handling them, there’s hair and makeup, there’s a prosthetics expert, someone making sure they’re hydrated — it meant that Peter was speaking to people through a PA that they called the “voice of God” or a bullhorn. Obviously, they’re working on landscapes, big sets, it needed that. But I was in a room with the guy padding around with no shoes on and shorts, just a Kiwi bloke, and we could do our thing and talk it over. And yet, within that he’s incredibly detailed. He would give one note which would just turn everything I was doing 180 degrees. He’s brilliant like that… I also just marveled at the man being able to put 20 hats on. Even when we were working, on his lunch break he would go off and he’d be straight back in the edit [bay] looking at stuff they’d already done or scoping out a location or rewriting a scene that was coming up and back to me, and the sole focus was me again.
Photo in high res: http://latimesherocomplex.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/smaug.jpg