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‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their unexpected journey, the Company continues East, encountering along the way the skin-changer Beorn and a swarm of giant Spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the dangerous Wood-elves, the Dwarves journey to Lake-town, and finally to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all – a creature more terrifying than any other; one which will test not only the depth of their courage but the limits of their friendship and the wisdom of the journey itself – the Dragon Smaug.
Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, with Martin Freeman in the central role of Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. The international ensemble cast is led by Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas. The film also stars (in alphabetical order) John Bell, Manu Bennett, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Lawrence Makoare, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt, and Aidan Turner. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ arrives in cinemas on December 13th while ’The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ concludes the trilogy on December 17th, 2014.
Can you recall your first encounter with ‘The Hobbit’ novel? And how did you land this role of Smaug?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Well, my dad read it to me when I was a young’n. I was about 6 or 7, because I went away to school at 8, so that’s how I know that, roughly. He’s an actor and he brought the whole book to life for me, it was the first book I had in my imagination as a child. So he sowed the seed really. Cut to a few years later and I auditioned for Peter Jackson in London via tape. The casting director was like, “Don’t do any movements.” But I said, “No no, I need to move.” And he was like, “Don’t worry, they just need the voice.” So I said, “…I wanna do the movements, it’s Smaug…. the Dragon,” (laughs). And he said again, “All they need on the tape is your voice as Smaug.” So, because I practiced the voice with movement I did it that way and he was like, “That was quite good.”

So when I first met Peter Jackson it was very strange. I met him for three others roles – one of which I do play, The Necromancer, and he was very sweet and really complimentary about what I could offer the film and I said, “I’m really flattered by this attention, but really, all I want to do is to play Smaug.” So he said, “That’s alright, you did a terrific audition, and we’re going to get you to do that if that all works out. That’s great.” I was like, “Really! Your not just going to get a really famous, old, rich voice to do it? You want to do my voice” “Oh no, completely.” So I said, “I’m really keen on doing motion capture, really because I think that its got to be embodied, instead of just doing something to animation and do something in a blind spot, and not really know how it’s going to manifest. I want to lead a little bit of the creative process, to the idea of his physicality being harmonious with his voice.” So Peter said, “We can definitely do that, but you can also play a live-action hero and a few different characters.” “Ok…. but have I really got the Dragon?” “Oh, yeah.” (laughs) Then nothing happened for a long time and I found out properly just after I finished ‘Frankenstein.’ I think might have sealed the deal, I don’t know. That was proof I guess that I could roll around and do physical stuff (laughs).
That’s kind of the genesis of it. The voice and everything really came from the first sessions in the mo-cap stage. Which was really how the vocal quality you see in the film came about. Also, a lot of the animation was built off the dynamic that I gave him in those moments, and then the story boards filled out and I came back to do more voice and more dialogue – it was a great process, and it was all with Peter. Most of the other people you see in the film, they worked nearly three years to get three films. I did it all in about a week with Peter. Rather than a lot of them, who had to endure being with a whole team of people around them because of the prosthetics, hair and makeup, and all the usual things in filming a fantasy film like ‘The Hobbit.’ I was really really lucky and very spoiled (laughs). It was an easy ride compared to those.
Characteristic wise, what was it about Smaug that made you really want to play him? For me, he really represents one if the major themes in Tolkien’s work, the theme of power and corruption….
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah. Smaug is such a rich character. He’s so vainglorious, decrepit, ancient, powerful and yet vulnerable, huge, vast, devilish, really really angry, and very human in his greed and his covetousness – his vengeful fury. He is enormous and incredibly quick for something that size and that scale. Also, he breathes fire and he flies (laughs), and as he boasts himself, his wings are a hurricane, his tale is a thunderbolt, his claws are spears, his teeth are swords, and he has a fire that can reduce all to dust and ash. I mean, he’s a one man army. He’s a destructive force of nature. He’s everything you need in a battle to win it, and he’s kind of a one man band when it comes to that. A lot of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘ The Hobbit,’ Tolkien’s work in general, is about power and corruption, and Smaug is sort of the ultimate symbol of that. He’s a sleepy serpent on top of his pile of gold. He’s such a great character.
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You’ve worked closely with Martin Freeman for a number of years on ‘Sherlock.’ How has it been for you to see him really bring to life this character and his journey? By the time Smaug meets him he’s a little different to the person we first encounter at the beginning of the story…..
Benedict Cumberbatch: He brings a great attitude to it, he’s really got the essence to what Bilbo becomes in the book – which is a little bit cocky at that point, when he meets Smaug (laughs). He’s a little bit sure of himself before the fact. He’s earned courage by hurling himself on this journey in this first part, and then you gradually see this evolution of somebody who’s actually got a bit of courage and is swinging it about a bit – with a bit of attitude (laughs). He’s brilliant; he’s really brilliant and very nuanced. He brings a flavor of authenticity to it, which is great because in amongst the fantasy and adventure, you need a core that has got a believable amount of empathizable humanness about him.
Bilbo represents the audience and he represents those called upon to do great things and act upon their courage and heart, and will in times of dire need and stress. I think he’s really great at that, its a really lovely evolution…. and God bless the hair and makeup department, they’ve made him look about 15 (laughs), the man’s pushing it with his age, as we all know (laughs). And to be honest, while we worked together closely on ‘Sherlock,’ we didn’t really get to work together on this, that’s movie magic, and it was peculiar in that sense. He was a bit of fluff on the carpet of the room that I did the motion capture in – he’s got a bit more character than that (laughs). And that was a shame, but that’s the nature of doing this kind of a film, you can’t always be opposite your fellow actor. And that is a shame because I always learn from working with Martin, and he from me I’d like to think (laughs).
Smaug has a great cat and mouse dynamic with Bilbo in this film with their encounter….
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yeah. Smaug can’t see this person that he knows is in his space, but he can feel that he’s there and he can smell him and he can hear his breath – his senses are highly highly tuned. He’s a hunter and a predator. He’s got this mouse in his cat’s lair, you know? He knows there’s something there for him to have fun with. There’s some fantastically, dark, drama there – and humor. The whole thing is an epic odyssey. This small man deciding to leave a very comfortable life in order to throw everything in the air for a chance of adventure. It’s incredible.
How was the experience of being in New Zealand for this film? Filming there, spending time there, and being in the environment Peter Jackson has created?
Benedict Cumberbatch: The first time I traveled to New Zealand I was really excited about it because I wanted to get involved and lost in the landscape – and I did, I finished my work a bit early so I had some time. It was a riot, it was an absolute riot in New Zealand. I really really loved being in New Zealand afterwards. James McAvoy is a really dear friend of mine, and when he did Tumness in New Zealand for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,’ he said, “Ah, you’re going to fall in love with it.” Because he knew I was an outdoorsy type like him, and I really did.
I went walking and I swam the glacial lake as well. Peter organised a helicopter ride as well, which I think is probably the most extraordinary experience of my life. We landed on the top of a glacier… I was in jogging pants, a t-shirt and a pair of trainers on the top of a glacier in an area inaccessible to humans by foot or climbing… well, you’d have to be an amazing climber (laughs). So we were just on this very pristine and unspoiled glacier, hovering in a helicopter and it lands and I get out and I just danced on the roof of the world on a glacier (laughs), in my t-shirt, jogging pants and trainers. It was incredible. I’ve got a deep, deep affection for the country.
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From Flicks and Bits
You will also find an interview with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)