Benedict Cumberbatch interview: The Hobbit, Holmes and Smaug

We talk to the great Benedict Cumberbatch about playing the dragon in The Desolation Of Smaug, Sherlock and more...

You only have to spend a moment or two in Benedict Cumberbatch’s company to realise why director Peter Jackson cast him as the title dragon in The Desolation Of Smaug. He has that sonorous voice, those hypnotic eyes. But unlike Smaug, the psychotic flying serpent with a lust for gold, Cumberbatch proved to be thoughtful, gentle, and thoroughly pleasant.

And while one European journalist’s suggestion that Cumberbatch’s characters are “intelligent and arrogant” left him understandably irked, he responded enthusiastically and eloquently to our suggestion that the avaricious Smaug’s still a relevant symbol, more than 75 years after Tolkien first created him.

With The Desolation Of Smaug out in UK cinemas now, here’s what Cumberbatch had to say about his performance as the dragon, his take on Sherlock Holmes, and the other roles in his busy schedule.

So what’s so special about Smaug compared to ordinary monsters? [Laughs]

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That’s such a ridiculous question that I can’t even begin to answer it. He’s just legendary in the world of The Hobbit, and he is the ultimate dragon. He’s an extraordinary creation in the book. And what we’ve all managed to achieve – especially the people at WETA, the post-production and sound facilities in Wellington – is extraordinary. It’s another leap forward in cinema, as Gravity was – an environment you can believe in totally, and with the 48 [frames per second] it’s extraordinarily real.

I loved bringing him to life. My dad bought me the books when I was a kid. I auditioned for it, and I moved – much to the consternation of the casting director, Dan Hubbard – and when I met Peter Jackson, he said, “You’d be great as the voice of Smaug”. And I said, “Well, can I do the movement?”

He said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, I know a lot of it will be computer effects, and WETA and all the rest of it, but can I use motion capture to ground the physical reality of it? To give them an idea of the drama, and how this mythical creature should be humanised.”

He said, “Yeah, alright”. And that’s how we started it.

What was it like seeing yourself as Smaug for the first time?

Terrific. I mean, so far away from even what I had in my head. What they’ve done is extraordinary. So unlike the usual experience of being a little self-critical, or vain or self-conscious about something where it’s supposed to be suspension of disbelief, I could just sit back and enjoy it, rather than be tortured by that movement or that facial expression or that choice of edit. I could just luxuriate in it like the rest of the audience.

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It’s very cool, especially if you have a five-year-old godson. It’s his favourite type of animal at the moment. 

You’re playing a smart, intelligent quite arrogant dragon, and you’ve also played a smart, intelligent quite arrogant Sherlock Holmes…

You as journalists would love there to be a pattern, but there isn’t. It’s just what I’ve been caught being good at at a certain moment in time. I’ve played Charlie in August: Osage County who’s anything but arrogant. I also played Master Ford in Twelve Years A Slave who’s morally very complex but certainly not arrogant, and not necessarily the smartest man in the room, either. He has a debt problem and can’t manage his business – he sells human beings in order to make himself solvent.

It’s very easy to draw comparisons, because those are the kinds of characters that pop. But I play other things as well.

When it came to characterising Smaug, did you think about how he might behave if he were a human being?

I think it’s in the book, that. I think there’s a real level of transformation in the books. He’s really mercurial. He does start off like a riddler who’s psychotically trying to undermine with confidence, praise, self-belief. He’s really manipulative and intelligent. He’s got all that venal rage and vanity, which are obviously very negative, human characteristics or flaws.

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And he speaks English – very good English [laughs] and he’s able to belch fire and fly and all the rest of it. It was important to bring some kind of anthropomorphic quality to how we created him, so that’s why I wanted to do some motion capture, and steer a little bit of the animation in his face, which I can tell very vaguely where I’ve had some input. I spoke to the WETA boys afterwards, and they said, “Oh, absolutely you did.”

Also the movement in his environment was dictated by how furious or slow and calculating or how in control or out of control he was at any given moment in the scene. So yeah, he’s another character. It’s a classic protagonist-antagonist scene. It’s a drama, so you have to look at that as well, no matter how ridiculous it sounds when you’re talking about a fire-breathing serpent. It was important, because otherwise he’s just another big, bad monster and there’s no personality, and it’s over. Threat, obstacle, out of there. I think that’s what Tolkien does remarkably well in the book. He’s already led you into this world of Elves and magicians. 

It’s quite a relevant symbol as well, isn’t it? The greedy dragon on his mountain of gold.

Yeah, completely. I think something that stands for a symbol of wars in the era in which he was created – a rising manifestation of weaponry – he now stands as this totem of capitalism gone mad. This sort of avarice, and how damaging that can be. And beyond that, there’s a universal thing about knowing your limitations with this character. Because obviously, he thinks he’s invincible, but he really aint. And all that self-belief and pride will be his downfall. You can’t imagine Smaug being humble and learning anything, you know? [Chuckles] He’s very definite about who he is and his place in the world, and that’s his downfall.

That’s what’s heroic about this story: it’s the ones who have doubt, it’s the ones who have fear, it’s the ones who have uncertainty, who have to conquer those fears. Whether it’s Bard or Bilbo prising himself out of the shire and becoming this accidental hero for the first time. That’s what makes it a great story to read to children, like me with my dad. He’s got adult eccentricities, the Hobbit, when you first meet him, but he’s a young man and he has vulnerabilities because he’s innocent – he’s finding his place in the world.

That’s something every child can relate to: going to school, making friends, going out into the wider world. I think that’s why it still works now.

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Can you tell us about how you came up with your modern take on Sherlock Holmes?

As I’ve said countless times, he’s a modern man. He is in the books. He’s someone who’s slightly outside of the status quo and the normal way of operating, and I think he works quite well in the way he’s been reimagined. It’s elements of his that translate well into the 21st century. It’s not that different from him in the books – he uses the technologies that we have at our disposal, and yet he’s still incredibly erudite and old-fashioned in some ways, I suppose, but he’s a man of his time.

So the fact that he’s working in the world of heightened forensic science that’s evolved since his inception in the Victorian era makes sense. I think that’s why it’s a success cross generationally – people who love their [Jeremy] Brett and [Basil] Rathbone can enjoy this as well, because we do it with the utmost respect for the original character.

Where do you feel more at home – in smaller dramas like Wikileaks [The Fifth Estate] or bigger blockbusters?

I feel at home when I’m being challenged with new and exciting work, so I don’t really have a favourite at the moment, to be honest. I’m just enjoying the variety of what I’m being offered. I had a great time on Star Trek as well as Wikileaks and The Imitation Game, which is another smaller film I’ve just done about Alan Turing. I’m very, very spoilt at the moment, so I’m just making the most of my opportunities rather than thinking that I prefer this to that. They all are different, but they’ve all been challenging in exciting ways.

Which is all we can hope for, I think – part of the reason we do what we do is to not have to get a suit on and do the nine to five. We’re very lucky as a working part of the populace of actors that we get to do that.

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Benedict Cumberbatch, thank you very much. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.

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