Last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey renewed our acquaintance with the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the freakish Gollum (Andy Serkis) and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), among others, while introducing us to a slew of Middle-earth inhabitants we’d never met before on the screen, including would-be dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), his dozen loyal followers, and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). It was a lot to take in all at once, especially those 13 dwarves and their interchangeable names.Twelve months later, the second installment of director Peter Jackson’s massive expansion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, has arrived with a fistful of new characters, chief amongst them the Lake-town barge man Bard (Luke Evans), the controversial – which we’ll get to – elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and the title monster himself, the psychotic, greedy, terrifying dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).All three actors were on hand at the recent press day for The Desolation of Smaug held in Los Angeles, where they got to speak about joining Jackson’s epic and how they approached their iconic – for two of them, at least – characters. Cumberbatch (who also voices the Necromancer) had it easiest in some ways: eight days of work, no green screen and no costumes – except that he did travel to New Zealand to give his performance in motion capture gear so that animators could use him as a reference for bringing Smaug to life.“Yes, I did go to New Zealand,” recalled Cumberbatch. “It was hugely, hugely helpful. I started off with Peter and Fran (Walsh, co-writer and producer) and Philippa (Boyens, co-writer and producer), just the three of them and me, which was a privilege in itself, because of how large everything else is on this film, to have their sole attention. We were in the mo-cap stage so it began as a physicalization, both voice and body work, the whole thing.”Asked to compare doing motion capture for a dragon as opposed to Andy Serkis’ groundbreaking work as Gollum, Cumberbatch replied, “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…But 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 to the delight of any physical therapist who was unlucky enough to try to heal me afterwards — just throwing myself at it with a kind of kid-like imagination and their brilliant, expert guidance.”Cumberbatch was introduced to Smaug as a child when his father read The Hobbitto him, and although his classic confrontation with Bilbo was performed opposite his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman, the two actors never interacted directly. “Sadly, I met hardly any of the cast. Rich (Armitage) and I met once. I crossed over with people as they were coming back to do their third stint, I think. And I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin, which was sad. But no, it was fine. We know each other quite well so in a weird way, we kind of second-guessed our performances to some degree. I’ve had scenes with people I haven’t even met yet, which is bizarre.”One new cast member who gets to perform alongside Freeman and the 13 dwarves is Welsh actor Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6). The actor said he was surprised and pleased to be able to speak in his own accent for the first time in a movie. “That was a lovely gift that Peter, Fran and Phil gave to me,” he said. “It freed up my own heritage and my personality and made them very much a part of Bard. It did do something very different to the character for myself and my performance. Some of the other people in Lake-town were Welsh as well and there was an affinity with them because we had the same accent. It all paid off. It was very fun.”As readers of the novel know, Bard plays a crucial role in the story – although that won’t be revealed until next year’s There and Back Again. “It’s hard to talk about anything,” Evans admitted (although we can all find the book and see for ourselves, can’t we?). “But it was a lot of fun being Bard. I was either being chased or chasing or someone is trying to lock me up or something is always happening in Bard’s life, and he knows the town like the back of his hand. And I knew Lake-town like the back of my hand because (Jackson) had me running through those streets all day long. That was a fantastic set to work on, so expansive and real [that] you could keep walking and turning corners, and you could never come to the end of it. It was brilliant.”While Hobbit fans have no doubt been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Smaug and Bard onscreen, a third new character has caused a considerable amount of consternation: the female elf warrior Tauriel, a character completely made up by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens for the film and portrayed by Lost alumnus Evangeline Lilly. While fans were up in arms to some degree over the way that the character of Arwen (Liv Tyler) was beefed up in Lord of the Rings, at least Arwen was mentioned in Tolkien’s writings. No such luck for Tauriel, who finds herself, along with LOTRreturnee Legolas (Orlando Bloom), in pursuit of Bilbo and the dwarves after their escape from Mirkwood – and ends up attracted to the handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).“I agreed to the job under one condition,” says the energetic Lilly, who had reportedly been contemplating retiring from acting before getting the call for The Hobbit. “One condition, and they agreed to the condition, and that condition was in place for two years. The condition was I will not be involved in a love triangle. Right? Because [if you’re a fan] of Lost, I’ve had it up to here with love triangles! And sure enough, I come back for re-shoots in 2012 and they go, ‘We’ve made a few adjustments to the love story.’” (Tauriel is also a possible mate for Legolas.)Romantic plot entanglements aside, Lilly said that she too expressed reservations about playing a character that did not spring originally from the mind of the author. “It had been at least five years since I had taken a meeting or engaged in a new project,” she revealed. “I was so far off the grid that when Pete and Phil were trying to get hold of me about this role, they couldn’t reach me.” The filmmakers did eventually locate her, and Lilly admitted that she “jumped at the opportunity” to play an elf because The Hobbitwas her favorite book as a child. “I picked up the phone very quickly. And then they said, ‘Your character’s not in the book.’ And I took great pause, as a great fan of Tolkien. I kind of gulped and went, ‘What? Everyone’s going to hate me.’ It didn’t take long for them to completely convince me that it was the right thing to do and it was a good idea.”
Lilly and Boyens both stressed that Tauriel exists in the film for one reason: the lack of any female characters in The Hobbit, let alone strong ones. “In his defense, Tolkien was writing in 1937,” said Lilly. “The world is a different place today, and I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of entertainment in theaters for young girls to go and watch, and not have one female character for them to watch is subliminally telling them, ‘You don’t count. You’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to the story.’ And I just think (the filmmakers) were very brave and very bright in saying, ‘We won’t do that to the young female audience who come and watch our film.’ And not just the young female audience, but even a woman of my own age. I think it’s time we stop making stories that are only about men — especially only about heroic men. And I love that they made Tauriel a hero.”“Women are huge fans of these films,” concurred Boyens. “Starting with The Lord of the Rings, there was this immediate engagement with women. You know, there’s this notion it’s a genre for boys — dungeons and dragons or something like that — but I’m living proof that’s not true. I always loved these stories; I think they spoke to me. The characters of the hobbits especially speak to me—Frodo and Bilbo, of course—and when you meet these young women on the red carpet and things like that, you understand that passion from the stories that they receive is going to create a new generation of young female writers. And I think we’re starting to see that now coming through in the way that fantasy is being used.”So far, advance reviews have actually singled out Tauriel and Lilly’s performance as two of the film’s best elements (our own David Crow praised it in his review). Will she win over diehard Tolkien fans now that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has unspooled on thousands of screens this weekend? Undoubtedly Lilly’s task is harder than of fellow newcomers Cumberbatch and Evans. But when it comes to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth sagas, for fans, veteran cast members, and new participants alike, once you buy the ticket, you have no choice but to take the ride.The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaugis in theaters now.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!